Daniel Clowes has made something of a career for himself creating uncomfortable characters. With Wilson however, he’s created the selfish, spoilt, opinionated moron to beat them all. With virtually no redeeming features to his character whatsoever, Wilson is an uncomfortable read.
As with Ice Haven before it, Clowes uses a deeply traditional comic format to frame his work: each page is a standalone strip with its own title, a little like the full-page comics you might find in a Sunday newspaper. The whole book still has a plot and a story arc rolling through it, but these individual pages are like snapshots of Wilson’s psyche. Sometimes they move the plot along, but often they just place Wilson in awkward situations with people, leaving him to vent his spleen on what he perceives to be their idiocy or rudeness. Most commonly, of course, it’s Wilson, whose thick-skinned crassness and general disagreeableness brings out the absolute worst in those around him.
The art style differs from page to page, with cartoon-like pages mixed in with more realistic ones. Clowes’ range doesn’t seem that impressive here though – there are subtle variations across these main artistic themes, but you can’t help but wonder if young pretenders like Paul Hornschemeier have actually leap-frogged Clowes and are now doing this kind of thing even better than he is.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to enjoying the book in a traditional sense is its moral bankruptcy. As a main character Wilson fails to pick up any empathy from the reader, leaving the final result a somewhat hollow, vacuous experience. The only attraction of watching this human car crash as he travels through his bitter, troubled life, is a guilty pleasure – you can take some pride in the fact that no matter how big a prat you are, Wilson is probably worse.
Clowes fans will undoubtedly lap this up, though perhaps not quite as enthusiastically as some of his previous offerings. This may partly be because, while full of the usual dysfunction, it doesn’t have much by way of weirdness. Wilson is a normal (if unloveable) guy in a fairly normal situation. Much of Clowes’ previous charm comes from his mixing up of the deeply weird with the fantastically dysfunctional, but there’s none of that here. Wilson may have a comically exaggerated personality but many of us will know people who aren’t that unlike him.
It remains a pleasure to see this indie master at work, and his characterisation is simply phenomenal – there are few places in comics where you’ll see a fictional character as well fleshed out as this. But its downbeat story, while well executed and interestingly portrayed, won’t do much for those looking for an uplifting, redemptive tale. Wilson is stuck too far into his grumpy, selfish, mid-life crisis to offer such pleasurable entertainment, but a good read doesn’t always need to leave you with a smile on your face.
More books by Daniel Clowes:
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