Patience feels like a book by an artist who has turned full circle. Daniel Clowes started his career writing strange, fantastical stories, set in the real world but full of strange characters and disturbing situations. Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and The Death-Ray are typical examples of work from this era. Ghost World was a pivot, though. The sci-fi and fantasy was ejected for a more mainstream tilt and other works entrenched in the real world have followed. They’ve all subverted their own themes, such as by using familiar newspaper-strip storytelling and featuring characters that are beyond dysfunctional, often positively abrasive. However, the fantastic elements that drew comic fans like me to his early books have sat on the subs bench for a few years.
So my heart skipped a beat when I saw the grand concept that runs through Patience. It’s a time travel story, bringing Clowes firmly back to the realm of sci-fi, but like Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Travelers Wife, it uses the notion of time travel in a literary context, to explore the nature of fate, decision and intervention.
At the beginning of the book, Patience discovers that she’s pregnant. The thought of having a baby and creating a family bring trepidation and apprehension to Patience and her partner, Jack, but also joy and hope. Patience’s life hasn’t been great up to that point, with a string of abusive partners and crushed dreams getting in the way of any kind of happiness. This, at last, could be the defining moment that turns her life around.
Only that doesn’t happen. Her past catches up with her and something happens that destroys the couple’s world. This all occurs early on in the book. The remainder is taken up with Jack discovering the means to travel back in time, and using that to try and pinpoint the moments in Patience’s life that trigger the chain of events that lead to the catastrophic moment.
What starts as a fact-finding mission to help solve the mystery turns into intervention, as Jack can’t stand by and see his future lover abused. By intervening, however, is Jack blocking the possibility of an event happening or unwittingly triggering it himself? And paradoxically, if Jack solves the problem that created him, will he cease to exist?
The book is designed to be a proper graphic novel. The situation is complex enough without Clowes needing to subvert the situation further by mucking about with the way he presents the comic, so it feels more substantial and less contrived than some of his previous recent works. This is a book that exists for the sake of the story, not as a vessel through which to vent a troublesome character. It’s even got characters that, while flawed, prone to depression and more than a little unhinged, are deeply likeable.
Patience is a welcome return to the alternative mix of underground sci-fi that launched Clowes’s career. It’s just as intellectual and valuable as Wilson or Mister Wonderful, but with an added sci-fi angle that’s a perfect blend of weird science and paradoxical time travel.