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review: graphica

Daniel Clowes

All you need to know about the personality of Dan Clowes's latest protagonist can be found on the first page of the cartoonist's new graphic novel, Wilson. The title character, the latest in a string of disaffected male leads to originate from Clowes's pen, introduces himself thus: "I'm a people person!"; five panels later, he rebuke a woman he's struck up a conversation with on the street with this gem: "For the love of Christ, don't you ever shut up?"

And so it goes, for 70 more glorious and grim pages, as Clowes unspools the story of Wilson, an unemployed 43-year-old divorced loner searching for a shred of meaning (for "a profound personal breakthrough" as Wilson puts it) in his sad, misanthropic life.

Wilson is a loser and a bully, a self-styled intellectual who lacks any real empathy for the human race he claims (relentlessly) to love. Also a world-class blabbermouth, he is oblivious to the ways his careless and clumsy words hurt those around him.

In lesser hands, a book devoted to such an unrepentant, charmless crank would require a prescription for Zoloft in order to endure. But, as he has proved many times, Clowes shines in depicting self-loathing, cynical characters who eventually succumb to their human frailties, such as Enid Coleslaw, the lead in his breakthrough work, Ghost World.

That book (which he helped to adapt into an Academy Award-nominated film) made its debut in 1997 and secured his name as a first-rate cartoonist on the alternative comics scene. Since then, Clowes has released several acclaimed graphic novels, including David Boring, Caricature and Ice Haven, all originally serialized in his long-running comic, Eightball.

With Wilson, his first book in five years, Clowes tries a different tack by delivering his first all-original graphic novel. Fans of Canadian comics should note that it marks the first graphic novel by Clowes published by Drawn & Quarterly. (When it was revealed last summer that Clowes had chosen the small Montreal publisher over Pantheon, his long-time New York house, the chatter in the alt-comics publishing community was deafening.) It's no surprise that Drawn and Quarterly jumped at the opportunity; Wilson is a stellar addition to an impressive oeuvre that finds Clowes fully at ease as he navigates the twists and turns in his compelling, clever tale.

Though a crackerjack writer, Clowes has never been a flashy cartoonist, preferring to focus on storytelling over the innovative tinkering of cartoonists such as Chris Ware and David Mazzucchelli. But here Clowes gets as "experimental" as we've ever seen him, using gag comics – the one-pagers traditionally used as filler in kids' comics – as a structural motif.

Wilson is designed as a collection of 71 standalone strips that shift styles (from carefully rendered realism to "big-nose" cartoony mode and Harvey Comics house-style) yet retain their focus squarely on the egotistical main man. (The concept is carried over into the cover design and end pages, which look a lot like a 1950s collection of gag cartoons.) The choice is clever and restrained, and succeeds on numerous levels.

One-page gag comics are, with rare exceptions, predictable, unfunny and forgettable. Clowes repurposes the lowly format, playing on the set-up/punch-line formula to deliver his brand of dark humour and heartbreaking humanism.

For example, in the early pages, Wilson gets all the good "punch lines," profanely scolding anyone who dares to challenge him (or, say, fail to compliment his dog). As the story progresses, the punch lines become less predictable and more affecting, such as the moment he comes across the baseball diamond where he used to play with his estranged (and late) father and suddenly collapses, sobbing, "Oh Daddy, Daddy, Daddy."

Like legendary Mad magazine cartoonist Will Elder (one of Clowes's heroes), Clowes devotes himself completely to his concept, seeing it through to the end of Wilson's sad story. The cumulative result is a profound, searing study of unconnected single male yearning for a human connection, but completely devoid of the skills needed to make it happen. Despite what he may think, Wilson is Wilson's own worst enemy.

In the end, you may not love him, but you will most certainly recognize Wilson (and, God help you, perhaps even identify with him).

Brad Mackay is co-editor of The Collected Doug Wright: Canada's Master Cartoonist, to which he contributed a biographical essay. He is also the director and co-founder of the Doug Wright Awards for Canadian cartooning.