I’ve recently decided that I’m not reading enough non-fiction and I’m not reading enough comics. I find a diet that’s too rich in fiction doesn’t quite agree with me. So, when I noticed Wilson (Jonathan Cape, 2010) in a library, and as I’ve read quite a few comics/books by Daniel Clowes, I thought I’d give it a go, especially as I kept laughing whilst skimming through it in the library.
I’ve mostly read Clowes work in book format but the author notes at the back of the book that this is his first real graphic novel; the others were collections of work from comics. This may help explain the way that Clowes decided to construct this graphic novel. It’s a single story but it’s told in one page episodes, sometimes each episode follows on quite naturally from the previous one but other times there’s a sudden jump where you wonder if you’ve turned over too many pages. Each page is a self-contained story, very often with a great punchline, but as the story progresses there are references to earlier passages in the book which helps bind it together into a single narrative. The other technique that Clowes uses is that each page flips between different stylistic portrayals of the characters. Sometimes the characters are portrayed realistically, other times the characters are more cartoony, with big bulbous noses, round heads etc. I’m not entirely sure if there’s any deep meaning for this but I really liked it. It may annoy some readers though.
Wilson is a middle-aged divorcee, he’s a dog-lover and a misanthrope who just loves to engage people in conversations, whether they want to or not. His favourite place to talk to people is whilst walking with his dog or at a local café. The book opens with Wilson declaring ‘I love people! I’m a people person!’ But when he engages a woman in conversation and she won’t stop talking about her computer problems Wilson just can’t help blurting out ‘For the love of Christ, don’t you ever shut up?’ Another time when Wilson is walking his dog many people can’t help remarking on the cuteness of his dog, but when someone just walks past without saying anything Wilson just turns round and shouts ‘Fucking asshole!’ Ha! Ha! I think this one demonstrates Clowes’ perfect sense of comic timing. So, yes Wilson swears a lot and he’s verbally abusive to a lot of people, and this may be why he lives alone and why his pregnant wife left him sixteen years ago.
After his dad dies Wilson starts reflecting on his life and how he has no relatives left alive, so he starts to seek out his ex-wife, Pippi, whom he hasn’t heard from for sixteen years. There’s a very funny scene where he actually meets up with her in a restaurant where she works. Good old Wilson just can’t help it and ends up unknowingly bad-mouthing her as she’s serving him. But Wilson and Pippi are both alone and they get back together again. They even track down their daughter, who had been put up for adoption by Pippi when she had left Wilson all those years ago. So it looks like things are going well for Wilson; he’s back with Pippi, he’s got a daughter that he never knew he had, they meet up with Pippi’s family. But things take a turn for the worse.
Although Wilson often spouts misanthropic views and is quite volatile he is also, in a strange way, quite optimistic. He bounces back after his mishaps (that I’ve not revealed to you) and even keeps in touch with his daughter. Clowes brilliantly gets the combination of humour and pathos spot on and very often slides easily between the two. I used to think that the comic-book format was the best way of telling a story; better than fiction and better than films or plays. I’m not sure if I still feel that way but Wilson stands up there with any other story of fiction and shows us what can be done in the medium. I certainly hope Clowes returns to the character sometime in the future as I’m sure there’s much more he can do with him.