Daniel Clowes: Wilson

What’s your favourite insult? Calling someone a “maroon” a la Bugs Bunny has always been a favourite of mine, but what about when you meet someone truly reprehensible and need to crack out the big guns? I’m thinking of ditching the perennial favourite “asshole” and notifying the dictionary that the new word for an awful person is now “Wilson”. As in, “Why did you just set my house on fire? God, you’re such a Wilson!”

Wilson is Daniel Clowes’s most recent graphic novel and the titular character is truly something to behold. Lacking any kind of self-censorship or even, apparently, an interior monologue, he spends the book being an insufferable bastard to just about everyone he meets. When he walks his beloved dog Pepper in the park, three people remark on Pepper’s cuteness, and a fourth just walks by in silence. Wilson reacts by turning around and yelling, “Fucking asshole!” Yes, surely this man is a thorn among roses.

As he gets older and more vitriolic, Wilson ponders his life—his wife left him sixteen years ago, he hasn’t spoken to his father in a long time. He is still bitter about the former and confused regarding the latter, wondering if he should call his old man. His father beats him too it, ringing him to tell him the bad news—he is very, very unwell.

So Wilson returns back to his home town. (And, in another example of this fine man, he asks the guy who has had the misfortune to sit next to him on the plane what he does for a living and the reply is, “I work for Qualcom, I.T. stuff.” Wilson says, “No shit! I’m with Data-Tech!” and goes on with, “In fact, I usually like to T.Y.Z.C.M.Z.Q. when I’m not V.J.B.D.T.L.J.X-ing! I mean, Christ—do you realise how ridiculous you sound?”) He visits his father and then mourns his loss, realising how alone he is in the world. He makes an effort to track down his ex-wife, Pippi, and find out what happened when she left him, pregnant, all those years ago. Together they bond again, in the same awkward and painful manner their fictional courtship probably went the first time, and try to track down the daughter that was adopted out.

Wilson is a terrible person. There is no denying it. He doesn’t have a job and is horrible to everyone he encounters, leading you to wonder if this graphic story will end in a superhero-style explosion where Wilson gets blown to pieces and the world cheers and holds a tickertape parade. Of course, this isn’t that kind of story, it’s a much more realistic one. Daniel Clowes, author of Ghost World, specialises in the mundane yet interesting, taking fascinating characters and putting them in the commonplace situations we all deal with. Sure, if you or I were sitting in a playground feeling sorry for ourselves and there was a kid playing and shouting, we’d probably deal with it or move, huh? Well, in the same scene, Wilson yells, “Hey, can you get that brat to shut up for two fucking seconds?” Ah, Wilson, you crazy kid.

He will surprise you, however, with a couple of poignant moments. Reflecting upon his mother’s death, he ponders, “…it was actually kind of a relief at first. But then…it was like…like what if I told you tomorrow you’ll never see the ocean again? You can live your life and do whatever the hell you want, but you can’t see the ocean…you may not even like the damn ocean but it’s just…oh, Christ…” Moments like that do pull the reader back into the book’s heartbreaking reality.

Each page in the A4-sized, full-colour hardback is a story on its own, with their own titles and rendered in a myriad of ways. Clowes is a fantastic illustrator, and he uses his own recognisable style and then mixes it up, having an entire story in shadow, or drawn in a more cartoonish style with big round noses, or in a more simple style, losing the detail of sweat and wrinkles he is such a master of. This is why I love graphic novels so much; you can change things to suit the mood; the lighting, the colour, whatever you like. Wilson is visually appealing, funny, and painful. Does Wilson get what he deserves in the end? It’s possible. It’s an interesting and amusing story, and how you feel about it at the end likely depends on whether you know someone like Wilson in reality. If you do, it’s probably a painful reminder, but if, like me, your friends’ worst flaw is that they never have soy milk in their fridges, you’ll be happy to step into the life of a Wilson for a moment.