Daniel Clowes is something of a connoisseur of schlumps. From his early "Lloyd Llewellyn" comics to his later "David Boring" and "Ghost World" series, his cartoon men tend to be losers of a sort—empathetic, but also a bit creepy. In "Wilson", his latest book (and his first original graphic novel), the titular schlump is a proper anti-hero, with an ill father (stage-four lymphoma), an estranged ex-wife and a daughter they put up for adoption when she was an infant. When Wilson spots his ex-wife waitressing at a diner, the two reconnect. "I was expecting some bug-eyed freak, some desiccated corpse in a soiled muu-muu," he tells her. "But my god, you made it through the gauntlet without a scratch!" The pair set off to kidnap their long-lost offspring, now in the care of two disagreeable yuppies. The plan works, and then it fails. Wilson winds up in jail.
The one-page chapters ("Deathbed", "Shopping Mall", "Long Distance", "Fellowship", and the like) vary in style and tone. Some are existential, others farcical, a few are scatological. The colour schemes and drawing methods zoom from pulpy noir to "Family Circus", while Wilson's rumpled shirt and black spectacles remain constant.
The result is a visual delight. There is something thrilling about witnessing Clowes pay homage to more generic styles of cartooning. It is like watching an actor doing pitch-perfect impersonations. The book also allows a reader to wallow joyfully with a rare breed of protagonist—the agreeable sicko—and to track his life from early middle-age to the bittersweet end. In his review of "Wilson" in the New York Times, Sam Lipsyte called it "a glorious swirl of confusion, hypocrisy and simple yearning. Lipsyte, who is no stranger to crafting appealing losers himself, has kind words for the "haggard, middle-aged fellow" at the centre of Clowes's graphic novel: “Perhaps he is a hero of our time.”
That wouldn’t be so bad a thing, as long as Wilson isn’t the only hero of our time. "When you imagine the future," the character muses in his old age, "you always think there's going to be more stuff, but really there's just different stuff, and it's never the stuff you were hoping for." Aye aye, Wilson, those are wise words. A reader finishes Clowes's book wishing there were 365 chapters rather than 71; then "Wilson" could work like a devotional book designed for daily consultation—but with something a lot saltier than psalms.
"Wilson" (Drawn & Quarterly) by Daniel Clowes is out now