December 5, 2010

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Wilson

Written by Daniel Clowes
Illustrated by Daniel Clowes
Drawn & Quarterly

As we start to wrap up 2010, I'm doing my best to make good on one of my promises at the beginning of the year--read more books that are new. Wilson was on my list of books I wanted to get to before the year was out, but now I kinda wish it wasn't.

Wilson is the story of a very bitter man who basically makes a real mess of his life and lashes out at those around him as a result. He makes matters worse in an attempt to make it better, and soon he's left with even less than he had before. It should be a morality play that makes the reader think, but when I finished, I was thinking that I was left with less than I started reading in the first place.

I had several problems with the book, starting with the main character. He's just such a miserable slob that I don't want to read more about him after the first few pages. Slogging through roughly 80 pages of a person who can't allow anyone to be happy without any sort of counterbalance at all is just not my idea of entertainment. It's not even thought-provoking, because instead of letting the narrative flow, Clowes opts to keep everything to one-page, six panel "gag" strips, where Wilson shouts out the most obscene or obnoxious (sometimes both) thing he can think of to end the page.

I really can't figure out what the point of Wilson is as a character. If he's designed to be a reflection of our inner personalities that we don't let the rest of the world see, the idea is played out by page 10 or so. Better to slide this type of commentary within a larger story, as Clowes did in Ghost World or Ice Haven. If we're meant to feel sorry for him, I frankly didn't. Even after his life is broken, he doesn't learn a thing. There's no change in his character from the beginning to the end, except for possibly my least-favorite idea, the death-bed conversion. If we're meant to think Wilson is funny in his misogyny, misanthropy, and crudeness, the result didn't work for me, and I say this as a person who watches South Park. Wilson's lines aren't funny--they're cruel, and with no one to balance them against, they make a horrible thudding against the pages of the book.

In Ice Haven, I thought Clowes cleverly used shifting comic strip styles to good effect. That's because he had an ensemble cast and gave each the appropriate pastiche. Here, Wilson changes his physical appearance, but never his character. As a reader, I found that process of artificially ending everything in the 6th panel frustrating and unnecessary rather than a useful narrative trick, especially given the crude endings. There's just no need to add the trappings of a Sunday comic strip to Wilson. Had Clowes opted to change Wilson's attitude based on the kind of comic he was in, it not only would have been more interesting to me but would have given the changes in artistic approach a logical sense that Wilson just didn't have in my opinion.

Wilson reads to me like a book that relies too heavily on things that Clowes has done in the past, and doesn't break any new ground. There might be some social commentary in here, like how Oakland is a shell of its former self, but the grumpy white man schtick just fails completely for me. Wilson sounds too much like a person who wants things to return to the 1950s for my taste, and if your main character is someone we're supposed to hate, there needs to be more than that hate to keep the reader going. Unfortunately, I didn't see anything past the hate, and as a result, I didn't care for the book. Your mileage may vary, of course. Just be aware that if you opt to read Wilson, the experience may not be a pleasant one.