Wilson: Drama, Pathos, Irony, Etc.

Introducing Wilson

“For the love of Christ, don’t you ever shut up?”

Such are Wilson’s closing remarks in “Fellowship,” the first of Daniel Clowes’ sequential-existential one-page gag strips found in Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010). Taken collectively, these 77 cartoons amount to Clowes’ first self-avowed “original graphic novel.” This, in spite of Clowes’ previously serialized works having been republished in bound editions, including $@&!: The Official Lloyd Llewellyn Collection (Fantagraphics, 1997), Ice Haven (Pantheon, 2005), David Boring (Pantheon, 2000) and Ghost World (Fantagraphics, 1997), all of which initially appeared in Eightball.

As for Wilson, I was hooked on page one.

The back cover of Wilson describes our protagonist as “…a big hearted slob, a lonesome bachelor, a devoted father and husband, an idiot, a sociopath, a delusional blowhard, a delicate flower, and 100% wilsonesque.” In essence, the beauty of Wilson is that contradictions abound. And in that very encapsulation, Wilson is the penultimate human being.

Right when you are feeling so misanthropic that all you want to do is re-read Albert Camus, along comes a book that validates your experience and makes you realize that you are not alone in this world—even if the people with whom you identify most intensely are cartoon characters.

Wilson speaks to the hypocrite in us all, from the inanity of a stranger in a taxi cab on the way to the hospital competing with Wilson about who is suffering more; she because of an ailing sister, or Wilson because of his dying father—

“Well, at least he’s lived a long life…my sister’s 44 years old with three little children. It’s like a nightmare.”

“Yeah, who gives a shit if some old man drops dead” (23).

—to Wilson’s scathingly judging the adoptive parents of his newly discovered young adult daughter, because they raised her in an environment of suburban affluence, only to him have him praising them for being so amazing  in the next breath (45).

I can’t speak for anyone else, but Wilson’s chatter reminds me of my own—most of which is stupid, mindless, self-absorbed and ultimately meaningless prattle combined with the occasional tender and reflective moment. Taken collectively, these thoughts consume the vast majority of my waking hours. Fortunately for Wilson, he has a silent audience in his readers. Fortunately for me, I have a silent audience on my blog!

Like Father, Like Son?

In “Vampire,” in the span of six panels Wilson’s hatred for his father is bared for all to see:

Jesus, look at him. He knows it’s the end. Jesus Christ….I never felt sorry for him once in my life. Even after mom died, he seemed strong and vital, but now…Christ…The way he’s looking at me…It’s chilling. He’s thinking, “Look at that miserable slob. What a waste. He doesn’t deserve the precious gift of life.” If he could suck the youthful vitality from my soul like a vampire, he’d do it in a second (24).

In “Deathbed,” Wilson’s ironic demand for honesty from his father is an elevation of the personal in comics to its most poignant and dramatic heights. Consider the following passage, which occurs in Wilson’s father’s hospital room during his last moments alive:

So this is it. We’re down to a matter of hours.

Come on, old man—I’ve been waiting 43 years to hear you say something honest and heartfelt and truthful to me.

It’s always been evasion and sarcasm, but now’s your chance to tell it to me straight.

Surely you’ve thought about this moment.

Surely there’s something you’d like to leave me with. Good or bad—I can take it….Come on, fucker!! (26)

The next strip, “The Old Neighborhood,” begins with Wilson’s taking a light-hearted stroll through his old stomping grounds, only to fall apart on the baseball diamond in the old park, where he and his father used to play baseball together. In the page’s last scene, we see Wilson collapsed on a heap on the home plate crying, “Oh Daddy Daddy Daddy” (27).

Interspersed with these moments of aggression and tenderness, there are also many hilarious exchanges. Take, for example, the cab driver who asks, “So, have you seen The Dark Knight? “ Wilson responds, “What? No, I don’t have any children”(32). Or does he?

It’s a Girl!

On the page immediately following “The Dark Knight,” Wilson sets out to find his ex-wife Pippi, whom he is convinced has become a drug-addicted prostitute. While cruising the streets, he shows a hooker an old photo of Pippi, explaining that she may no longer look the same after all these years of hardship.

“I ain’t seen nobody.”

“Is there perhaps some sort of ‘pimp’ or ‘madame’ I could speak to?”

“No.”

PAUSE.

“I guess maybe I’ll get a blow-job, then” (33).

Wilson finally meets Pippi in a diner. He is describing Pippi to his waitress, oblivious fact that she is Pippi! The couple rekindles their relationship, whereupon Wilson is led to believe that he is a father:

“So, when do I get to meet my son?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You were pregnant when you left me, right?”

“It was a girl. I put here up for adoption.” Wilson sits bolt upright in bed:

“I have a daughter!”

“What makes you so sure it was yours?” (38)

In “Shopping Mall,” inspired by Wilson’s newfound fatherly optimism, performs his first paternal duty in the mall. Two teenage boys who are bullying his daughter. Wilson pins one of them to the wall, crying out, “THAT’S MY FUCKING DAUGHTER YOU’RE TALKING TO! YOU SHUT YOUR FILTHY GODDAMN MOUTH BEFORE I KNOCK YOU ON YOUR ASS!” (43).

To her surprise, Pippi finds out that Wilson is considering finding a job. “What about your ten million dollars?” she asks. By this time, Wilson has forgotten that he told Pippi he inherited money upon his father’s death, which turns out to be a blatant lie. There is only one logical course of action for Pippi: revenge.

In “Road Trip,” Wilson, Pippi and Claire decide to hit the road together. All is well, up until several pages later when we learn that Pippi is feeling nervous, since taking Claire from her home without the knowledge or consent of her parents constitutes kidnapping. When Wilson and Pippi have an argument, Pippi leaves the house. Claire asks,

“Where’s Pippi?”

“She went for a walk. We had a little argument. She’s always been a very negative person. Didn’t want me to open a record store back in the ‘80s: didn’t want me to finish my philosophy degree…a real nay-sayer” (53).

I should have had pegged Wilson as the type who’d have a philosophy degree from the very beginning! No wonder we have so much in common!

At any rate, at this point in the story, Pippi takes leave and there’s no turning back. In the last panel of “Fucking Bitch,” we realize that the cops are closing in. Wilson’s kidnapping days are over. But his prison days are just beginning.

Parallel Play

Structurally, there are several parallelisms that make themselves apparent as Wilson unfolds:

  • Early on in the book, Wilson sends off a box filled with dog shit at the post office. Only later on in the book, when we have completely forgotten about the box do we learn who the recipient was.
  • Shelley volunteers to look after Wilson’s dogs while he goes on his family road trip. Wilson’s meets up with Shelley again once he gets out of prison.
  • There are two cartoons in which Wilson sits down uninvited with a man working on a computer in a café. He begins to attempt small talk, but upon being ignored resorts to verbal assault: “Hey shithead—I’m talking to you!” (11). Later on, Wilson greets the same man in the same café, only to be told “Nothing in my personal life has changed since the last time you accosted me.” Wilson responds, “You must have the wrong guy, Frankenstein. I’ve never seen you before in my life.” (65)
  • The most spiritually and philosophically significant inclusions in Wilson begins with “Icicle,” a strip in which Wilson stares at a dripping icicle for the duration of the page, only to remark in the last panel, “Still nothing” (58). With the final page of the book, our antihero stares out the window at the rain, exclaiming, “Finally! It’s so obvious in a way, but it never even occurred to me! Of course that’s it! Of course!” Whereupon the reader is met with two panels of silence, as Clowes continues to stare out the window.

It may be a stretch, but the first association that came to mind when I read the ending of Wilson was the Zen expression, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, fetch water. After enlightenment, chop wood, fetch water.” In other words, everything remains the same, but everything is different. Perhaps Wilson has experienced the epiphany that life’s precious moments are to be realized in their being lived in awareness. But as much as personal revelation this may be, I can’t help but be disappointed with the ending of Wilson.

Having grown fond of his asshole-nature, to have Wilson undergo redemption at the end of the book suggests to me that Clowes was too attached to his character to allow him to continue on without some sort of closure. For Wilson to end on this note communicates to me that the author didn’t have the guts to see the world for what it is: a big fucking mess with some fine moments thrown into the mix. It had to end with some sort of spiritual revelation that makes it all worthwhile, a happy ending so to speak.

Final Thoughts

Albeit that I am not happy with Wilson’s ending, I have read much of Clowes’ anthologized work, and without exception I believe that Wilson is his finest accomplishment to date. There is tremendous humour, irony and maturity in these pages, each of which tells a story on its own, but which also contributes to the greater narrative thread that provides us with insight into Wilson’s collective fallibilities, which are also his most likeable qualities.

Several different artistic styles are used throughout Wilson. These varied approaches illustrate Clowes’ versatility. He drawings in Wilson range from being highly caricaturized and cartoony to utilizing neo-realist techniques, and a few places in between.

I can’t really speak intelligently about colouring, other than to say that I found the palettes used in these pages exquisite. I especially noticed the prevalence of pinks and a variety of flesh-tones put to very effective use, though some pages had a two-tone sepia quality that separated them from the rest. Likewise, some of Wilson’s pages were inked with a heavier hand and filmic shading, while others are lighter in tone. The sheer variety of visual stimulation found in this book makes it a treat to read.

Yet another victory for Drawn and Quarterly.

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