The eponymous protagonist of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly, $23.95) may or may not be a sociopath. He typically greets complete strangers with flamboyantly presumptuous terms of endearment like “brother” or “sister.” In several of the 71 single-page, six-paneled episodes chronicling several years of his troubled if largely banal life we see him make what appears to be genuine attempts at meaningful contact with a fellow human—only to be inevitably disappointed with the response his random act of conditional kindness incites and thence counter-respond with a venomous outburst of pent-up rage. In one episode he waits seated at the post office for no apparent reason other than to convince a stranger to hold onto a large box he’s filled to the brim with dog shit. Wilson does love his dog.
Wilson, like Clowes, was born in the 1960s, hails from Chicago, and currently resides, for reasons he can’t muster, in Oakland, California. Wilson’s baffled by the modern world. He sees a man take a nocturnal dump on a sidewalk. He notes with horror the inexplicable proliferation of nail salons in his community. He struggles with despair: “Not only will I leave no trace of my existence behind, there won’t even be anything from my entire generation lift in another fifty years…” His wife Pippi left him 16 years ago while pregnant. Wilson fantasizes Pippi fell into a life of drug-addled prostitution. They eventually reunite. They seek out their long-lost and now teenaged daughter, who they take on a road trip, though some may call it kidnapping. Wilson’s life accumulates in drama, yet fails to yield the desired sense of order and inner peace, not to mention gainful employment. The final episode, however, may suggest some soul-fortifying autumnal revelation. If this is the case, Wilson, who can usually be relied upon to think out loud, decides not express it. This sudden reticence might sound perverse, but I take it as evidence that certain deeper sensations are simply ineffable.
The way Clowes draws a motel swimming pool makes it hard to tell if it’s full or empty. There’s a deliberately elusiveness to the visuals in Wilson, most notably in its ongoing alternating of jarringly different drawing styles, which render Wilson consistently recognizable yet in an ongoing state of flux. Here he seems younger. Here he has a lazy eye. Here he’s a good 40 lbs overweight. Here his body looks like an orb on sticks. If Clowes were primarily a filmmaker we could say that he shows two main tendencies, one toward the twisted surrealism and narrative density of David Lynch, the other toward the cerebral formalism and uneasy balance of misanthropy and affection of Todd Solondz. Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron is very much in the Lynch mode. Wilson is more Solondz. But it’s good Solondz. Initially Wilson threatens to amount to nothing more than one depressing punch-line after another, but something’s quietly building in Clowes' hapless character. He nears the precipice of accepting the world. Maybe. In any case his willingness to try to make peace, to communicate, maybe even to gather something like a family around him, is hilariously, almost touchingly relentless. His persistence allows him to take risks the best of us mightn’t ever venture.