SEE Magazine | Kenton Smith | September 28, 2010
SEE Magazine reviews WILSON
Do fictional characters have to be likeable?
Read enough film, theatre, and literary reviews and you’ll find many critics seem to think so. It’s a recurring rebuke levelled at artists that their characters are just so, so unlikeable, godammit, and it’s therefore impossible to care about them.
The titular figure of Daniel Clowes’s first all-new graphic novel Wilson seems the kind of character such critics are thinking of. Indeed, for seminal “alternative” artist Clowes — whose Ghost World and Eightball also challenge the reader with off-putting protagonists — the misanthropic Wilson may represent a pinnacle.
“I love people! I’m a people person!” Wilson says on page one, panel one. By the final frame of the full-page sequence, he’s asking a fellow dog-walker, “For the love of Christ, don’t you ever shut up?”
Wilson’s shtick is to disdain just about anybody and everybody, whether on account of their jobs, vehicular preferences, or admiration for 'The Dark Knight'. Little wonder that, at middle age, his only companion is a dog.
The advantage (and, one could say, great value) of fiction, however, is that it provides means to endure abrasive personalities — and develop empathy for the flawed human beings that generate them.
Wilson isn’t likeable. Fuck no. But he nonetheless emerges as sympathetic because, God help us all, he’s just like the rest of us in the really important ways.
When he sits down, uninvited, with total strangers in coffee shops, or collapses on a childhood baseball diamond whimpering “Oh Daddy Daddy Daddy” — well, he’s merely looking for love, acceptance, and some kind of human connection.
He’s a tragic figure, really. Deep inside, he’s got some inkling of who and what he is. Yet he’s so self-focused, he’ll most likely never really achieve any meaningful communion with others.
Oh yes, the story. When Wilson’s father is struck by cancer, Wilson is spurred to reconnect first with him, then his ex-wife, who reveals a long-held secret: Wilson is a father. As we can see for ourselves, this is a man singularly unfit for parenthood — which he demonstrates vividly after he tracks the child down.
While Clowes has constructed a clear overall narrative, Wilson is structured like a series of one-page gag strips, with each page-long sequence ending in a punchline of sorts.
Simultaneously, however, the structure enables a greater continuity, with each final panel compelling the reader to turn the page. This deliberate construction is part of the classic craft of comics storytelling.
No, characters don’t really have to be likeable. You don’t even have to completely understand them; we’re never given any explanation, after all, as to why Wilson is who he is.
All characters really have to be is human. Look at Wilson, and one can see a prize jerk, loser, and anti-social misfit. But if you can’t also see something of you and yours there, you’re not looking hard enough — or you’re denying what you see.