Sign On San Diego reviews WILSON

Cynicism reigns on these life parades

Sign On San Diego    |    Robert L. Pincus    |    April 25, 2010

Maybe we’ve become a nation of cynics, after a long history of being pegged as optimists. A new Pew Research Center poll saying that 80 percent of Americans distrust the government suggests as much.

If so, Wilson, the central character in Daniel Clowes’ new graphic novel, “Wilson” (Drawn and Quarterly, 80 pages, $21.95), is a man for our times.

His nondescript name makes him an everyman, at least a white Protestant everyman. (Protestant in name only, though, since he’s too bitter to believe in any sort of religious transcendence.)

Remember the famous line uttered by Linus in “Peanuts,” “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand”? Wilson subscribes to that logic.

In the first frames of Clowes’ book, Wilson exclaims, “I love people. I’m a people person.” And he believes it, until he runs into an actual neighbor on his street and asks her how life is treating her, only to get a litany of complaints about her computer and all its problems. He interrupts by exclaiming, “For the love of Christ, don’t you ever shut up?”

He’s just as rude to everyone else he meets. And it’s not surprising to find out that his wife left him 16 years ago.

Wilson doesn’t know himself well, and Clowes, who has proved himself to be one of the most gifted graphic novelists with books such as “Ghost World” and “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” finds concise ways of conveying his character’s lack of self-awareness, in image as well as words. Wilson is rendered with a realistic eye in one sequence and as a goofy caricature in another. It’s jarring at first, but there’s storytelling logic to this shift.

When Wilson decides to insult a driver asking for directions, because he disapproves of his gas-guzzling truck, Clowes draws him as a kind of midget, a visual emblem of a mean little man. But in his better moments, Wilson is true to scale and his face has a genuinely sorrowful expression.

The sad face fits his story, which becomes a quest to find his former wife, who was pregnant when she left him. Finding her and locating his daughter doesn’t yield great happiness for anyone. Wilson is never easy to like. He’ll say something kind at one moment and undercut it the next with a boorish remark.

Now and again, though, a bit of wisdom takes hold of him, as with this reflection about his advancing age: “When you imagine the future, you always think there’s going to be more stuff, but really there’s different stuff, and it’s never the stuff you were hoping for.”

Wilson does find a few small reasons to keep going. And Clowes gives us ample reasons to delve into his newest graphic novel: incisive dialogue, subtle commentary on social ills and a true flair for comic book style storytelling.

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