STL Today reviews WILSON and MARKET DAY

Wealth of comic novels compete for shelf space

St. Louis Dispatch-Post    |    Cliff Froehlich    |    August 1, 2010

A loud drumbeat of mainstream critical praise has made even casual observers aware of comics' maturation in recent decades, but some readers remain skeptical: Comics may not be kids' stuff anymore, but don't they still appeal to a narrow range of tastes? Well, no. Contemporary comics offer something for everyone, as a survey of titles released within the past few months clearly attests.

Daniel Clowes' "Wilson" (Drawn & Quarterly, 80 pages, $21.95), a black-comic portrait of an emotionally needy curmudgeon, is itself a case study in diversity, periodically shifting from flat full color to moody duotones to stark black-and-white and employing a full spectrum of cartooning styles that encompasses everything from big-foot exaggeration to subtle naturalism.

On the surface, the book appears to be a simple collection of one-page gag strips, often tracing the same dramatic arc: Wilson presses himself on a hapless bystander, discourses passionately on a subject, becomes enraged by a perceived failing in the person he's haranguing and then ends the "conversation" with an obscene insult.

Read individually and at random, many of these strips prove howlingly funny, but they also make up a larger narrative that's far more bleak than amusing, as Wilson copes with the death of his father and reconnects — in typically fraught and disastrous fashion — with his ex-wife and recently discovered daughter.

Most remarkably, Clowes manages the near-impossible by winning a real measure of sympathy for his outrageously provocative character. Far from the one-note caricature he initially seems, Wilson keeps revealing new, humanizing facets without ever abandoning his exasperating misbehavior and prickly nature.

Clowes ranks with Chris Ware and the Hernandez Brothers at the top of the alt-comics hierarchy, but there are now dozens of extraordinary cartoonists working regularly, and two other stalwarts of the literary graphic novel have also produced fine new books.

James Sturm's "Market Day" (Drawn & Quarterly, 96 pages, $21.95) offers a richly detailed look at life in an Eastern European shtetl at the turn of the 20th century. Schlepping his artful hand-woven rugs to market, Mendleman finds his metaphoric cart suddenly upturned when he discovers that the discerning merchant who has long purchased his goods has turned over his shop to a bottom-line trader with no use for connoisseurship. Fearful he won't be able to support his pregnant wife, Mendleman spends a drunken night on the road home, beset by existential doubts.

Although a sober work, "Market Day's" overall gloom is relieved by earthy humor, and the gorgeous artwork, with its muted colors and evocative landscapes and street scenes, conjures a world as beautiful as it is believable.

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