Dan Clowes' latest graphic novel Wilson -- his first not serialized before being collected -- retains the feel of both a serialized narrative and the rest of Clowes' work. There's the trademark dark humor, subtle at times and rupturously offering social commentary at others, especially when Wilson, the eponymous protagonist, attempts to connect with others. Wilson is deeply personal yet touches on the universal and retains the ties to existentialism and general 2oth/21st century angst that defines so much of Clowes best works: Ghost World, Ice Haven, and David Boring.
What sets Wilson apart as a reading experience, though, is the depth of its ambiguity and the immediate understanding that Clowes may be fucking with us like never before. Wilson can be read as a straightforward narrative about a somewhat hypocritical deadbeat with delusions of betterness, not grandeur, who seeks that sublime epiphany that will give him purpose and offer him reentry into the universal embrace of human existence and essence.
Yet, when the comics form is considered, Wilson can be read as a much more taxing narrative. For example, Clowes' word balloons often look a lot like thought balloons. Are we supposed to believe that Wilson actually says everything that is written and tailed to him? Are there times -- or is there the opportunity, purposefully presented by the author -- to read what he seems to say as something he wants to say or only says to himself? Is the duplicitous nature of Wilson's character on display to everyone who cares to notice, or only to us readers?
As well, the serial feel of the mostly one page vignettes reminds us of how comics play with time and space, not just between each panel, but between chunks of time that may be mere seconds, days, hours, years, or even generations. Wilson clearly ages in this text. His hair goes from brown to dark gray to a lighter gray that to me suggests thinning. But by how much? Yes, Clowes uses several different cartooning styles to represent his characters, offering us visual and color signifiers to resolve as we see fit, but how much time and growth has really taken place for Wilson?
Nowhere is this question more exquisitely on display than in the last page of the novel, where Wilson stares at a raindrop from the corner of a bare room and seems to have the moment of clarity he's been seeking. But, how much time has passed between this vignette and the one preceding it? Many of Clowes' texts end with an existentialist ambiguity laced in action and/or inaction dynamics, but Wilson takes it to the next level. It's not just "what is he doing?" but "where is he at?" He has the "ah-ha," but is he in a convalescent home? Is he in his right mind? Too little of his surroundings are shown, but he appears to be alone and perhaps unable to act on whatever realization he may have had. In the end, Wilson is as he was in the beginning -- as much as we can know of him anyway: a complexity of man who seems to prefer doing, but just as naturally, even self-effacingly, prefers not.
Wilson represents a story typical of Clowes impressive milieu but makes more use of the ambiguities the comics form offers both readers and creators. While Wilson shows strength of character via the irony of being unremarkable, Wilson tugs at the savvy comics reader's sense of form and function and gives just enough critical rope for the comics-informed person to get knotted up in via the possibilities of reader response interpretation.
Wilson leaves readers seeking complexity happily clamouring while Clowes snickers in the corner, the only one who will ever know...