Graphic Novel Review: Wilson by Daniel Clowes

There are a lot of issues with Daniel Clowes’ tale of a miserable middle-aged cynic, but the most glaring one is that the titular character is utterly and completely unlikable. There are a lot of thought provoking ideas and concepts in this book, but it’s hard to care about them when the “protagonist” is the absolute worst.

Am I taking on a sacred cow by criticizing Daniel Clowes? Because I’m warning you now, this is not a positive review. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a graphic novel less than this one. So let’s start with the one good thing about Wilson before dissecting the rest of it: there are a few genuinely thought-provoking statements about the human condition occasionally buried in Wilson’s soliloquies.

They ultimately ring hollow, however, because Wilson is just such a giant loser.

Which is a strange point of contention, due to the fact that Clowes intentionally wrote his protagonist to be this way. It’s like saying Darth Vader is too evil or Captain America is too patriotic. But in this case the totally off-putting nature of the character completely detracts from any point the rest of the novel is trying to make. There’s just no empathizing with this man. Case in point:

Even Fante Bukowski had ambitions and dreams behind his entitled attitude; Wilson is insufferable and useless. There’s no reason to root for him at all, especially when you take into account that the man actually had a marriage and a family and blew it all simply because of his condescending nature. He just floats around being a smug commentator on various aspects of society. Again, this could all be taken as part of Clowes’ design; Wilson is a complete pariah who brought everything on himself with his crude, arrogant observations. The problem there though, is that his observations aren’t even funny.

A lot of the punchlines are similar- Wilson makes a statement, something contradicts his statement, he makes a brusque comment at the end. They’re never witty or clever, and this problem lands squarely at Clowes’ feet. Oh, he just did the opposite of what he said in the first panel! How funny!

He’s just an irascible grump. Why should readers care in the least bit about his woes when he has no redeeming qualities? He’s incredibly annoying and his “sad moments” are completely at odds with his character because he always ruins them with one of his smug quips.

The last panel would have been ten times more effective without any speech at all. It would have been a hundred times more effective if Wilson wasn’t such a prick. To be fair, nobody in this novel is particularly likable. Combine that with the endless stream of negative circumstances and it’s just not a fun read. Just a bunch of miserable people in a miserable world.

Characterization aside, let’s talk about the style, which is a desperate attempt at profundity that comes off as half-hearted at best. As seen above, some of the novel is drawn in a hyper-realistic fashion, while some is cartoonish. In fact, some of the pages get even more childish.

Firstly, there’s no obvious rhyme or reason as to why some pages are goofy and others very straightforward. Both styles are applied to “humourous” and “serious” pages. There are some blatant colour pallet choices expressing “deep meaning” but they’re so on-the-nose that it comes off as a parody of serious works. Adding to all this is the problem that the cartoony style isn’t even consistent. There’s no flow or point to the changes and Wilson has about 40 different looks over the course of the novel.

Overall it’s an unpleasant piece of work and doesn’t really work as a piece of pop literature, although probably provides enough discussion if used in an academic context. Clowes’ “bold artistic choices” are good for a dissertation or two.

Final Grade: D

 

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