Poignant middle-aged slackerdom packaged in a great graphic novel

Daniel Clowes has come a long way since the debut of his much-beloved comic Eightball (Fantagraphics,1989). After producing 23 critically acclaimed issues in just 15 years, Clowes shifted his focus to movies inspired by his earlier work: Ghost World (Fantagraphics Books, 2000), which earned Clowes an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Art School Confidential (Fantagraphics, 2006). His latest graphic novel, Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95), unfolds like a smart, independent film and is definitely worth a look.

The story is the very of literary fiction. Wilson is a middle-aged underachiever with only his dog for company. Wilson’s ex-wife left him 16 years ago. When Wilson learns she put their daughter up for adoption, he hires a detective to locate her and promptly inserts himself into his daughter’s life. What follows is both funny and tragic, with the very best parts lingering in your head long after you’ve finished reading.

Wilson is a complicated character. In “Fellowship,” the book’s opening strip, Wilson claims to be a real “people person.” Of course, once he encounters an actual human being and is treated to an earful of her banality (“My computer just crashed and I lost all my preferences!”), he wishes she would just shut up. Still, Wilson is no mere misanthrope; he clearly needs people. It doesn’t take long to realize his anger and impatience are a result of his disappointment with people who simply can’t communicate.

Clowes tells Wilson’s story in 70-odd one-page strips, most of them no more than six panels, with titles such as “All Alone,” “Cheap Motel” and “ Hard Time.” He employs a number of different graphic styles that complement the individual strips the way a director might use subtle lighting changes. Though the content is admittedly downbeat, the artwork can be downright whimsical. Too many contemporary graphic novels lack depth and it’s easy to overlook or dismiss them. Clowes—like Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine and Seth—is a storyteller of the first order, and his strips have a kind of compact elegance to them.

If Wilson was prose instead of a graphic novel, bookstores would have no problem shelving Clowes between Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Don’t let the funny pictures fool you: Wilson packs a solid emotional punch.

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