Wilson Blah Blah


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

They aren't very likable.

Since everyone else is really digging in and delivering the goods this fund-raising week, I should probably pitch in with a post or two of my own. Unfortunately, I just moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey, and ten years’ hoarding worth of books and comics have spent the last three weeks packed away in cardboard boxes (as is our scanner, so no images). All comics except for Wilson, that is—left out for my wife to have something to read during the move—so that’s the topic I will write about, half-assed though the resulting piece might be.

Please feel free to poke holes in the following:

Numero UNO: Since when did everyone decide that “likable” characters were important? Because nine-tenths of all Wilson reviews (from comic-book enthusiasts, that is—interestingly enough, “mainstream” critics largely seemed able to take this aspect much more easily in stride) make a big deal of how the book’s flawed because the protagonist is an asshole. At first I just chalked that up to ignorant posturing, but now even the estimable and usually astute R. Fiore is getting into the act, and taking the philistine position. Something is happening here, but I don’t know what it is. Do I, Mr. Jones?

Personally, I don’t get the desire for cuddly protagonists. I haven’t “identified” with a story’s hero since I was hooked on Choose Your Own Adventure books. I mean I guess with escapist stuff like James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, it’s kind of fun to imagine you’ve been blessed by god with amazing talents, and the luck to survive exotic and perilous adventures, and like most people, I’m not immune to the emotional manipulations of a good melodrama, but there’s a whole lot of worthy art and literature that doesn’t work that way at all. And you don’t have to point to anything as obvious as Ubu Roi, Bertolt Brecht, John Barth, or the Marquis de Sade to find it.

Because you know who’s unlikable? Oedipus! Medea! Hamlet! Macbeth! Captain Ahab! Three out of the four brothers Karamazov (probably a different three for every reader but)! Pretty much every character from the novels of Jim Thompson, the movies of Stanley Kubrick, and the poems of T.S. Eliot! I haven’t even mentioned the comics yet, but it is clear that the form boasts a very long, venerable, and distinguished tradition of characters that don’t invite “emotional investment” (from Otto Soglow’s Little King to Mark Newgarden’s Little Nun). Not everything good in art depends upon triggering the reader’s sympathies—and emotionally attaching yourself to fictional characters is not art’s only valid response.

But even while I think the likability of Wilson is a bit of a red herring, I don’t believe the people who say they dislike Wilson are lying. So what is it?

Numero DOS: Maybe it’s because Wilson is long. Reading the Sunday funnies as a child, I always used to marvel at a few seemingly misplaced strips, which possessed a tone much more adult and bitter than anything else around them. I am referring, as you might have guessed, to the matrimonial horrors of Andy Capp and The Lockhorns. Neither of them were particularly funny to a ten-year-old child (nor are they to me now, for that matter, though I know some vouch for the early Capp), but they did prompt a lot of questions: Who are these people? Why are the married to each other? Why do they hate each other so much? I doubt that Daniel Clowes drew inspiration from either of these strips (much less that he regards them highly), but in a way, Wilson is a version of what I always subconsciously wanted while reading The Lockhorns—a continuing-character gag strip in which the protagonists actually make some kind of progress through the world, a story with a beginning and an end. A comic where the mutual loathing actually has consequences.

But perhaps there’s something disconcerting, even fundamentally disturbing, about this concept. Andy Capp isn’t Gasoline Alley. The characters aren’t supposed to get old and die. The Lockwoods too are static creatures, forever locked in a pattern of hatred and distrust. Maybe we as humans need for this kind of character to be sealed off from time, locked into a never-ending, changeless pattern. Would Gasoline Alley be as lastingly popular if Walt and Skeezix were moral monsters? Conversely, we might remember the results of static antagonists Itchy and Scratchy becoming “Porch Pals.”

(Dick Tracy might be cited as a counter-example, a continuity strip in which perversity abounds, but Pruneface, the Mole, and their ilk always meet their rewards and disappear. As everyone always remarks, Tracy himself has no personality. (Or course, he doesn’t inspire much emotional investment either, but that’s a tangent best ignored for now.))

Numero TRES: It is fun to re-read Wilson, not as a graphic novel, but read one random strip at a time, as if from a collection of comic strips found abandoned in a vacation home. Who’s Wilson insulting this week? Oh, Wilson! It is a very different experience to read the strips divorced from their larger narrative context, and one that reveals a lot about how the book as a whole works formally. Plus, most of them are very funny.

Numero QUATRO: If I had known that my hasty response to Jog’s mini-review would be cited so prominently later, I probably would have spent a lot more time thinking about it. I’m pretty much okay with what I wrote, I guess, though I don’t think “Nabokovian” is really the right descriptor for Wilson, and I would like to retract that. (I was probably still under the sway of Ken Parille’s persuasive David Boring essay from Comic Art.)

Numero CINCO:
Has anyone read McTeague? If so, could you write an essay or blog post describing in what way, if any, the novel’s story or themes resonate with Wilson? Because I want to read that essay, and I am not going to have time to get to McTeague for a very long time.

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51 Responses to “Wilson Blah Blah”
  1. I don’t think it’s just that Wilson is unlikable, but that there’s absolutely no rationale to his dickheadedness, and he has zero redeemable qualities. Even a character like George Costanza (or by extension Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm) has a sort of relatable quality: I don’t like him as person but his twisted view of the world is based on a sort of logic. Wilson’s viewpoint isn’t based on anything. We’re shown this character is an insulting jerk but we don’t know why. He’s a dick for dick’s sake, which to me isn’t the same as Oedipus or Ahab, both of whom were characters with a specific motivation.

    I’m not sure anyone is saying all art has to endear you to the main protagonist, or at least I’ve never seen a review in which that’s implied. I don’t think that Savage Critics review implies that, and I don’t think Fiore’s argument implies that. It’s just that in this particular story Clowes did attempt to provoke an emotional response. I think a couple of times Clowes was directly going for melodrama and missed the mark. I think when he’s talking to his dad on the phone about the White Sox and then pauses when he finds out he’s about to die, that scene in particular, it flopped. Maybe it’s not just that he’s unlikable, maybe it’s also the book’s format and the different view of Wilson we have from page to page– maybe these things also made it hard to connect to the character, as we never see one version of Wilson to hang on to for very long. I’d buy that. I’d buy that it’s not *just* that he’s a dick, that there are other forces mucking everything up, but it doesn’t help. I don’t hate him, I don’t have a sort of begrudging affinity for him, I’m not even sure what Clowes is trying to “say,” if this is some kind of character study.

    I do agree that reading each strip on its own is kind of rewarding. Each style Clowes works in clearly looks very nice, and the explanation of Wilson the curmudgeon being “well, he was just born that way!” makes each gag strip very funny — that, I think, is undeniable. I suppose it doesn’t have to be much else, but I do think it was meant to be. It’s not bad, it just misses its mark.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. Three quick things:

      1. Do you really know why George Costanza or Larry David is a dickhead? Do you really know why anyone is a dickhead? I don’t mean to caricature your argument, but I don’t think Wilson would be improved if Clowes had included a flashback to Wilson’s childhood which explained how he became a jerk. And I also don’t think that his behavior is really that outlandish for this kind of fictional character. Or for a real person, for that matter. If you’ve never met an unaccountable jerk, you’re a lucky guy.

      2. It’s just that in this particular story Clowes did attempt to provoke an emotional response.

      First, this is supposition—neither of us know if Clowes intended to do this. Second, an emotional response is not necessarily the same thing as being emotionally invested in a particular character.

      3. I’m not even sure what Clowes is trying to “say,” if this is some kind of character study.

      Why does he have to be saying anything?

      If a book doesn’t do any of the things you expect a book to do, and it arrives in a form that is different from any other book you have ever read, perhaps the author is trying for something other than what has already been done. Perhaps the emotional disconnections you sense are a feature, and not a bug. Maybe what you see as failed melodrama is actually intended to reveal something about the limitations of narrative, or comic strips, or human behavior in general. Or maybe not, but I think it’s worth considering before assuming we know what Clowes meant to do. Alienating the reader can be a conscious strategy.

      • First, this is supposition—neither of [us] know if Clowes wanted to do this.

        No, you’re right, but it’s my interpretation, and certainly as valid an interpretation as any. I didn’t imply that I know why either of those characters is a dickhead, just that their portrayal of a dickhead makes more sense to me than Wilson’s. His behavior isn’t especially outlandish, nor is his attitude especially shocking in comparison to those other guys — there’s just a basic level of understanding we’re not given here that I feel hurts the story. And so going back to your original post, I can certainly understand the position that one not need like a character for a piece of art to work, I just don’t think that’s the case in this particular example because even if the artist did mean to do something else, the work as a whole didn’t hit me in that way. I don’t see the entire story as a failed melodrama but I saw scenes that looked like failed melodrama, and that’s how I interpreted them. Either way, my point isn’t that my interpretation is the most correct, just that I don’t think it’s as mired in Philistinism as you think it is. (Not to in turn caricature your argument.)

        • T. Hodler says:

          I can certainly understand the position that one not need like a character for a piece of art to work, I just don’t think that’s the case in this particular example because even if the artist did mean to do something else, the work as a whole didn’t hit me in that way.

          That’s fair enough as far as it goes. We don’t always encounter works of art when we’re ready for them. I know it took me several tries before I really got into Conrad, for example, and I’m still not ready for Beckett, though I haven’t given up on him yet. The thing that I’ve learned is that sometimes when I don’t get a book or comic or something, the fault lies with me, not the art. Kim Deitch’s work didn’t immediately grab me, for example, and now I consider it some of the best comics ever created. This isn’t to say there aren’t bad books or paintings or whatever, just that sometimes, especially with particularly challenging or complicated works, it takes longer to decide. That’s true for me, anyway.

      • Lastworthy says:

        While I agree that we don’t need a flashback or origin to explain how the character arrived at his current operating state, I think it’s wrong on a very basic level to believe Clowes doesn’t *need* to be saying anything.
        At the core of my concept of art in general is the belief that Art is Communication. Any time you release a singular creative work into the public you are communicating some feeling or idea, and to not control or be aware of that works purpose is a deathblow to the validity of the piece and also borderline irresponsible, particularly for an artist of Clowes’ stature.
        Without that, it’s a sketchbook; parts of something he didn’t finish thinking about.

        • CW says:

          “I think it’s wrong on a very basic level to believe Clowes doesn’t *need* to be saying anything.”

          I think it is wrong on a very basic level to believe that any artist needs to be saying anything.

          Art is a fairly inefficient form of Communication (cf Western Union comments elsewhere), subject to wildly different interpretations from individual to individual, and not to mention cases where the artist is deliberately vague in order to provoke differing interpretations.

          When this path of “communication” is so obscure, by accident and/or design, it seems pointless to require that an artist must have a message (often a message will be transmitted whether or not the artist has one in mind), and it implies a standard for artistic success where literalism is the ultimate goal, where an artist must remove any possibility of mis-interpretation to better communicate their idea. It reduces art to the equivalent of a fancy protest rally sign. “Stop the War!”

          Surely an artist *can and may* strive for such Communication of Ideas in Art, but to say that’s what Art *is* or should be seems to be to be needlessly limiting.

          • Lastworthy says:

            most of what you’re saying is fair, if a bit fatalistic. It’s true of lesser works. The stronger an artist is, the further he can get away from “soundbite messages” while preserving clarity ( this is why Shepherd Fairey-style stuff doesn’t work for me.) More specifically, I think this is one of the strengths of comics; you can build towards a purpose without giving it all away in a page or panel. Also the book format goes a long way towards excusing a lack of directness, in comparison with a sequence of 1200 panels lined up in a gallery. It’s usually easier on the viewer than having to deal with the whole work at once and maybe not have another chance to revisit the work after the show closes.
            Being direct to the point where it limits your message is missing the point of having a message in the first place. It’s kind of a strawman, if your message is more complex than “war is bad” you wouldn’t reduce it to “war is bad” to better get the point across because it’s no longer the same point.

  2. […] to like? Isn't there such a thing as an unlikable character you love to read about nonetheless? Tim Hodler of Comics Comics says no and yes, respectively. In a post on the book, Hodler argues that the response to Wilson, […]

  3. zik says:

    “Maybe what you see as failed melodrama is actually intended to reveal something about the limitations of narrative, or comic strips, or human behavior in general.”

    That could be said about literally any work. “Maybe all of its deficiencies are really strengths!” Is a bad horror movie suddenly good because it could be twisted into a comment on the inherent badness of all horror films? Suddenly every poor movie is brilliant meta commentary. Nothing in Wilson, I would say, indicates this is the intent. And I think discussions of author intent is a red herring anyway. All that can be really discussed is the work, and what it conveys. What does Wilson convey? What does it communicate? Anything? A boring, miserable person makes boring, miserable comments for seventy pages? Is there anything really new being done here? I haven’t seen many arguments from its defenders as to precisely why this book is good, and what it’s giving us as readers.

    And reading it a page at a time, randomly, like a comic strip, as you prescribe, may be enjoyable but is an abuse of form. Reading Hamlet backwards might make great poetry, but that’s not the work as its presented. Wilson is a book, and if the parts are greater than the sum, that’s an indication of a fundamental flaw in its execution.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Oh, please. Are you deliberately misreading me? I didn’t say the book had deficiencies—I said that the parts that felt off-putting might have been intentional. Look, here’s an example: take Kubrick’s 2001. As is often noticed, all of the human characters appear cold, bureaucratic, stiff. Is this a “deficiency” of the film, or is it essential to the movie’s message? Or do you simply consider the movie “boring” and move on?

      And maybe, as I said before, *maybe* these parts that you are reacting to so strongly are integral to what the book is trying to convey. What do you think this panel is about, anyway? (I only include it because it’s the one all over the internet, and I have no scanner, but as Wilson is actually a really well thought-through book, it will serve as well as any other panel.)

      The whole “boring” argument isn’t even worth responding to. Calling a work of art boring is the first resort of the lazy critic.

      As for reading the book one page at a time, I didn’t say it was THE way to read it, just that it was a fun way to read it.

      Basically, my point is simply this: don’t just react to Wilson (it doesn’t work the way I want it to!), engage with it (why does it work the way it does?). You can still end up finding it wanting, but at least then you will have made an honest attempt first.

      • zik says:

        I think its pretty simple to read “failures” as “deficiencies”. Obviously, YOU don’t think the book has flaws, but your response to another poster’s view of a failed emotional beat was to turn it around into some kind of intentional distancing by the author. Which, as I said before, can be done about anything. “It’s on purpose!” Well something being done on purpose doesn’t necessarily make it any good. And what is the “message” of Wilson that draws the comparison for you to 2001? First you say, “Why does it have to be about anything?” then you throw up 2001 as a comparative example, a work that is almost nothing but being ABOUT things? I don’t understand the thought process here.

        And I never said the book was boring. I said the guy was boring and miserable and made lots of boring and miserable comments. I would hope even its most ardent supporters would agree with that, since that seems to be one of the character’s few (only?) defining traits. The book itself is not very subtle, as your panel clearly shows. What its “about” is right there in the word balloon. Oh the irony that a loud mouthed moron that condemns/laughs/talks down to everyone he meets bemoans the death of community! I’m sure the zinger of that page was to have him swear at some person on the street. If I’m missing something please go ahead and tell me what more there is to it.

        And one of my problems with the book is that I didn’t react strongly at all to any of it. It just lied there, dead, in my lap. I’m willing to engage a work that resists easy admiration, but doing so much of the heavy lifting on my end would require greater rewards on the other. I haven’t seen those rewards in Wilson and can’t even really imagine what they could possibly be.

        • T. Hodler says:

          Before I answer you, let me first apologize for being jerky and somewhat condescending in my initial reply. I don’t know if your first comment was meant to come off as hostile and angry or not (I thought it was), but it doesn’t really matter. It’s too easy for internet tone to be misinterpreted, and I fall prey to the temptation to escalate arguments way too easily. (This is one reason I don’t entirely believe the number of comics bloggers who say they can’t possibly relate to Wilson—if you’ve ever gotten into a flame war, you probably have a little Wilson in you. But that’s another subject.) Anyway, I hope you will accept my apology.


          First you say, “Why does it have to be about anything?” then you throw up 2001 as a comparative example, a work that is almost nothing but being ABOUT things? I don’t understand the thought process here.

          I never wrote, “Why does it have to be about anything?” I wrote, “Why does [Clowes] have to be saying anything?” Let me explain the difference, and use 2001 as an example, since it’s just sitting there. As you say, it isn’t difficult to think of a bunch of things 2001 is about; technology, evolution, cosmology, artificial intelligence, and perhaps most centrally, what it means to be human, are all obvious themes of the film. But what is Stanley Kubrick trying to say about them? In my opinion, there is no easily articulated message to be found, and any message a viewer could come up with inevitably miss much that is most important about the experience of watching 2001.

          In the same way, I think Wilson is about many things, but that does not imply that Clowes is trying to say any one thing in particular. You’ve probably heard the old saw attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” That’s the distinction in a nutshell.

          I think its pretty simple to read “failures” as “deficiencies”. Obviously, YOU don’t think the book has flaws, but your response to another poster’s view of a failed emotional beat was to turn it around into some kind of intentional distancing by the author. Which, as I said before, can be done about anything. “It’s on purpose!” Well something being done on purpose doesn’t necessarily make it any good.

          Obviously, your last point is correct, and I don’t dispute it. But here’s the thing. Paul D. and I were discussing a specific set of “flaws,” revolving around the characterization of Wilson, and the way certain scenes in the book, which deal with emotionally charged subject matter (death, disease), seem to have a peculiar coldness or flatness about them. I am talking specifically about the characterization in the book, not hand-waving away all possible deficiencies in general. The reason I brought up 2001 to you was to point out a work of art that you would probably recognize that also took an unusual approach to characterization. (Barry Lyndon would probably have been the closer Kubrick-related comparison, but I wasn’t certain that you would have seen it.) The characters of 2001 are quite obviously not psychologically well-rounded, and I and many others would maintain that that approach to character was essential to the film’s conception as a whole. Likewise, I think that Clowes takes a consciously alienating-at-times approach to portraying Wilson’s character.

          You can obviously agree or disagree with this judgment, and also whether or not he is successful (I don’t want to speak for him, but I believe this was Jog’s ultimate problem with the book, which I find entirely fair), but I think to really grapple with the book, you have to acknowledge the possibility. Especially when you consider the back cover copy (“Wilson is a big-hearted slob a lonesome bachelor a devoted father and husband an idiot a sociopath…”), I think it’s clear that Clowes is trying to explore something to do with character!

          There’s a lot more to say (for example, you write, “If I’m missing something please go ahead and tell me what more there is to it.” I think one thing that you’re missing is how the book tackles its main themes—characterization, personality, self-image, social missteps, solipsism, human behavior in the face of inevitable death, denial, etc.—through its formal structure), but this comment is already way too long. Thanks for commenting.

          • zik says:

            Thanks for the big response. Yeah my tone should be read as “bar talk” and not mean or anything and I read yours as the same so no worries. I still am not necessarily seeing in the work what you and others are, but I’m willing to accept that Clowes may be just aiming for a target I’m not interested in. But I appreciate the defense.

  4. erik says:

    I don’t know if a character has to be likable, but he should certainly have a level of appeal. I like what paul said about George Costanza and Larry David. They’re assholes, sure, but they’re the not the type of asshole that’s alienating. I find most of Clowes’s main characters alienating, and have a hard time being engaged by the stories as consequence (I guess I do find them boring, even if that does make me a lazy critic). I know pretty much everyone loves him though. Maybe there’s something I’m just not getting? It might not have been his intention to have a character you can identify with, but if that’s the case reviews pointing out that you can’t identify with the character shouldn’t come as a surprise. A negative review would be expected, since that sort of character alienates the reader from the comic.

  5. I think this is a good point of discussion and I’m glad it’s happening here and not any other comics blog because some cool discussion’s developing. That’s what COMICS COMICS does and that’s why we should all donate! Anywayz…

    First, a picky point…comparing Wilson to Hamlet, or Oedipus is playing fast and loose with the definition of “unlikeable”. Yes, like Wilson, those dudes/dudettes aren’t likeable really, but they’re sympathetic (if only by circumstances) which Wilson is not.

    I think that the argument that Wilson is a bad book or whatever because the character is unlikeable is pretty unsophisticated; what I disliked about the book is that Wilson is an unlikeable character never made to be interesting, sympathetic, well-rounded or anything.

    This has a lot to do with Clowes structure for the book: Strips. The strips reduce everything to its core elements and so, the little details, the tics, the whatevers that might make Wilson more in the vein of Clowes’ classic sympathetic pricks are cut out. Again, Clowes’ intention but it does kinda “critique-proof” the book.

    At the same time, he doesn’t work as a “type” as in, “this is a satire of a very specific kind of person”. Wilson never really seems to be a type, he’s sorta wobbling all over the spectrum of assholes.

    Also, if this is Clowes’ intention–and it probably is–it doesn’t really work as a reading experience because it’s just sorta like, the same thing repeated with no breathing space or insight. There are hints of something else, towards the end of the book when Wilson, by circumstance, lives with the dog-watcher and like, something resembling settling/figuring shit out comes through (also the epiphany ending) and I think it becomes kinda moving. Wilson as a total prick but also a guy slowly, step by step at like age 60, understanding the world.

    Like all art, “good” or “bad”, these “flaws” could be exactly why someone else loves the book, so yeah. For example, I got a “Confederacy of Dunces” feeling from Wilson, but again that book has more than just a central prick character to it, but still.

    I’m writing a review for my city’s paper of Wilson and I’ve paired it with Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld and one point is indeed, the way the Wilson and Paulie Panther are similar (aging clueless selfish jerks, I’m simplifying but bear with me) and how Panther’s so much more well-rounded, and sympathetic. I think that touches on the flaws of Wilson’s characterization and better defines the definition/complexity of a character being “unlikeable”.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Thanks, Brandon!

      First, a picky point…comparing Wilson to Hamlet, or Oedipus is playing fast and loose with the definition of “unlikeable”. Yes, like Wilson, those dudes/dudettes aren’t likeable really, but they’re sympathetic (if only by circumstances) which Wilson is not.

      I’ll cop to this, to a certain degree. I think choosing Hamlet and Ahab was a bit of a mistake. I stand behind the idea that they aren’t particularly “likable,” but they are psychologically rounded characters in the conventional sense, and therefore relatable. (I continue to believe that Oedipus and Medea are apt comparisons, though, and don’t think Oedipus is really a sympathetic figure in Sophocles’ play in the same way that Shakespeare’s characters can be.)

      I may have confused things unintentionally by making two different points simultaneously in my initial post: (1) Characters don’t have to be likable in art for the art to be worthwhile. (This is the easy and obvious point, though a lot of people surprisingly don’t seem to get it!), and (2) there is more than one valid approach to characterization, and creating psychologically rounded characters is only the most popular of them. Greek tragedy, epic poetry, Tom and Jerry films, J.G. Ballard novels, and Otto Soglow cartoons are a few examples of art that take decidedly different approaches to character.

      Again, Clowes’ intention but it does kinda “critique-proof” the book.

      I know what you mean, but I don’t think it actually does “critique-proof” the book! I definitely don’t want to create the impression that I think Clowes or Wilson is above criticism, only that the vast bulk of criticism I’ve read so far has been depressingly insipid. But I’m sure there are more valid negative criticisms to be made — I liked Jog’s piece, for example, and your comment is interesting too.

      At the same time, he doesn’t work as a “type” as in, “this is a satire of a very specific kind of person”. Wilson never really seems to be a type, he’s sorta wobbling all over the spectrum of assholes.

      I think this is more or less right. I need to re-read the book again, and not to repeat myself, but it seems to me that the primary theme of the book revolves around character. Whether or not and how much it is immutable, possibly inevitable self-delusion, the impossibility of fully knowing others and ourselves, how much of human reaction to the suffering of others is genuine and/or solipsistic, et cetera. What makes it kind of funny and unique is that Clowes explores all this through the prism of a non-alcoholic pseudo-intellectual Andy Capp-type comic-strip jerk, which opens up more themes such as comic-strip structure, how we perceive and construct narratives out of our lives, etc. I definitely need to read the book a few more times before pontificating any more about it…

      I’m writing a review for my city’s paper of Wilson and I’ve paired it with Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld

      This sounds like a really interesting comparison—I’ll keep a look out for your review. Thanks again, Brandon.

      • t.,
        I think I was a bit harsh in my initial accusation of playing fast and loose with the concept “unlikeable”. Primarily because indeed, your point remains: Here’s good art with unlikeable characters so saying that is why the book is bad is wrong! And also because there’s some amazingly dopey readings of the book and responses to your assertions going on here. I basically loathe “Wilson” and Zik and I are probably on the same page but our rhetorical strategies differ.

        Re: “Critique proof”. Again, not to assert that you T. Hodler are protecting the book this way–though again, some people seem to think you are?–but that it’s very construction swats away at so many ways to critique the book. The character isn’t likeable (he isn’t supposed to be), but he’s also poorly developed (that’s because it’s in strips!) and it’s just not a fun read, it’s a slog of mean jokes (it’s supposed to be a not-fun read). There’s validity in all those parenthesized points but it does lean me towards only seeing ‘Wilson’ as a book worthy of discussion as a formal experiment.

        And that is, where it starts to really fail and also where it’s critique proof. The construction of the book makes it something of a test to get through (single strips over and over). I also think there’s not exactly a rhyme or reason to Clowes’ differing styles (why is one strip done in this style and another in that?). Some of them are effective in their styles but it doesn’t seem to cohere. To me at least.

        There’s basicaly an explanation for every “flaw” in the book, a very easy explanation and that inhibits discussion about it.

        • T. Hodler says:

          No worries—I don’t think you were too harsh.

          it’s just not a fun read, it’s a slog of mean jokes (it’s supposed to be a not-fun read).

          Ha. Well, there’s no disputing taste, but I actually had an enormous amount of fun reading the book. Maybe that makes me weird, but it’s the truth.

          Also, I don’t think it is really true that because Wilson seems to be really thoroughly planned out in many ways, this automatically leads to inhibited critical discussion. First of all, because for this kind of comic book, Wilson has actually led to a relatively large amount of talk. More importantly, I think what has actually inhibited more interesting discussion of the book has been the surprising number of people who just call it (or the title character) boring and loathsome and leave their critiques at that!

          I mean, let me play devil’s advocate here and suggest a bunch of potential topics for Wilson haters: they could address what the book is saying about family, or about women. They could speculate on what is going on between panels (as Luke P. and others have mentioned, a lot of the plot happens off-page), and discuss whether or not readers are given adequate information, or whether or not it all makes sense. They could follow the trail you touch on, and actually pick a few pages in which they feel the varying styles don’t work, and explain why using visual examples. I mean, I’m not really trying very hard here… there have to be a lot of other possible avenues. Haters should get on this. I love reading negative reviews, and one of the big frustrations that inspired this post was that most of the ones I’ve read of Wilson so far have been so predictable and trite.

  6. Also…McTeague! One of my favorite books.

    1. I saw the things of Wilson reading McTeague as a reference to a certain kind of contrarian, nerdy, bookworm. That’s to say, even your classic elitist isn’t going to reach for Frank Norris’ social realist classic, but a certain kind of “never wants to fit in but think they’re a man of the people” type jerk would read McTeague. It’s grotesque and literary, but it’s also very raw and immediate, something resembling popular lit. I can imagine Wilson thinking “this is preferable to the hoity-toity works of Proust or Conrad (who were writing around the same time)”. A false populism, which Wilson most certainly exhibits.

    2. Connected thematically to the book, I’d be hard-pressed to think of any that wouldn’t be a stretch. McTeague is a kind of roving, improvising doofus (Norris very much sees people as animals and so survivalism, getting by is key in the book) and there’s some of that in the book. The way Wilson shifts attitudes in these certain ways but also, always ends up back doing the same thing.

    ACTUALLY that’s very ‘McTeague’. Won’t get too much longer here, but Norris is writing after Darwin, but only like 20 years after, and som he’s very much obsessed with Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest, and concepts like Phrenology and Eugenics. All of which suggest a pretty core, unchanging, fate for us all and that’s very much Wilson: No matter the situation he does the same asshole-ish stuff.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Thanks for this, Brandon! Very, very interesting. It sounds like I will have to read McTeague soon after all…

      • Thanks for the encouraging words, t.! I usually don’t do this because it’s like, mad obnoxious, but I did stretch-out some of the connections between McTeague and Wilson on my blog, which you can er, read by clicking on my name…..

  7. patrick ford says:

    Clowes is just getting too close to home for many people it’s as simple as that.

  8. Since we always compare comics to film and literature, how bout something else?
    Wilson is like archery. All the styles are arrows in Clowes’ quiver. And he hits bullseye after bullseye, a different style and mood are the targets. The one page gags are like the repetition of aiming and firing. It might not be an exciting sport to watch, but man, look at him go – bullseye, bullseye, bullseye!

    • Wait, maybe Wilson himself is the target.

      • nrh says:

        Actually, I think looking at Wilson like a game piece might not be so far off. In a lot of ways reading the book is like reading Trondheim’s Mr. O and Mr. I, where a distant “identification figure” is put through the paces of attempting and failing the same action over and over again. i actually wonder if the book is too close to the conventions of literary narrative to allow people to look at the book this way. Nobody complains that Mr. O is an unlikeable figure, or that there’s not enough grounding back story in Spy vs. Spy. Clearly this argument is flawed – Clowes is doing something here that’s very different than those strips – but it does make me wonder what exactly people who hate this book are looking for.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Since we always compare comics to film and literature, how bout something else?

      I know, you’re right, bad habit. In my defense, I did try to switch things up a bit this time around, but no one seems to want to talk about Andy Capp…

  9. “As is often noticed, all of the human characters appear cold, bureaucratic, stiff. ”

    Actually I always saw them as being very polite.

  10. patrick ford says:

    Keep in mind Clowes said he likes Wilson.
    I see Wilson as similar in a way to Jesus.
    He goes around inserting himself where he is not wanted, and castigating people.

  11. Luke P. says:

    Yes, “likability” is a red-herring. Knowability, on the other hand, is something I think the critics should’ve taken on. Not that I would have agreed with that, per se. Clearly, Clowes was playing with the unreliability of Wilson as a narrator. We don’t see the important bits, like, how, for instance, the couple came to find their daughter, and the emotionality of that process. We don’t see it because Wilson is blind to the importance and meaning of these interactions. So, it’s a kind of obtuse read. It’s not really fun, in the way we come to expect fun in watching narratives unfold. We’re not given that outside perspective. We’re trapped in Wilsons’ miserable world with him. We “hear” his thoughts, rendered in speech balloons, because that’s the only voice Wilson values. We can’t know him in the way we know ourselves, or others, because we’re (most of us, I hope) capable of real empathy, and can see our reflection in the reactions of others.
    Yes, MISERY. But isn’t that a legitimate subject? Doesn’t it speak to the kind of rootless, anomic lives we’re subject to in hyper-modernity? Liberalist sentiments about “community” and “togetherness” are shown for what they often are in Wilson; feel good, risk-free delusions that we only value when they serve our base desires, but quickly reconfigure once they make demands upon us. In that schism between genuine desire for relationships and our inability to meet them, we’re imprisoned, like Wilson literally was when he tried to act-out his desire.
    This is just my initial response. I read Wilson once, and quickly. I understand a lot of the reactions to the book, but I think it’s really just a kind of knee-jerk reaction to the ickiness of being trapped with Wilson for 45 minutes. I think down the road, it’ll be lauded for it’s relentlessness. We’re not let off the hook in Wilson.

  12. Tom Spurgeon says:

    I have a much easier time sympathizing with Wilson than I do with Batman, and anyone who feels the opposite please do not move to my neighborhood.

  13. Joan de' Arc says:

    Does anyone have any insights regarding the references to Frankenstein and Shelly in “Wilson”?

    Both Batman and Wilson vomit their interior thoughts and emotions into the real world of their narrative. In some ways I have an easier time empathizing with Bruce Wayne’s revenge drama than I do with Wilson kidnapping his daughter…

    Whereas the details of an average Batman comic book tend to ruin the story for me, the details of “Wilson” make the story for me. I think it’s amazing how Clowes develops an invisible narrative and subtext between the pages which is just as important as whats seen on the page. I think Clowes is a master at knowing how much or how little to show the reader.

  14. jimrugg says:

    From “The Imp”, a 1997 zine about Clowes:

    referring to Ghost World, Clowes said, “I wanted to create two likeable characters. Characters that I liked, anyway. That was my sole intention. I get so many letters saying, ‘You obviously hate these characters. They’re so awful. It’s great that you’re parodying the modern teenager.’ Basically the girls have all of my opinions, I can get away with because it’s two teenage girls. If I had some cranky old man saying the same stuff it would just seem awful. He’d be a horrible monster.”

  15. Basque Breakfast says:

    “…how the book’s flawed because the protagonist is an asshole.”

    “Because you know who’s unlikable? Oedipus! Medea! Hamlet! Macbeth! Captain Ahab! Three out of the four brothers Karamazov…”

    Mr. Hodler, we love you.

  16. R. Fiore says:

    I wasn’t saying that Wilson was bad art, I was saying that it presents a technical problem that Clowes doesn’t solve. As I point out, most of the solutions others have used to the problem would defeat Clowes’ purpose. The difference between Wilson and Oedipus or Hamlet or Ahab or Macbeth or McTeague is that they do more interesting things, which is to say, the creators of those characters didn’t deal with the same technical problem. We don’t identify with Wilson the way we do with those characters, but then, Wilson wouldn’t identify with himself, because he doesn’t have sufficient self-knowledge. He’s reminiscent of the old Billy Crystal/Christopher Guest “I hate when that happens” routine, where two co-workers describe a series of escalating self-inflicted wounds as if they were happenstance. No one suffers from Wilson’s actions more than Wilson does (if they can help it). I think that in Wilson Clowes is depicting a genuine human predicament, but it’s one dimensional in comparison to Ice Haven or Mr. Wonderful.

    Clowes is not the one who preemptively slags his own books. That’s Chris Ware you’re thinking of.

    • T. Hodler says:

      My apologies if I have misread you, as seems to be the case, and thanks for the clarification. Part of the problem, as I wrote in an earlier comment, is that in the confused delivery of my original post I unintentionally (and in mentioning your review, probably somewhat unfairly) conflated two different points into one. I still disagree with you, but I now think you are taking the weak philistine position as opposed to the strong one. Though maybe after a few more re-readings, I’ll come around to your point of view and regret the previous sentence. Please pardon me if I am continuing to misrepresent your stance.

      The thing that interests me is that I believe we are both reacting to the same thing, but that what appears a technical problem to you is an intriguing aesthetic effect to me. There’s a technical problem with building a book around a character like Wilson. Simply because of the way we’ve learned to relate to fiction, it doesn’t take more than three or four pages to write Wilson off as a dead loss. Except for the “dead loss” part, that’s all correct in my view—Wilson isn’t the kind of psychologically rounded character we have learned to agree to consider “realistic” in conventional literature. I think your sketch-comedy example above is very apt, as would be other “flat” character types from comic films and comic strips such as Laurel & Hardy or Olive Oyl or Dagwood Bumstead. But I would further argue that one of the most pernicious side effects of people praising the rise of “literary” comics has been the subsequent belief that graphic novels fail if they don’t replicate literary traits such as rounded characterization.

      One example from the book that seems to bother people occurs in the strip titled “The Old Neighborhood.” That’s the one that ends with Wilson abruptly lying prostrate on a neighborhood baseball field’s pitcher’s mound, crying, “Oh daddy daddy daddy.” This seems to trip readers up (it tripped me up), as an unconvincing and uncharacteristic emotional outburst appearing out of the blue. These kind of moments appear periodically throughout the book, and detractors consider them examples of Clowes straining for an emotional effect that he can’t quite pull off. I understand that response, because I initially felt it myself. But consider how often we’ve seen similar scenes in comic strips throughout their long history. How many times have we looked on as Dagwood or Beetle Bailey flailed on the ground, weeping and waving their limbs over some petty disappointment (potato-peeling duty, say, or a sandwich snatched away by a dog)?

      Maybe I’m perverse, but I seem to enjoy the effect in Wilson of seeing complicated and messy human experience shoved into the same constricting funny-pages boxes usually reserved for insignificant slights. The sight of a comic-strip character performing this very comic-strip behavior, but as a response to very real grief spurred by the death of a parent, produces an undeniable emotional frisson that I can’t quite explain. Its very unbelievability, the sense of role-playing and performance it evokes, is disturbing. Because I think there are mysteries of character and personality that conventional literary characterization ignores. I can’t fully account for my own behavior, much less that of others; like Wilson, I don’t have sufficient self-knowledge, and as far as I can tell, neither does anyone else. That seems to me in fact to be one of the major themes of Wilson.

      So in a way I think you’re right: but where you see a technical problem that Clowes can’t quite solve, I see an existential question that none of us can, and which Clowes isn’t trying to solve so much as illuminate.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Oh, and to be clear, when I wrote “weak philistine position,” I meant weak as in less extreme, not weak as in less defensible. I don’t want to cause unintended offense…

  17. darrylayo says:

    Fiore, I was replying to Jim Rugg’s quote, which, when taken intentionally out of context create the illusion that Clowes did just that. It was a joke. And you just made me explain it.

    Sigh x 6

  18. wayne says:

    Well, I’m afraid I identify with Wilson, and I’m sure many other men past/near 40 who were eager to read it do too (believe it or not, most divorces don’t occur because both parties had hearts of gold). Life IS painful and filled with desperately embarassing situations for most of us in western society. Ditto George Costanza, Larry David, David Brent, Basil Fawlty, Archie Bunker etc. etc. It’s COMEDY – it’s seeing the disaster of people’s lives in long shot. As usual with Clowes, it’s up to the reader to fill in the ‘distance’ and the blanks.

    ‘Redemptive qualties’ are a variation of the Hollywood bullshit we’ve all internalised eg. Ethan Edwards gets a boner for slaughtering native Americans but sincerely wants to bring Debbie ‘home’, Don Corleone ruthlessly kills and bullies anyone in the way of his wealth and power but he loves his kids (Michael had no redeeming qualities – making for a better movie IMHO), Charles Foster Kane manipulates opinion to the point of starting wars but misses playing with his sled with mom.

    You want someone to love? Go join a dating agency!

  19. wayne says:

    PS. Another Hollywood disease is that behaviour/personality must have some origin story ‘source’ (Clowe’s ‘Gynecology’ was a brilliant dissection of this bogus notion). So even Tony Soprano has traumatic memories of his mother as a psychological red herring. In Hollywood, even nations have a traumatic origin story (from the civil war to JFK’s assassination to the 2000 election – take your pick according to the prejudices of the director/audience).

    What bugs me most about criticisms of ‘Wilson’ is the transplanting of Hollywood ‘reality’ (not just in the movies – if anyone’s endured ‘personal growth’ training at their workplace, they’ll know it’s bullshit extends far and wide). I don’t need characters to ‘grow’ in order for them to seem ‘real’.

  20. darrylayo says:


    Respectfully…I really outgrew the “real life isn’t LIKE that” criticism of literature a long time ago. Yes, real life is awful and not neatly packaged. But fiction as an art form isn’t supposed to BE “real life,” it’s supposed to REVEAL something about humanity–whether major or minor.

    That feat is accomplished through trickery, devices and imaginary constructs which give shape to a narrative. These narratives don’t need to mirror the precise random nature of “real” reality. Strong fiction is often (NOT “always”) an amplified edit of reality meant to highlight the author’s themes.

    I think you’re being a bit hard on the concept of fictional constructs. That’s not to say that you don’t have a strong point when it comes to bad writing. But in general, a lot of people call “bullshit” on fictional constructs for being what they are–inventions meant to serve a storytelling point.

    Maybe I’m getting away from your points, and if so, I’m sorry. I just think that instances such as your last example which conflates real-life employers attempting to artificually “grow” their employees with what is meant by “growth” in a literary context is unfair and misses the mark by quite a ways.

    • wayne says:

      I never expect any artform to be a replica of ‘real life’ – I’m deeply suspicious of anything that claims to (like the incredibly overrated show ‘The Wire’). However, I’m suspicious of criticisms of Clowes and other ‘alts’ for their relentless downbeat nature. This is where I do think Hollywood standards are applied to non-movie works (or the workplace, political rhetoric etc).

      As for ‘deadness’ (emotional, cultural etc.) – this has been a consistent theme in Clowes. ‘Ghost World’ was as much about negotiating a ‘posthumous’ culture as it was about growing up. Striving for ‘real’ emotion (and the tension with a culture that manufactures what it is) has been another consistent theme. Chris Ware and Crumb also focus on similar themes (when they go outside nostalgia, self-loathing or mysticism). Clowes’ genius is in making these characters so vivid but ’empty’ – and funny! I suspect there’s an inherent aspect to comics that can deal with this in ways movies or novels can’t.

      • darrylayo says:


        Strong points, but for me, the operative term is “relentless.” I have a high tolerence for negativity, but after a point, I had to say of Clowes and his ilk “go pick some flowers.”

        I used to look poorly upon people who complained of Clowes and Ware’s dark view of the world, but I feel that after years…decades of this stuff, those guys feel less like wise, clever men skewering our decadent culture and more like broken people drowning in it.

        I know, I know, faux pas to make claims against an author because of his/her work, but in the cases where the work seems to come from so closely to the author’s stated views, how can I not?

        I don’t find relentless pessimism compelling. I don’t find sarcasm or grand displays of weakness compelling. Flaws are compelling, weakness, when combined with other aspects of character are compelling. But I feel like these artists isolate what is negative about certain characters and focus on that to a point that nearly blots out any redeeming character traits. The characters don’t seem to really HAVE other traits. Furthermore, especially in the case of WILSON, there aren’t even other strong characters (repeated admission: haven’t read the entire book) to add an emotional range to the book. It’s a character study, sure, but all it seems to do is focus with laserpoint precision on a small range of behavioral traits in a single character. It would be just as boring if the character was walking around being friendly to all of the little stock characters.

        I just find this type of work extremely intellectually and emotionally and conceptually immature.

  21. darrylayo says:

    As for me, I still haven’t made it through “WILSON.”

    I don’t see myself in him (from what I have read), even though I’m a jerk. I’m a different kind of jerk, I guess. The shifting art styles didn’t do it for me, nor did they excite me in EIGHTBALL 22. I’ve always been surprised that people were so excited about that sort of thing. Not that the technique is at fault, I just feel like it falls flat in Clowes’ hands. Everything is flat in Clowes’ hands. Because Clowes draws the world in this hyper-stylized deadpan.

    Clowes’ deadpan works exceptionally well in DAVID BORING and GHOST WORLD. It does wonders in “Caricature” and a few of the other short stories as well. However, when Clowes ventures to use “various styles,” the results have always fallen flat because he draws everything and everybody so profoundly DEAD.

    Even his cartoonier and looser styles like the “Blue Bunny” strip from EIGHTBALL 22 have a deadness to them. It’s like the sense of post-dread that pervades his writing makes the strip unreadable as ‘lively” and inexorably just “more Clowes.”

  22. Chris Stangl says:

    Huh. I thought Wilson was pretty funny and appealing. See, you get to spend an hour of your time with this hilariously awful kind of guy without the discomfort and consequences of actually hanging out with him. Some pages we may think “yeah, people with those boring desk jobs sound like idiots and I’d like to say what ol’ Wilson just said!” Some pages we might think “Man, dudes like Wilson DO bother me at the coffee shop.” Sometimes: Right on, WIlson! Sometimes: Aw, guys like Wilson just don’t understand that using the Internet doesn’t kill our souls. Maybe I have low standards or something, but I think this guy is fairly complicated and interesting, even if he’s not “dimensional” or “rounded” like uh Snoopy or Wolverine or Hägar the Horrible, or whatever the standard for Deeply Complex Comics Character is.

    I dunno that we have to “see” our personal “selves” in Wilson or Oscar the Grouch or Bud Abbott or whatever comedy-jerk character. We have to recognize a type of jerk. And it sounds to me like some peoples are denying a certain amount of Wilson-ness in themselves, and other peoples are baffling to me by not finding Wilson himself completely hilarious and a little endearing. He wouldn’t be in real life. He might inspire pity? Maybe? But I don’t wanna spend one single second with him in real life. But I don’t want to hang out with a single character in WATCHMEN or PULP FICTION or any Nabokov character but Pnin, or, uh, whatever. I do want to spend time with Wilson during WILSON, though. He’s funny because he just can’t help himself. He’s funny because he thinks he has it all figured out but has nothing figured out. He’s funny because he thinks he is the last living creature of intelligence and integrity, but he’s a goddamn mess. Those are recognizable human qualities that Clowes is cartooning into Wilson.

    “The Old Neighborhood” strikes a weird chord by placing this dickhead’s pain as the punchline to a Sunday comic, surely, but if one assumes this is a misfired attempt at pathos, I guess I’m a creep or idiot, because my reflexive response was to laugh long, loud and hard. See, it’s funny because the psychology is so naked and blunt, and Wilson thinks he’s smarter and cooler than this outburst. Also, jeez, the first law of humor is that all comedy is about pain. That’s a fact, Jack!

    I don’t see this “relentless pessimism” in Clowes. I don’t get it. His work isn’t that bleak, isn’t that angry, isn’t that depressing. It’s pretty, in that he works hard to make his comics intricate, ambitious, explore the mechanics of form, and to experiment. In that way, his comics are beautiful. They’re all extremely funny — even “Caricature”, even “Gynecology”, even “The Gold Mommy” — and there seems to be a concerted effort to entertain. Some cross-section of his characters may be misanthropes, miserable snots or buttheads, but their worldview is always problematized, made the subject of fun, judged from within the narrative or out.

    Tony Millionaire said this in an interview on the Fantagraphics blog, re: WILSON: “It’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. I love the switcheroo of styles all through the book, and I love the way you think at first that it’s just a collection of one-offs about an annoying loser who you can identify with because he’s blurting out all the things you’d blurt out but you didn’t want your ass kicked.”

    Ha ha! T-Mills gets it. There’s nothing wrong with seeing ourselves in Wilson, Enid, Random WIlder, or whatever Clowes protag is being called the worst human this week. They help us think about, celebrate, vent, or deal with our worst qualities.

  23. Greg Stump says:

    I liked the book, though I think it might read a little differently for a reader that’s familiar with Clowes’ entire body of work. Knowing Clowes’ penchant for anagrams (the name Enid Coleslaw from Ghost World has the exact same letters as the artist’s name) I took Wilson to be a truncated anagram of Daniel Clowes … perhaps this is a parody of who Clowes would’ve become in a world where he wound up alone. In that context I found the book pretty powerful, though I don’t see it as among his very best.

    Reading the more general critiques of Clowes’ work here, I guess I’m sympathetic to some of the points made in these posts. But when I step back and look at Clowes’ oeuvre, his various formal approaches and the way he’s continued to expand his own artistic vocabulary, I find it pretty astonishing.

  24. […] of Wilson, and I liked it, and I even got into a little debate about it in the comment section of Tim Hodler’s post, which is cool because, hey, I sometimes like Tim Hodler’s writing as much as those other […]

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