Category Archives: Graphic novel

Empty promises, or how ironic narratives leave something to be desired: Daniel Clowes’ Mister Wonderful

Reviewed by Matthew Zantingh

“What’s happened to civilization? When did it become okay for non-crazy people to babble their personal nonsense in public?”

–          Daniel Clowes Ice Haven (9)

In a somewhat ironic way, Marshall, the middle-aged main character of Daniel Clowes’ 2011 graphic novel Mister Wonderful, thinks these lines while waiting for a blind date at a cafe.

While intended as a barb against a obnoxiously loud man on his cell-phone, I believe the comment also applies to the book more generally. Mister Wonderful is Clowes’ latest offering in a series of ironic takes on modern life, often using a detached narrator who offers any number of comments on their own life and the events of it. This is evident in Clowes’ 1997 book Ghost World, which was also adapted into a successful and quite good 2001 film starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as two quirky and ironic friends commenting on the smallness of life in an unnamed American city. Similar to my co-curator, Joe, I really want to like Daniel Clowes and his work. I thought Ghost World was amazing and intelligent on so many levels while Ice Haven, a Rashomon-like tale of a child gone missing in the eponymous town, ventures into some interesting technical grounds of story-telling even if the narrative seems to lack an emotional core. With Mister Wonderful, I was reminded of both Clowes’ technical brilliance in terms of the artwork and Clowes’ use of space but also of the possibility of certain narrative techniques growing stale. Mister Wonderful left me feeling empty and vacuous as if Clowes didn’t really want us to connect with his characters on any kind of emotional level other than mild annoyance and instead wanted to demonstrate his cleverness with the sequential art-form. I’ll begin with a quick review of the narrative along with some panels before I look at some his technical mastery and end with some comments on his mode of story-telling.

In Mister Wonderful, Clowes turns his attention to Marshall, a middle-aged divorcee on a blind date with Natalie, who spends most of the narrative neurotically obsessing over how the date is going, what future he and Natalie might have together, how what he just said is idiotic, what other people are doing to mess up his chances, and so on. In many ways, this obsessive interior monologue is both revealing of the human consciousness, who hasn’t thought about all the things that are going wrong while on a first date, and incredibly irritating at the same time. At a certain point, I kept thinking “Okay, I get it, this guy has problems, let’s move on with the story.” Case in point, the panel below:

In these panels, I wanted to know what Natalie was saying. Was it an interesting conversation they were having or the quite of mundane first-date material that everyone goes through in a kind of half-hearted manner? How about this panel below:

Yes, I’m interested in the kind of self-defeating and masochistic conversations that Marshall is having. But Natalie is an intriguingly damaged character who has just revisited her old friends after a nasty break-up with a long-time lover. Marshall has unwittingly just met this man and will later confront him. In this scene, he revisits (again) how best to proceed on the date. He is clearly interested in Natalie but his own tendency to self-effacement is working against him. This may be exactly what Clowes wants to leave us with, but I’m bothered by the kind of rich material that he displays only to take it away. I won’t reveal the ending, but I will say that I didn’t buy it. It gestured toward the heart-felt, perhaps even trying to be genuinely poignant in a world of cheap and easy relationships, yet the weight of the ironic, detached narration deflated this scene for me.

Turning to Clowes’ technical brilliance, Mister Wonderful is incredible for the way that Clowes makes use of a very awkwardly shaped book. The book is roughly 17 inches long but only 6 inches wide so that Clowes can only incorporate two horizontal rows on each page. With these dimensions in mind, the narrative becomes a running reel of tedium as if Marshall’s story is but one of many. In some ways, the page setup also resembles a length of movie film running out before you. Perhaps this is a fanciful reading, but I’m convinced that Clowes himself intentionally chose these dimensions. While he may not have had the tedium in mind, he did have in mind using the entire page to produce some exceptional panels.

This panel expresses Marshall’s reaction to Natalie’s entrance. To my mind, this is a prime example of a story-teller showing his audience what is happening rather than telling it as an inferior writer might. Marshall’s eyes stare out at you in a kind of awkward and magnificent encounter that highlights Clowes’ ability. Another example of this incredible use of space can be found later:

You can feel the pathos emanating from the page as Marshall’s date has ended and he is feeling dejected. This was one of those moments that I felt like Clowes really had some incredible material. Moving towards the tedium again, he gives us these four panels:

It’s not entirely clear which words Marshall actually says to Natalie after a homeless man interrupted their dinner. That doesn’t seem to be the point though as Clowes illustrates the kind of ridiculous things we will say when we are nervous. The panels also seem to nod in Andy Warhol’s direction with its pop-art styling of the same image over multiple channels while making ostensibly superficial chances (in this case the background colours and Marshall’s words).

Returning to Natalie, I was really attached to her as a character. This may be a result of Clowes’ work in filling out her details of her former relationship.

Visually, these panels exemplify the way that certain issues can dominate a relationship, so that an innocuous laugh becomes the literal elephant in Natalie’s room. Natalie is just as damaged as Marshall, yet she seems more sincere. Access to Marshall’s inner thoughts makes him seem neurotic and over-bearing whereas Natalie comes across as a shattered individual who has the possibility of recovery. In a way, I wanted Clowes to take off the kind of ironic-detached mask, but he doesn’t.

To my mind, this kind of story-telling has had its moment. It worked in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it seems to be dated now. Perhaps this is a side-effect of graduate school and the insistent cynicism bred into me by academia. I no longer want the detachment or cynical view of life, but instead want genuine characters engaging in real relationships. I don’t want the overt ironic comment on the sentimentality of human beings or the cynical overtones filtering into romantic dates. It seems to me that this mode of story-telling is connected to post-modernism even if I am hesitant to make this claim. The undercutting of any master narrative means that the “grand” narrative of human love itself loses traction, producing a glut of parodic and self-reflexive narratives like Mister Wonderful. While these are useful and productive in many ways, I feel like they lack an emotional care, leaving me wondering why I even bothered to read them in the first place. I’m not advocating a return to Leo Tolstoy-esque narratives (of 600 page epics), I do want some form of sincerity or affect from the things I read. There’s a way in which I admire what Clowes is doing, even seeing how the kind of ironic, detached position is necessary in a high-speed, low-contact celebrity culture where fashions and aesthetics change from day-to-day; and yet at the same time, I can’t help but feel that something is lacking in this book, some kind of emotional attachment to the narrative being told so that by book’s end you don’t feel anything at all (perhaps this is his greatest artistic achievement).

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With Great Power Comes Something or Other: Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray

Reviewed by Joseph Frank

I want to be a fan of Daniel Clowes’s comics. In some ways, I am; in many others, I am not. I figured this out after approaching his work with acceptance and dispassion. Clowes has won multiple Harvey awards for writing and illustrating, a 2007 PEN award for Graphic Literature, and he’s been involved with more than one well-received film adaptation of his work. How could I not love such a celebrated artist? And indeed, there is much about his work I do admire, aspects which, on the aesthetic level, are beyond expert, are masterful. Mostly, my praise of Clowes’s art is for his uncannily simple but altogether unsettling illustration style. Narratively, however, I suspect Mr. Clowes and I would find much to disagree over.

Maybe the mistake is mine. I skipped his entire early bibliography. I have never read Ghost World, nor have I seen the 2001 film adaptation directed by Terry Zwigoff and starring Thora Birch with Scarlett Johansson. I’ve not read David Boring or Ice Haven or Wilson – one of Amazon.com’s nine Best Books of April 2010 – or Mister Wonderful: A Love Story. Rather, I jumped into the Daniel Clowes library at the point of its most recent addition: The Death-Ray. I was, after all, raised on Marvel comics and Spider-Man, and so how could I resist the aesthetic homage Clowes pays to Peter Parker’s iconic alter-ego?

The Death-Ray follows the life-story of a painfully banal teenager named Andy whose biography generally reflects that of Peter Parker: Andy’s parents are dead, he lives with an elderly relative (his Pappy), he is a high-schooler, an outcast, a pitiful romantic, the friend of a homely misfit, unpopular, morally adrift, and easily influenced.

When Andy experiments with smoking cigarettes his experience is much of what you would expect. He feels pretty cool next to his pal Louie, and then he vomits. That night, Andy wakes at 5 a.m., “groggy, but filled with superhuman energy” (9). He can hear the sounds inside his body, the blood in his arteries, and he is filled with absolute confidence that he’s able to do anything. Indeed, he effortlessly rips a copy of Homer’s Odyssey in two the way strongmen rip phone books in half – thick-wise. Outside, he lifts the rear of a car off the ground. The next day he proves his strength again, this time at school and to save Louie from a bully. He inherits a mysterious death ray left by his deceased father, who had been a scientist and is the person who genetically modified Andy to have such a reaction to nicotine – similarly, only Andy is able to activate the death ray; in the hands of others it may as well be a water pistol. And though Andy and Louie share visions of heroic grandeur, this is where Clowes departs from Stan Lee’s Spider-Man. This departure is, I argue, the narrative’s strong premise but also it weakness.

It’s relatively well-known that the iconic comic book impresario Stan Lee created Peter Parker/Spider-Man with one concern in mind: to imagine a superhero with whom real teenagers could identify. What would such a character be like? In 1962, Lee’s answer was Peter Parker, an intelligent but ostracized adolescent, insecure, awkward, and lacking physical prowess, opposite the Supermen and Batmen who dominate the super hero genre and comic book medium. The plot thereafter is familiar: Peter Parker develops superhuman abilities following a bite from a radio-activated spider. He dons a mask and flashy tights, and following the murder of his Uncle Ben – a murder Peter could have stopped before it occurred – he vows to follow his uncle’s insight that with great power comes great responsibility. Spider-Man becomes an ostracized hero but a hero nonetheless, saving New Yorkers time and again from threats common and outstanding.

The problem with Lee’s vision is this: as decades passed and his adventures advanced, Peter Parker’s life eventually became more and more epic and thus more and more difficult to identify with. Perhaps, even, Lee’s vision to relate to the true teenage experience failed as soon as Parker adopted his uncle’s advice as his mission and became noble. True teenagers, the antithesis goes, are rarely so devotedly noble. How often do we think of teenagers and responsibility as co-existent? And more departures from the reality of banal adolescence developed gradually. Over time, Peter became better looking. He developed bigger muscles. He became more hip. He moved out of his elderly aunt’s house and into a Manhattan apartment (a setting at least marginally admirable no matter how drab). Following the death of his first true love, Gwen Stacey, Parker’s regular girlfriend and eventual wife became the busty red-headed vixen Mary-Jane Watson who, as she and Peter grew into adulthood, herself became a world-famous lingerie and swimsuit model. (Particular storylines differ per exact title – “Amazing…,” “Spectacular…,” et cetera – but the above is how I, a fervent Spider-Man fan through the ‘80s and 90s, recall the general and most popular plots.)

Well, The Death-Ray cries foul. Sagacity holds no place in the real world of most middle-brow North American teenagers (except, maybe, in their imaginations and sexual fantasies). Where Peter Parker’s sagacious rise to responsibility over power defines the Spider-Man books, Clowes’s main character Andy’s naïve ineptitude to rise to the occasion of his own great power, stumbling instead amid the countless pitfalls of teenage hubris, distinguishes The Death-Ray. ‘This,’ Clowes seems to announce, ‘is how it would really play out.’ And so Andy is pathetic, dim-witted, lazy, neurotic, selfish, and aimless, and then he becomes superpowered and with those powers he is pathetic, dim-witted, lazy, neurotic, selfish, and aimless.

Imagine if Stan Lee had handed the writing responsibilities of Spider-Man and a bottle of Johnny Walker to Raymond Carver and told him to get angry, then finish what Lee had started. The result would have been something like The Death-Ray. But only sort of. Because Clowes keeps going, writing as though Carver then mashed the manuscript into the hands of David Eggers, and this is where he loses me.

It may be a question of what narrative technique an author may use in an effort to control and even return the reaches of magic realism’s potential to realism. Or it may be that Clowes’s style is simply a product of its time and literary atmosphere. Either way, The Death-Ray becomes clunky and pedestrian and, after about the halfway mark, it becomes laborious to complete if only because this reader is impressed by fantastic illustrations for so long before quickly losing patience for whiny narrators who refuse shut up about how shitty everything has turned out. How does this come about? I blame it on what the literary critic James Wood calls magic realism’s next stop: “hysterical realism…characterised by a fear of silence. This kind of realism is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity…[bouncing] around in [a] false zaniness.” (“Tell Me How Does it Feel” http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/oct/06/fiction).

Like many writers of his generation, Clowes mistakes dry wit as well as cynical and silly zigzagging between disparate scenes for character study. The book unfolds in thirty-three chapters, including monochromatic depictions of Andy as a grown man and divorcee living in a basement apartment (as if Clowes devised an algebraic equation for the concise depiction of a grown man in the pits of the pitiable), a section titled “What Do You Think of Andy?” in which a series of one-off characters offer their opinions of the protagonist, and letters written by Andy to his estranged sweetheart through which his naiveté is made painfully obvious (Dusty, the girlfriend in California, clearly does not long for Andy as deeply as he longs for her). The book’s paper-thin conclusion is a “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Why? I just don’t understand and I’m saddened by what I perceive not to be a moment of narratological deconstruction but, in fact, an utter copout. This strange velocity, to use Wood’s word, is off-putting. Nowhere does one moment of story linger long enough, or shut up long enough, to allow the reader a clear view of Andy. Rather, the hysteria of The Death-Ray distracts. While it may be intended that each little vignette brings us closer to the study of Andy’s character, what results is an alienating collage of relentlessly mediocre and tediusly neurotic soliloquys about misanthropic self-absorption and moral malaise. I expect someone, somewhere, has called The Death-Ray introspective. But it’s the opposite. The Death-Ray is whiny. And narratologically, the reader is handed a lot of vapid noise.

On the level of the illustrations, the paneling is equally frenetic, often devoid of sequential lucidity – another instance of hysteria. But I can find no wrong, on the most basic level, with Clowes’ ability to draw, if that offers some redemption. He’s clearly a master illustrator and the purveyor of a unique aesthetic. But as with Clowes’ much-celebrated colleague Chris Ware, as well as novelists like the late David Foster Wallace and the aforementioned David Eggers, even ample evidence of outstanding talent is, to my mind, powerless against ceaseless tedium and false zaniness. I just can’t do it. Shouldn’t a story’s story trump post-postmodern gimmickry?

I suppose I should recoup and then, with renewed dispassion, revisit the work of Daniel Clowes. The Comic’s Journal discussion forum on The Death-Ray suggests this book bears more worth appreciating than I’m able to see, as yet, and so I suppose there are depths within this story to investigate further and to appreciate. Indeed, I do like his illustrations so much that I want to like more than just his illustrations. And can so many awards be wrong? What I need is some time. I put the book down feeling like I just smoked my first cigarette: nauseas, dizzy, as though it wasn’t worth it. But I can’t rip a book in half yet (I tried, and adding to the difficulty is the fact that The Death-Ray is hardcover). Until I feel well again I’m going to read some Spider-Man. Maybe this stuff works for some people, but with The Death-Ray in my hands, I may as well be Andy’s pal Louie, gripping the ray gun, aiming it, and pulling the trigger to find that though it looks cool nothing happens.

From here to there and back: James Sturm’s Market Day

review by Matthew Zantingh

James Sturm’s Market Day is about a journey that occurs on two levels: an exterior or surface level relating to the events of the protagonist Mendleman’s market day, and on a second interior level as a sort of ongoing interior monologue. Mendleman, travels from his small rural village somewhere in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century to the market to sell his rugs, but discovers, on arrival, that he no longer has a buyer for his highly crafted wares. Mendleman must now find a new buyer for his rugs, an experience that induces a deep crisis of identity and faith in him. Surrounding and complicating this plot is his wife’s pregnancy and the imminent arrival of their child, a fact which Mendleman himself struggles with throughout the narrative.

At the core of the novel is Mendleman’s crisis of identity. The loss of his purchaser who, in Mendleman’s words “encouraged [him] to build a house of cards” becomes a catalyst for the gradual unveiling of the world as a shifting and precarious place. This crisis is beautifully illustrated by Sturm’s pictorial narrative style. This novel is heavily introspective as Mendleman engages in relatively little dialogue with other characters, but is constantly narrating his life to himself, and the reader. Early on in the narrative, as he journeys to the market, he imagines how he might create a rug from the first hints of dawn.

He does this again in the market, creating visually simple panels that mimic a rug’s aesthetic. At the same time, the process of refining or removing extraneous bits doesn’t dilute the scene’s meaning but amplifies it instead.

These two panels become a wealth of symbolic meaning with the market-goers becoming animated and mysterious figures in an epic drama of life and death.

Moreover, in this panel and others, readers sense a deep sense of the divine or spiritual animating Mendleman’s world. The hooded figures in the bottom left panel suggest hooded monks, ascetics walking towards a lone lighted door. Mendleman’s Jewish faith is part and parcel of his worldview. A fortune teller later tells Mendleman “God will reveal himself to you through your work.” Mendleman’s response is to state “For one who believes it is possible to weave the nuances of man and nature into a rug, accepting that God etches one’s future into the palm of your hand seems reasonable.” While Mendleman is able to entertain these thoughts in the first portion of the narrative, his dismay at the changing dynamics of the marketplace cause an abrupt change in his beliefs. Sturm illustrates how larger cultural forces like faith, art, and industry collide in the marketplace, producing a liminal space where Mendleman`s crisis begins.

Throughout, Sturm’s book itself operates as a Dante-esque journey into the underworld or purgatory. Mendleman’s trip to the market is revealed not as a saving journey but as one which forces him into humiliation and shame at the hands of the encroaching capitalist marketplace. Mendleman imagines Suzkin’s Emporium as a heavenly place that will free him of his burden of rugs after hearing of it from a friend, but when he arrives he is struck speechless by its vastness and variety of items. He is astounded by the ability of an industrialising world to produce vast amounts of goods at such a low cost that his own work is devalued. It acts a surreal space for Mendleman’s final epiphany concerning his trade. Afterwards, he literally enters the dark night of the soul as the panels become empty of people and coloured with a very dark palette of greys, browns and black.

I believe it is in these visually spare panels that Sturm really excels.The picture itself does not do justice to Sturm’s subtle work with such a dark palette.

Mendleman’s story on a narrative level is not the most engaging material for 21st century readers nor is it that original. In fact, from a certain remove the story itself leans toward a fatalistic view of capitalism, and while the story`s ending offers at least a glimpse of hope for Mendleman, it does not do so for readers. Yet there is real strength in Sturm’s artistry as gives Mendleman a surprising depth and complexity of character. The interspersed portraits and picturesque panels force readers to slow down and really take in the fullness of Mendleman’s journey. They are pauses in the narrative momentum that cause readers to read significance into the minutea of each picture.

In this panel, for instance, Mendleman is not the focus at all, but the two wood cutters in the foreground are. We realize that Mendleman’s problem is not a unique problem for the people of this novel. Instead, it is a problem that all of the sellers, merchants, and artisans of the marketplace face. This is where Sturm’s book is a timely publication in our own moment when our world seems to have sunk deeper into the myriad problems of capitalistic production. Sturm’s narrative points to the human and human communities as an alternative place or lens through which address such problems.

Looking at the story visually, Sturm’s spare lines belie the complexity of the narrative itself. Using clean lines and a realist style, Sturm’s narrative is easy to follow and visually appealing in a way that easily obscures the twists and turns of the narrative. This is not a graphic novel to read in a hurry, but one which should be read slowly and with care. On subsequent re-reads, I found myself taken by Sturm’s ability to keep the narrative moving while also offering absorbing images in the process. Mendleman’s journey to the market, an event that could be achieved in one panel, instead takes 11 panels. Yet, I never felt like Sturm was simply stretching out the narrative, but rather modelling the narrative pace on the length of Mendleman’s journey. The entire novel conveys a sense of the everyday rhythms of life for Mendleman, even though this journey is not a usual day for him, we get a sense of lower-class life in this novel.

If you enjoy meditative or introspective narratives, then I would recommend this graphic novel. However, if you enjoy fast paced, action-filled narratives, this may not suit your taste. To a certain degree, Sturm’s work is a realist production: it is interested in the everyday realities of the common person yet also interested in the larger social forces which structure their lives. Yet the synergy between text and image produces a multi-layered narrative that is compelling and moving.Part of Market Day’s appeal is its ability to return us at the end of the story, to the place where we began. However, we return with a very different view than when we left, one that is altered and shaped by Mendleman’s experience. Like a prodigal child, we return and find the place we left comfortable, but above all, homely and welcoming.