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).