Dan Clowes' Mister Wonderful graphic novel


Daniel Clowes' comic books are often about misfits. Ghost World was about a couple of teenage girl outcasts. Pussey was about an arrogant, self-deceiving cartoonist. The more recent Wilson (reviewed here) was about a lonely, unemployed, self-loathing, passive-aggressive sad-sack who goes through life making himself and the people around him miserable.

There's not a lot of action in a Clowes comic. His characters spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the poor decisions they've made that have caused them to have such miserable lives. You'd think these comics would be depressing to read. And truth be told, you'd be right. But it would be a mistake to pass them up, because they're also funny, poignant, and powerfully evocative.

Mister Wonderful, Clowes' latest graphic novel doesn't veer from familiar territory. It's about an out-of-work, out-of-money, divorced middle aged man named Marshall. The story starts in a café. Marshall sits at a table by himself, waiting for a blind date to meet him. He reflects on his failed romantic and social life, becoming increasingly agitated that his date isn't showing up. He starts drinking beer. By the time she shows up (her name is Natalie; she was late because she went to the wrong cafe; he thinks she's beautiful) Marshall is plastered. He has to urinate but is afraid to leave her because he "Musn't give her the chance to escape."

During the date, Marshall mentally torments himself about what to say, what he should and shouldn't disclose to Natalie, and how much he should stick to the truth. He immediately regrets almost everything he blurts out. His anxiety boils over when a homeless man enters the restaurant and walks up to their table and asks for a dollar. Mister Wonderful explodes at the homeless man, which alarms his date.

Soon after this incident, Clowes interrupts the main story with a two-page scene of the conversation taking place between the married couple who set Marshall and Natalie up on the date. We learn that they think that Marshall and Natalie are psychologically damaged, loose cannons.

The date ends with Marshall realizing the date was a flop, and he begins walking home filled with regret. But the story takes an unexpected turn, and the rest of the evening feels like a slightly less surreal version of the movie After Hours.

As a storyteller and artist Clowes is at his masterful best here. He makes judicious and creative use of comic book devices: three dimensional words to symbolize emotional distress; a little floating man to represent Marshall's superego; text in word balloons running off the side of a panel or obscured by inner-thought boxes; vignettes drawn in cartoony style to depict imagined consequences; flashbacks tinted a rusty orange. It's a pleasure to closely study Clowes technical chops. He's been at this game for a long time, and keeps getting better at what he does. There may be a few living graphic novelists as talented as Clowes, but in my opinion no one tops him.

Mister Wonderful