by Daniel Clowes
Drawn and Quarterly
When I initially heard that Woody Harrelson had been cast to play Wilson in Craig Johnson’s motion picture adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel Wilson, my brow more or less involuntarily furrowed over whether or not a Hollywood actor with the comedic timing of an inveterate stoner could nail Clowes’ nuanced characterisation of middle-aged negativism compellingly enough for me to become distracted from wondering why the fuck Clowes’ book — of all that remained of his unadapted bibliography [sic] — was being filmed in the first place. John Malkovich’s speechifying beaux arts lecturer was the only thing I could remember from the tone-deaf Art School Confidential; and Ghost World — despite its critical accolades — was possibly overshadowed by audiences far less interested in arthouse underdramatisations of middle-class North American late-teen neurosis (and significantly less knowledgeable apropos its post-underground comics provenance), perhaps owing its underperformance in ticket sales to an increasingly commercialised cineplex culture with the newly emergent and irresistible drawing power of cheap and plentiful CGI at its nucleus. In another respect, this was September 2001 after all, and — not to put too fine a point on it — endlessly looped footage of two commercial airliners destroying the World Trade Centre in New York kind of eclipsed a lot of things.
And now there’s Johnson’s Wilson, the box-office earnings of which amounted to just over a tenth of its budget — a figure that quantifies a whole lot of different things. What it shouldn’t lead you to infer is that the book upon which it is based didn’t fare any better with Clowes’ readers. Quite the contrary. Clowes’ wide acclaim for his work as an illustrator and graphic novelist is solid. And as a multiple Eisner and Harvey award-winning creator, announcements of forthcoming publications by the guy always cause a buzz among critics and followers. And in speaking of his oeuvre, it has to be emphasised that Wilson (the graphic novel, that is) ain’t no minor affair.
Clowes has forged another instantiation of an archetype that can be found all throughout his work, and the comparative ease with which he was reportedly able to hear Wilson’s voice doubtless places Wilson closer to being a mostly candid self-portrait of the artist as a middle aged man whose cynicism has left him spiritually exhausted, than it does to the earlier nihilist chic of Lloyd Llewellyn’s manic pseudo-political monologuist or Zubrick’s pessimistic and contemptuous shut-in. Trust me on this. I’ve read his corpus. And without going so far as to wax Freudian, it was anything other than an accident that Clowes’ succedent book — Patience — told a story about a younger man who travels back in time to save the woman he’d fallen in love with from being murdered. That kind of thematic volte-facesignifies some pretty serious existential shit in this writer’s opinion. And even though the polysyllable was predictably bandied about, Wilson’s frequent rhapsodies on the human condition make him anything but misanthropic. Rather, the character’s cardinal flaw is little more than a case of plain old hubris, and how holding yourself in such ridiculously high esteem without good reason is a proven way of alienating others. The book does begin, after all, with Wilson proclaiming, “I love people!” — with, of course, the exception of people who aren’t like him. It’s the logic of failure, basically. And in all of its dolefulness, it’s funny.
There’s a tragicomic timbre that’s basically synonymous with Clowes qua writer resonating in this book — and although it doesn’t seem as though there’s a hell of a lot left for Clowes to play in Wilson, that old dramaturgical binary is by far the most felt presence in nearly everything that he produces. In summa, it’s a masterpiece — and in many ways the coda to a season in the author’s life that commenced with Ice Haven and Mister Wonderful. And be that as it may, it still remains that — as is quite often the case with treasured book-to-film renderings — part of what gets corrupted in an imperceptive and/or recontextualised translation is the purity of the original response you had to the source material when you first encountered it. Again — trust me on this. I’m fucking sure of it.