:: Article

Beautiful Creatures

By Max Dunbar.


Wilson, Daniel Clowes, Cape 2010

The artist Harvey Pekar, who sadly died this week, rejected the mundane superheroism of comic book tradition to write about adventures in urban reality and working-class grind. The film of American Splendour shows Pekar trick-or-treating with childhood friends. While the other boys are dressed as WonderWoman or Spiderman, he wears no costume; when asked by a grownup what he is supposed to be, Pekar replies indignantly: ‘I’m Harvey Pekar!’

His contemporary, the legendary Robert Crumb, tore up the Comics Code which at its height acted as censor and regulator for the industry: 1950s highlights include the decrees that ‘If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity’, ‘Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed’, and (most damningly for Crumb) ‘Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.’ The protagonist of Daniel Clowes’s Wilson takes apart the latest Batman movie:

It’s the same as religion, or patriotism… they’re all things that give the lowest among us – the dull-witted, the unattractive, the indigent – a false sense of importance or ‘specialness’. ‘I live in the best country!’ ‘I’m going to live forever in heaven!’ ‘I’ve got super powers!’

Yet the Comics Code haunts today’s graphic novelists. In Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Corrigan’s mother sleeps with a Superman impersonator and the caped crusader in his old girl’s bed becomes for Jimmy a poignant symbol of the father who walked out on him.

‘I’m a people person,’ Wilson says on the first page. This middle-aged loner enlivens his days in suburban California by striking up conversations with people at random and then gratituously insulting them. Over the following panels Wilson asks a woman how her day’s going, then interrupts her talk of IT problems by bellowing: ‘For the love of Christ, don’t you ever shut up?’

Clowes made his name with Ghost World, a small town tale featuring the volatile teenager Enid Coleslaw, and her slightly more conventional friend Rebecca. Clowes also scripted the film, which if anything improved on the text – in fact offhand I can’t think of a better movie. For Enid life is a war against the nouveau-twee, the mediocre and the sludge of normality. She reacts to her world of ludicrous college art projects, personal ads and mock-1950s diners with hate and contempt. Yet there is an idealism to Enid’s character that transcends mere alienation and misanthropy. Clowes described his remarkable protagonist in Salon:

She’s trapped in this world of very limited consumer choice. She doesn’t want to pick Pepsi or Coke; she wants some weird soda that she’s never heard of. She has a bigger imagination than what she’s offered.

Similarly, Ghost World in both book and motion picture contained a sense of sadness and hope that shivers down your arms and is impossible to put into words.

Wilson’s world is drawn in varying degrees of detail, like a shot going in and out of focus. His Oakland is a backdrop of empty sidewalks and closed-down bookstores, and his hair thins by the page. Wilson’s dad dies and his ex commits suicide. Yet his story doesn’t have the same terrifying loneliness of Jimmy Corrigan’s. Wilson isn’t hanging on in quiet desperation; he’ll do as he pleases, and say what he thinks: at his father’s deathbed, he rebukes the friendly nurse with ‘This man is a tenured professor with a doctorate in comp lit from Columbia, so in the future please keep the condescending bullshit to yourself, you fat idiot!’

There’s a narrative of sorts between the one-page sketches. Wilson’s bereavement forces him into a mid-life crisis – which like most crises is also an opportunity. He tracks down his ex-wife and kidnaps the daughter that she put up for adoption. The daughter has been raised by a rich, stable family and has naturally grown into a bitter, isolated teen. Asked to come to church by her uncle, Claire tells him: ‘I fucking hate all religion.’ Beaming with pride, Wilson declares: ‘From the mouths of babes, eh, Will?’

However deep Clowes goes into middle-aged hell, he can’t quite shake off the essential optimism that characterises everything he draws. Thus, Wilson jumps up and down in an almost deserted cafe shouting: ‘I am a beautiful creature! I’m a living monument to nature’s genius! I’m alive and breathing and strong!’ When you get old, Wilson says: ‘a hot shower, the crunching of leaves – shit like that becomes pretty important all of a sudden.’ Daniel Clowes loves his monsters. His talent lies in getting us to love them too.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 13th, 2010.