The first thing you notice about Dan Clowes’ Wilson is the novelty of its cover: it’s agreeably thick and tactile; your fingers stick, froglike, to its glossy white surface. It carries bright colors, playful fonts, and a pleasing minimalism. If it weren’t for the rumpled, worried-looking stranger staring out at us, we could be holding an old-school children’s book, something involving unicorns or Masters of the Universe.
It was a savvy decision for Clowes and his publisher, as what lies inside fairly reeks of poison. Each page of the book holds a separate cartoon (“Post Office”, “Taxi Cab”, “Back Home”) centered on the title character—a judgmental, strangely jobless prick with nothing to offer beyond petulant rants about the failing world around him. There’s a distinct feeling of wheel-spinning early on, with most of the tableaux following the same noxious pattern: Wilson angrily sounds off on one subject or another (“Christ, look at this stupid asshole in his ridiculous truck”), holds silent for a pause, then blurts an irritated kicker. The combination of the single-cartoon format, combined with Clowes’ bubble-gum colors and wide-ranging styles, makes things readable enough—but the product feels thin against Eightball’s layered depth.
The promise of redemption, or at least a true reason to read on, comes a quarter of the way in with “Bad News”—in which Wilson learns that his father has days to live. The jagged arc that ensues expands the book, as our antihero, no longer lashing out at dull passersby, finds himself interacting with relatives he’s long since cast aside. He’s still disgusting and mean, but in dealing with the vagaries of family, aging, and loss, we can identify with him, if only a little. The cartoons pass and the narrative builds, and all the while, so does a sense that all this pain, all this unfiltered hate, had better be worth it—for this pathetic character and for ourselves. And miraculously, on the very last page, Clowes reminds us of his virtuosity by making it so. He ends this scowling, trapped-animal story on an unexpected grace note, sends us out with raised eyebrows. Wilson, now faded and forgotten, isn’t necessarily redeemed by the ending his creator has chosen—but Wilson certainly is.