Thursday, May 20, 2010

Clowes, Wilson, and Drama

The most obvious antecedent to the episodic structure of Wilson is the daily comic strip and its familiar "a few panels of setup followed by a panel with a punch line" format. But another influence, one that can account for some of what makes Wilson so strange, is the theater. Clowes has said he conceived of his previous comic, Mister Wonderful, as a "two-man play." This gave him a chance to play dramatist by trimming down his approach: in much of the story, two characters just sit and talk. In a recent interview, Clowes noted that theater was again on his mind as he worked on Wilson, a "one-man play" that develops theatrical conceits in ways that reveal some profound ambiguities of narrative practices present within comics.

Mister Wonderful used an expansive archive of comic techniques -- speech balloons, thought balloons, interior monologue boxes, fantasy scenes, flashbacks, and unusual formal approaches -- to give us access to Marshall’s thoughts and feelings:

But Wilson strips away nearly all of these devices, featuring only the present-tense image overlaid with the word balloon:

But "word balloon" isn’t quite right. Convention has taught us (or perhaps deceived us) that what appears within a word balloon is spoken. At a recent talk on Clowes’s book tour, an audience member asked if Wilson was speaking or thinking the text that appears in the balloons. "That’s a really good question," Clowes replied; "I’m not sure."

In Wilson, the balloon (it’s not quite right to call it a speech balloon when referring to Clowes’s work) has no single function -- sometimes it implies spoken text, other times thoughts, and elsewhere its meaning can’t be fixed: “I’m not sure.” Clowes is rarely schematic with these things. Just because a type of balloon functions a certain way in one strip doesn’t mean it works the same way (or needs to be interpreted the same way) in another.

Here’s where the dramatic conventions come in: In the traditional theatrical soliloquy a character speaks to no one. But a soliloquy is often interpreted as if it’s unspoken, as if it embodies the uncensored and most truthful thoughts of the character (Wilson is uncensored -- hostile to others and himself, for example -- in a way that most people are only in their heads). It is spoken, of course, because that’s the way to deliver thoughts on the stage. The book’s second strip (and many others) fit neatly into the soliloquy mode:

On this kind of page, Wilson, essentially alone on stage, speaks-thinks to himself; the balloon signifies speech and/or thoughts. But the soliloquy has another strange aspect. Even when other actors occupy the stage near the soliloquist, tradition suggests they simply do not hear him -- they act as if he isn’t talking (because in a way he’s not) or as if he isn’t there. Many of Wilson’s single-page "blackout gags" take this approach: he says awful (and awfully funny) things to people, yet his speech gets no reaction from them. In the vaudeville blackout gag, the theater’s lights are cut off immediately after the joke. There’s no reaction from other characters, only from the audience. And this often happens in Wilson: Clowes cuts the scene right after his hero speaks. The last two panels of "The Money":

A sense of Wilson as documenting ‘Wilson alone on stage’ is reinforced by his many phone conversations. He talks, but we never once hear the words of his interlocutors:

Throughout the comic, so much of the action is off-stage or off-page: these are the same thing in Wilson. Other characters begin to feel like props in the main character’s psychodrama -- they don't have quite the same "ontological" status as he does.

A few strips replicate the visual perspective of being in a theater: the static position of an audience member watching a play. The characters are drawn at the same size in each panel and are fully visible:


(Clowes discuses the above strip here.) There are no filmic shifts of perspective implying a moving camera or a mobile viewer; the scene is unedited, as it would be in a playhouse. And the panel border becomes an analogue for the proscenium arch, creating a frame that houses the actors and scenery -- the entirety of the fictional world available to the viewer.

--------------------------------------------
When I first wrote about Wilson a few weeks ago, I mentioned that one way to think about the strip was as a “dramatic monologue,” a poetic form connected to theatrical conventions. This discussion of the form may offer some ideas that can be applied to Wilson. . .

Also: Here's an odd "reaction shot"; perhaps the "inscrutable" Pippi's response to the always antagonistic Wilson appears as the image on the screen:

44 comments:

Anonymous said...

Totally off topic - but couldn't help but notice a Stuart Hample influence in that 'Kramer's' strip you posted (couldn't afford the book!). Do you know much about him - I was a big fan of his Woody Allen strip years ago.

Tim Hensley said...

Hello, Anonymous,
Listen to an interview with Stuart Hample here:
http://inkstuds.com/?p=2522
for more info...

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Your own stuff has been a very rewarding 'find' for this jaded comic reader! Excellent blog too - especially when you're unlocking that 'mystery' (the key to any great narrative) in Clowes.

Discordance said...

Something, perhaps subconscious, caused Clowes to draw what we would call "word balloons." In this act, perhaps Clowes demonstrated that Wilson is actually speaking--he just might not be consciously aware of it now! Either way, in the end, I think it definitely is a decision to make by each reader.

Oben Herris said...

Ken, I'm really enjoying your writing on Wilson. Most of the reviews of it on the internet haven't dug very deep but I found your description of the dialogue as a kind of theatrical "soliloquy" very interesting. I also thought of it being like following a 'gonzo-style' piece of investigative writing but with the reporter as a visible protagonist - if that makes any sense...
Anyway, looking forward to any more writing you may do on the book.

Ken Parille said...

Oben,

Thanks -- I'm not sure if I will write more on Wilson, though there is a lot more to say . . .

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Even when other actors occupy the stage near the soliloquist, tradition suggests they simply do not hear him-- they act as if he isn’t talking, Throughout the comic, so much of the action is off-stage or off-page: these are the same thing in Wilson.

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