Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Few Ways to Think about Style in Wilson

When you open Daniel Clowes's Wilson, the end-papers suggest what becomes clear as you read further: there are as many Wilsons as there are cartooning styles in the comic.
Here’s are some of the ways you could “read” Clowes’s approach in his new graphic novel [spoiler-free commentary].

1. Each style represents/suggests how Wilson thinks/feels about himself in that scene.

2. Each style represents or evokes how the narrator feels towards Wilson on that page -- different styles can encode differing degrees of sympathy; an important part of the story is how the narrator feels about his protagonist.

3. Each style represents how other characters within the fictional world of a given scene (the notion of setting is necessarily unstable in a multi-style comic) would or might “see,” and perhaps, judge Wilson.

4. Each page represents specific traits of Wilson’s “physical-emotional portrait” that the author/narrator wants us to focus on in that scene.

5. Wilson is a moody guy -- so the styles evoke/play off of his differing moods in an intuitive way. As Mr. Ames from Clowes's Ice Haven might argue, “There is no translatable content contained within each style: it is simply an aesthetic mood, and therefore is beyond the ability of words to characterize it.” Perhaps the styles are not about anything -- rather they create a visual rhythm, a kind of plot that overlaps and diverges from the narrative plot.

6. It is as if Clowes has farmed out the pages of Wilson to a host of carefully selected “ghost” cartoonists, whose approaches are suited to the scene in the story they draw. Each style evokes the specific interests of a different narrator, who -- naturally -- would not describe Wilson and his world with the lines and cartooning language used by others -- just as, given the same plot, a group of writers would all produce something dissimilar.

7. Taken together, the shifting styles represent the inaccessibility of the real Wilson. As with the endpapers, which signature -- which face, which style -- is really his, or Clowes's?

8. Despite all of the styles, there's only one Wilson -- it’s the familiar paradox of identity: we are constantly shifting in our affect (our style of the moment), yet somehow stable in our “essence.”

9. The drawing styles are less significant than the shifting approaches to coloring: Wilson is a kind of “dramatic monologue” played out in a series of changing visual looks/moods defined largely by Clowes’s color palette on that page. You are supposed to ‘feel’ color and or style rather than ‘see’ and then translate them.

10. Many novels pretend that a person can be fully known and understood by another person -- such novels narrate the words, actions, thoughts, and feelings of a character with a great sense of certainty: “She thought this.” -- “She felt that.” -- "She was that." But thoughts and feelings are muddy and murky: who can ever fully know their own mind, let alone that of another? The styles of Wilson represent a refusal to participate in the lie of certainty and consistency -- in place of such assurance Wilson substitutes a series of beautifully executed styles that give us an honest, and therefore incomplete, portrait of a compelling character . . .

11. Mix and match any of the above: use whatever one seems appropiate for a given page and/or reject them all.


allen mez said...

Very astute analysis of Clowes's new work. I can't wait to get it Ken. Thanks.

Ken Parille said...


Thanks -- It's a great book.

Frank Santoro said...

Been thinking about the name "Wilson"

-"Wilson" is the name given to the main character as he assumes a new identity in John Frankenheimer's 1966 film

-"Mr. Wilson" from Dennis the Menace

-"Wilson" is the name of a baseball goods manufacturer

Frank Santoro said...

oops, the 1966 Frankenheimer movie is called "Seconds". The main character becomes "Wilson".

Frank Santoro said...

I forgot about "Home Improvement"

Mr. Spurgeon kindly reminded me.

Alvin Buenaventura said...

"Wilson" is also a partial anagram from the author's name like "Enid".

Matthew_Haskett said...

Most the art is definitely a cryptic way of hiding Wilson's identity rather than some of the more accessible means utilized in Ice Haven. Wilson is equal parts enabler and social commentator--the product being utter hilarity.

Anonymous said...

Saw Dan's talk in DC -- a lot of fun.

Ken P