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July 4, 2010

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New twist on Clowes' US satire

SAY hello to Wilson, the eponymous hero of Daniel Clowes' latest novel - in comics. Perhaps he is a hero of our time. But if that phrase makes all you comp-lit majors think of Lermontov's Pechorin, think again: this haggard, middle-aged fellow is no dashingly depressive duelist or seducer. Wilson hectors people in coffee shops and hits on his ex-wife with sweet nothings like, "As you know, I certainly never minded a larger woman."

He is a rich mix of states and traits: lonely, alienated, obsessed with his dog and the mistakes of his past, unjustifiably smug, genuinely funny, nettlesome, under-handed, empathetic and always all too human. Does he stand for a generation, like Pechorin?

No, he stands for Wilson - a glorious swirl of confusion, hypocrisy and simple yearning. Wilson may seem like an everyman, but he is soaked in idiosyncrasy, and not necessarily the kind that leads to some imagined universal. Instead we get a flawed and conflicted individual, whose laments, even when tainted by ego, or maybe especially when tainted by ego, are deeply affecting.

The Daniel Clowes aesthetic, delivered through his numerous comics, album covers, book illustrations and film work, has made a distinctive impression on the culture.

Ever since his "Eightball" comics in the early 1990s and up through "Ghost World" and "David Boring," he has fashioned a singular style both from the drabness of America's midsize cities and towns and from the vital tradition of telling stories in panels, with pictures and words.

His novels, especially, come charged with a fearless satirical wit, an emotional depth and an often enthralling creepiness - not to mention a faint mad cackle whose source is not easily traceable but which provides extra texture and keeps sentimentality at bay.

Assembled in one-page vignettes with titles like "Haircut," "Fireside Chat" and "Mother," "Wilson" builds from clever character sketch to deadpan comedy to surprisingly forceful melodrama.


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