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Monday, January 30, 2012

Review-a-Day for Mon, Sep 19: Mister Wonderful: A Love Story

by Daniel Clowes A review by James R. Fleming

In many respects Daniel Clowes's Mister Wonderful cannot be properly described as a graphic novel (Clowes, for the record, refers to the book simply as "a love story"). While the book is certainly what might broadly be defined as an "illustrated narrative" -- or what the less fussy among us still like to call a "comic book" -- it bears none of the standard structural or thematic hallmarks of a novel. The narrative is short and succinct, the perspective is limited to one character and focuses on one extended incident, and the story arrives at a rather definitive conclusion, hence the book can be best conceptualized not as a "novel" per se but as an illustrated short story. This is an important distinction to make, though one that is hardly offered in critical discussions and reviews of graphic narratives. The broad and often misleading term "graphic novel" is usually applied by publishers and reviewers to any sort of illustrated narrative that is published in book form, without consideration given to whether said work is in fact, truly a novel or not.

In terms of plot, Mister Wonderful's themes and ideas are pretty standard, if not downright familiar, especially to regular readers of Clowes's work. Clowes does not break any new thematic or psychological ground here; this is not an in-depth examination into the complexities of the protagonist's psyche or the nature of the world in which he lives. Mister Wonderful is simply about a day (or part of a day) in the life a regular guy named Marshall who falls for an imperfect girl and tries to handle their developing relationship in the best way he can. The story is limited, mostly, to the couple's first date and initial relationship crisis (which occurs in the middle of their first date).

It is in that very simplicity and relative familiarity that the story's originality and brilliance rests. Throughout all of his major works -- Ghost World, David Boring and Wilson, in particular -- Clowes presents us with common eccentrics, temper-cases, and weirdos. He is, at his best, a chronicler of everyday oddballs and pains in the ass, much like the great -- and vastly under-appreciated -- fiction writer Stephen Dixon (Clowes's protagonists, though, tend to lack the acerbic wit, intelligence and intrinsic solipsism of Dixon's protagonists). However, in Mister Wonderful in particular, Clowes offers his protagonists just as they are without celebrating or, for that matter, apologizing or advocating on their behalf. There is a certain humility that shines through this book far more so than in Clowes's other works, a quiet willingness on Clowes's part not to over do it or show off his own intelligence, to let his protagonist speak for himself without direct authorial intervention or judgment.

Clowes's art is as clear, clean, and visceral as ever in Mister Wonderful; not a single panel, line or splash of color is wasted. Instead his drawings work in seamless conjunction with his narrative by informing, supporting and enforcing the story itself. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Clowes manages to avoid packing his drawings with an overwhelming amount of superfluous details and "Easter eggs" that would serve to distract our attention from the essence of the story itself.

Mister Wonderful might ultimately be understood as a thematic companion piece -- and even counterpoint -- to his previous book, Wilson. Taken together, the books offer two radically different possibilities for two rather miserable and self-doubting people. However, while Wilson serves as a study in misery and borderline sociopathy and concludes on a decidedly stark and pessimistic note, Mister Wonderful is instead a rather hopeful consideration of a man who looks for love and finds it, if in a somewhat imperfect and problematic form. While Wilson is unable and unwilling to find satisfaction in any relationship he engages in or to recognize and attempt to reconcile his own personality deficits and psychoses, Marshall is able to realize his own faults and foibles, to accept both himself and, by extension, the imperfect love he comes to find.

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