DANIEL CLOWES: the cringe binge

(Rick Kleffel)

“…this character just started yelling at me from my sketchbook…”

Daniel Clowes

Daniel Clowes strikes me as the sort of writer who might have made a great spy—or psychologist. He has a very low-key demeanor, but when he speaks he has an easy air of authority. It comes naturally to him because he knows his subjects well—the people he writes about in his graphic novels, from ‘Daniel Boring’ to ‘Mister Wonderful.’ But it’s more than just knowing people that makes a writer worth reading. Clowes is one of the best of our writers, one who cares deeply about his characters, even when they’re so flawed they make readers uncomfortable.

In a graphic novel, art allows the writer to be amazingly economical with storytelling technique. Clowes is a master of characterization and storytelling using both words and art, and we talked about the writing and the art he uses to create his characters, in particular Wilson as well as Marshall, the star of ‘Mister Wonderful.’

Clowes is a generous artist when it comes to talking about what he does, and he told me lots of things he might have left unsaid. He talked about the differences in his writing process for graphic novels and his movie adaptations, in particular ‘Ghost World,’ which won him an Oscar. You can hear his acceptance speech by following this link to the MP3 audio file.

And here is an interview on video:


Rick Kleffel’s review of Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes

The Cringe Binge

We adore embarrassment, so long as it is not our own. Those who make us uncomfortable, whose misfortunes are so overwhelming as to inspire laughter instead of tears, are beacons of hope to anyone with anything left to lose. But it takes a consummate artist to create losers we love.

Daniel Clowes has proved time and again that he is just such an artist— a graphic artist whose unique stories combine a seemingly simple visual style with a sophisticated psychological understanding. In his latest work, divorced, 40-something Marshall is set up on a blind date. What could go wrong? The result lives up to the title, ‘Mister Wonderful,’ a pitch-perfect combination of poignant and painful.

Like most brilliant writers, Clowes makes it all look very easy, so easy the reader must slow down to understand all the complicated effects that go into the story. Visually, his cartooning style is very simple, but the details are telling and powerful. He manages, with a few brief strokes, to use an abbreviated technique that creates a hyper-realistic texture. The reader feels right at home in his bars, diners, and city streets. When he adopts a more impressionistic feel, the results are powerful.

As in most of his recent work, character is king in ‘Mister Wonderful.’ Marshall is a powerfully realized character precisely because the story that unfolds is so everyday, so lose-lose. From the very first frame, the tension is high, as we wonder if Marshall’s date will show, or worse, if she will show up and be unpalatable even to Marshall. What follows is a comedy of small-scale urban terrors, the kind of things we’re all scared will happen to us precisely because we know we can and will live through them.

Marshall is nicely balanced by his blind date Natalie. Marshall starts off a bundle of nerves whose internal monologues blot out the words of those around him, including Natalie. She seems so nice, and Clowes draws her as attractive. But as the story evolves, we learn that she may indeed be an appropriate date for Marshall. This does not bode well for Marshall, Natalie, or their date.

Clowes keeps his plot in concert with the visuals; it’s brisk and sparse. There are just enough details to ensure the we are immersed in the reality that Clowes is giving the readers, but not so many as to overwhelm story and character. The bad party, and the other entertaining events that accost our unfortunate couple seem like the sort of ill luck that the Marshalls of this world manage to draw to themselves with little or no effort. He even gives us a welcome glimpse of the couple who set up Natalie and Marshall. It’s a great perspective and perfectly in keeping with the low-key nature of Clowes’ world.

Clowes is a clever writer of graphic novels even when he is restraining his work and focusing on realistic characters. There are lots of nice touches here, with childish fantasies drawn in a child-like manner, inner monologues that blot out actual speech, and imagined mini-Marshalls, little jerks that encourage a self-destructive self-perception. Anxiety has never been so richly rewarding.

For all the initial squirming and teeth-grinding that ‘Mister Wonderful’ inspires, it ultimately lives up to the title. Marshall is not totally redeemed, but Natalie is not the gift from above that every schlub hopes to find. Still, the two of them, in their wittily rendered world, are indeed a joy, and their discomfort proves to be something of a balm for readers who might themselves have felt a bit left behind by the go-getters in this world.

Clowes writes and illustrates with the kind of smart perceptions and depths of understanding that reward repeated readings. The fact that readers might want to relive Marshall’s and Natalie’s first date ultimately says more about Clowes’ writerly skill than it says about his readers’ social lives. We cringe and cringe again not because we like to see Marshall feel bad, but because Clowes’ artistry makes us feel good, no matter how embarrassing or familiar his subjects may be.