by Daniel Clowes
Drawn and Quarterly, 80 pages, $21.95
by Jim Woodring
Fantagraphics Books, 104 pages, $19.99
Here we have two of the more notable and anticipated graphic novel releases of this year. Though at first glance the two don’t seem to have much in common, they do have some similarities. Both come from artists who came to help define the alt-comix movement in the late 1980s and ’90s and their work during that period was seen by many as sterling examples of the sort of Art with a capital A that the medium was capable of producing. Both have also laid relatively low in recent years, pursing projects in other mediums like film, illustration, performance art and toy-making, occasionally returning to comics through the side door (Woodring in the pages of Mome, Clowes with his Mister Wonderful serial in the New York Times). And, while it doesn’t have nearly as much significance as some would like to think it has, this also marks the first time both authors have attempted to publish their work in the “done in one” graphic novel book format rather than serialize it over a lengthy period of time in the more traditional pamphlet format (indeed, this is likely the longest story Woodring has done yet).
Both also begin with the letter W.
Let’s start our compare/contrast experiment with Wilson. The title refers, of course, to the protagonist, a middle-aged oddball of a man, the latest in a long line of Clowes’ misanthropes and social misfits. To wit: Dan Pussey, Andy in the Death Ray, the artist in Caricature, Random Wilder in Ice Haven, even Ghost World’s Enid Coleslaw from suffers from an inability to fit into the general populace. Clowes has long been fascinated with society’s outcasts. Wilson is merely the latest example.
The central irony in Wilson’s case is he desperately wants to fit in. He’s constantly seeking some sort of genuine human connection, but failing because he’s: a) terribly self-absorbed; b) impatient and c) lacks any sort of internal self-censor. Where you or I might think “Dear God this person is boring and I wish they’d shut up,” but keep our mouths shut, Wilson has no problem blurting out his irritation. He’s annoyed by people’s social superficialities and can’t comprehend the social niceties of small talk, let alone deign to engage in it. How can people discuss their computer problems, boring jobs and sports teams when faced with the horror of death and the complexity of life? No doubt you’ve met someone similar. Of all of Clowes’ sad sacks, he’s probably the one most rooted in reality.
Where the book diverges from said reality is in its structure. Wilson is segmented into one-page “chapters,” each ending with a punchline of some sort, even if the punchline is nothing more than “Fuck you asshole.” Each page is also drawn in a different art style. Sometimes Wilson bears the traditional cartoony big feet, a trunk-like nose and flop sweat. Other times he’s drawn in a near photo-realistic style. And so on. Regardless of what style he’s drawn in, however, he remains the same risible malcontent throughout the book. Whether he’s attempting to reach out to his dying father, ex-wife or the daughter he never knew, he doesn’t ever make any genuine connection or reach any sort of enlightenment (except perhaps at the very, very end, where Clowes arguably indulges in the “knowledge acquired after it’s too late” cliche). It seems as though Clowes is using this constant switching of styles to say something about people’s general lack of self-awareness and inability to change.
As interesting an experiment as this is, it hinders the book somewhat as well. We don’t ever really connect with Wilson the way we do with Enid or David Boring. There’s no slowly dawning realization of the characters’ motivations the way there is in Ice Haven or Death Ray. The constant need to keep everything adhering to the basic nine panel grid structure (with variations) along with a final gag/rim shot hampers the reader’s emotional engagement to a degree. Perhaps Clowes is attempting to show how such a rigid format — the kind seen in most comic strips these days — hinders character development and audience identification. Whatever the case, while Wilson is entertaining book and a worthy entry in his bibliography, it ultimately doesn’t reach the heights of his best work.
As with Wilson, Jim Woodring’s Weathercraft also focuses on an outcast, in this case Manhog, the pathetic and occasionally pitiable creature that’s one of the many denizens that make up the phantasmagorical world seen in the Frank series of comics. In previous Frank stories, Manhog has more or less served as an antagonist, his greed and generally base nature providing a counterbalance of sorts to Frank’s mostly calm, easygoing demeanor. Most of the stories featuring him have him undergoing some sort of horrible torture after another, sometimes as the result of his own malfeasance, sometimes just because that’s the way things go (one particularly nasty sequence involves pointy billed birds stabbing him from the inside out). Like Wilson, he’s a hard luck case that you’d feel sorry for if he weren’t so spiteful.
Unlike Wilson, Weathercraft is concerned with its protagonist’s redemption. In the book, Manhog undergoes a harrowing set of trials — manipulated perhaps (and perhaps not) by two eerie, birdlike creatures whom Woodring jokingly dubs Betty and Veronica — before ultimately obtaining enlightenment and even a certain amount of dignity, something completely lacking in the character up till now.
Unfortunately, his ability to literally pierce beyond the veil of his world (one stunning sequence has him literally tearing apart the landscape like paper) coincides with a reversal of fortune for everyone else as the devil-like character Whim has transformed both itself and the landscape into something ugly and horrible. Only Manhog it seems can set right, although, as we all know, returning things to the status quo does not come without sacrifice.
So what we have here is a traditional, Joseph Campbell-style hero’s journey, but one that manages to avoid feeling rote or cliched thanks to Woodring’s immense talent. His wordless tale filled with an eerie landscape and creatures that are both familiar and horrifyingly alien evokes dread and mystery. Equal parts parable, fable and surreal (and perhaps at times unfathomable) vision, Weathercraft further cements Woodring’s reputation as one of the true geniuses of comics. While Weathercraft’s universe is, at face value, more predatory and disturbing than Wilson’s, ultimately, what it has to say about ourselves may ultimately be more positive and life-affirming.