REVIEWS

Patience


PATIENCE_FC_Colors2 copyFragile male egos have long been the catalyst for conflict in popular fiction. Take, for example, this passage from the story of Aucassin and Nicolette, transcribed by an anonymous author in the twelfth century, in which Aucassin is addressing his captive lover: “Be sure that if thou were found in any man’s bed, save it be mine, I should not need a dagger to pierce my heart and slay me. Certes, no: wait would I not for a knife; but on the first wall or the nearest stone would I cast myself, and beat out my brains altogether.”

The male ego gone awry has been a theme in Dan Clowes’ work since the beginning of his long and spectacular career. One thing that makes his best work so indispensable is his rigorous examination of the topic from many perspectives, both male and female. Even very troubled characters become sympathetic thanks to his uncanny ear for dialogue and his trenchant sense of humor.

In Clowes’s fifth graphic novel, Ice Haven, the young Charles, whose intellect far outstrips his years, meditates at length on sex, consciousness, and morality. He yearns to free himself, and all humanity, from the clutches of the procreative urge. He wonders during a lengthy monologue: “Does all violence rise from distorted sexual impulses?” The punch line of the strip, revealed to the reader in the final panel, is that the young boy is in love with his stepsister. In Clowes’s graphic novel from 2011, The Death-Ray, two adolescent friends, Andy and Louie, struggle to understand the true nature of Andy’s superhuman powers. At one point Louie councils Andy, “Sure you’ve got some powers, but that’s nothing without motivation. Look at the Hulk—his wife died or something.”

And it’s the murder of the titular character in Clowes’ latest graphic novel, Patience, that motivates her distraught husband of six years, Jack Barlow, to acquire the means to time travel.

From the time of her death in 2012 until time-travel technology is developed in 2029, Jack lives a Spartan existence, focused only on finding his pregnant wife’s killer. A chance encounter with an alien prostitute leads Jack to the inventor of the time travel apparatus. America’s future seems to involve benign aliens who arrive and cohabitate peacefully with humans, perhaps even saving humanity from the perilous effects of global warming, although this is never explored in depth. (One hallmark of Clowes’ work is his masterful ability to imply impending societal collapse while remaining focused on his protagonist’s immediate personal dilemmas. Consider the germ warfare in David Boring or the roving gangs of feminist terrorists in Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron).

Jack travels back in time to Patience’s early adulthood, and is shocked to witness two acts of abuse committed against her by two different men. He knows that preventing her murder is his primary objective — allowing him to reunite with his wife in the present. But along the way he struggles with the morality (and consequences) of delivering vigilante justice to Patience’s attackers.

Before I go any further into the story, however, it is critical that I stop and discuss the absolutely transcendent artwork. When my partner Lane and I opened the PDF that was sent to me for review, we both let out an audible “OOOoooohh,” as though we were watching fireworks. Clowes’ saturated, candy-bright hues evoke the mind-altering world of pre-Code EC fantasy and horror comics, drawn by artists including Jack Davis and Bernie Krigstein, and colored by women like Marie Severin. When Jack finds Patience’s body, he is rendered almost as though insane from grief, his figure distorted against a background of solid color, like a Steve Ditko figure. The time travel sequences, which depict distorted abstract shapes writhing across panels to represent movement across a cosmic void also evoke Ditko. Jerry Grandenetti’s phenomenally psychedelic work for DC’s Silver Age Spectre title comes to mind as well. Some moments when Jack is suffering from the transformative effects of his travels also invoke Bernie Wrightson’s work on Swamp Thing and even the physical distortions of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man. I would argue that Patience is Clowes’s most beautiful book to date.

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Given the high quality of the artwork, and Clowes’s mastery of his subject matter in his earlier works, I was surprised to find that the book as a whole didn’t measure up to my expectations.

Patience is the titular character, and yet I had trouble accepting her as a fully realized individual greater than the sum of her traumas. We see vignettes from her difficult early-adulthood, but we know almost nothing of her life from the moment she meets Jack in 2006 until she’s murdered in 2012. Clowes’s treatment of the couple’s financial concerns and class issues in general is very compelling, but we infer that she’s not working, and she’s never shown engaged in any hobbies or activities (apart from a few therapy sessions). We learn that before she met Jack, she was doing very well in college, but was forced to drop out due to financial concerns, but we don’t know what she was studying or what career she hoped to pursue.

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Meanwhile, as the story progresses Jack Barlow more and more resembles Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled, hyper-masculine private detective. Midway through his quest to save his wife and unborn child he wonders, “What the hell am I doing exactly? Do I really want to save that baby, or am I just some bloodthirsty ape out to reclaim his manhood?” By this point in the story, I firmly believe the latter to be true. In contrast, here’s Jack contemplating the trauma Patience suffered in her early twenties: “Here’s this innocent little girl who only wants somebody to love her and she just keeps getting shit on by monster after monster until she doesn’t know which way is up.” Jack also says of Patience: “That girl’s an angel, she’s got a heart of pure gold.” This calls to mind a scene in which Marshall and Natalie, the main characters in Clowes’ 2011 Mister Wonderful, are eating dinner together on their first date. Marshall looks at Natalie and thinks to himself, “Look at that, eating her cake like a little girl, so innocent and guileless.”

Harry Naybors, the fictional comics critic in Ice Haven, poses the question, “Is criticism ever really about its ostensible subject, or is it primarily an expression of self definition?” I absolutely believe that criticism reflects the personal tastes of the critic rather than the value of the artwork in question, and over the course of my life I’ve tried hard to define myself in opposition to the classic Madonna/whore dichotomy that has been present in fiction since the dawn of written language. Ghost World is such a magnificent exploration of female sexuality and friendships between women that it’s hard to accept clichéd depictions of women from its author.

Clowes is certainly aware of these clichés, and I believe that his intent is to call them into question, to parody them and to examine the types of wish fulfillment they represent in our culture. But pop culture mutates so rapidly that sometimes it outstrips its commentators.

I am a lifelong sci-fi buff, and my first impulse as an adolescent was to watch classic films from the 1950s and '60s. I vividly remember how excited I was to watch The Fly, from 1958, starring Vincent Price, and how disappointed I was with the movie itself. The pace of the film was molasses slow, the dialogue was wooden and the special effects seemed painfully quaint. That’s why I was so thrilled when I discovered David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake, which featured outrageous special effects and scenarios that added up to a complex meditation on masculinity, scientific discovery and the frailty of the human body. Then in the 1990s, TV shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer took vicious enjoyment from piercing the veil and exposing the one-dimensional nature of classic science fiction tropes. The success of those shows is part of the reason that even mainstream superhero comics and movies have become increasingly more self aware and more tongue-in-cheek. That impulse to “wink” at the reader seems present at times in Patience. At least twice Jack stops to make some very “meta” jokes about his predicament. On page 63 he states, “All that sci-fi bullshit is just too much to wrap my stupid-ass brain around,” and here he is again on page 118: “I’m so sick of this science fiction mind-fuck bullshit.” But then the conundrum for me is that Clowes seems to be attempting to combine these parodic elements with meta commentary and elements of literary fiction in order to give his story more gravitas and formal structure. But because I have difficulty accepting Patience and Jack as fully developed characters the story is unable to transcend the genre tropes in which it’s rooted, and winds up not one thing or another.

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Like such contemporary writers as Karen Russell, Junot Díaz and Jonathan Lethem, Clowes has time and again demonstrated his ability to explode genres, creating uncanny, eerie and wonderfully detailed portraits of mutants, madmen, sociopaths, tyrants, teenagers, fetishists, best friends, and aspiring creative types. When reading Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, for instance, I felt profoundly unsettled because, although the book features elements of popular fiction such as mutants, cults and rogue cops, the story is completely unpredictable and takes on the quality of a nightmare rather than a horror movie. Patience never quite takes flight like that.

And yet it’s impossible not to feel awe when considering Patience. The awe one feels when considering a work of tremendous ambition made in good faith by an artist at the peak of his skill. It is much safer and easier never to attempt a mighty feat of storytelling. The attempt opens the author up to the possibility of failure and renders him or her vulnerable. Clowes has never been afraid to put human motivations under a microscope or to investigate the things that make us alive. This bravery is one of the most important qualities an artist can possess.


11 Responses to Patience

  1. Anon says:

    Good thing Daniel was born, or we might all be reading this on PCs instead of macs right now

  2. DanielT says:

    Thank you for this. I was confident the book was probably going to be praised to high heaven (unless it was undeniably terrible, which was very unlikely) and looking at other reviews online that seems to be the case. It’s always annoyed me when a Big Name (be it cartoonist, director, writer, musician, whatever) comes out with a new work and the work gets knee-jerk praise because Big Name hasn’t put out anything for a while and has a solid body of work in their oeuvre so OF COURSE the new work is great. This critique is a perfect balance of praising the book’s accomplishments while calling out it’s shortcomings.

    One minor, MINOR quibble: I didn’t get the impression of aliens AT ALL. I thought body dyeing had become a thing in the future.

  3. Brandon says:

    I agree with DanielT- I expected knee jerk praise so it is nice to see a more critical breakdown here. I adore Clowes but Patience didn’t work for me on a number of levels. The time travel story murder mystery plot felt cliched, almost had a ‘Clowes doing work for hire’ vibe if that makes any sense. Characters were thin, simply pawns to the plot, which in simple terms is almost the inverse of what I enjoy about Clowes usually.

    And honestly the art was too ‘open.’ If I were jaded I might suspect Clowes adopted an approach that allowed him to produce a larger work without left heavy lifting. The colors were beautiful, the lettering worked well, the packaging was perfect. But ultimately- the story and art felt mailed in. Patience is Clowes least interesting work.

  4. nobody cares says:

    I read Patience and my full opinion isn’t relevant because it’s probable that most people reading this don’t have the maturity to ‘get’ Dan’s new book.

    I only read this review to confirm my suspicion that the key to understanding Patience is likely to fly over the head of most people under 40 years old. The reviewer doesn’t possess the skills necessary to comprehend this new work. Her face value critique is so obvious you could have guessed what she wrote, even before you actually read it.

    That’s why the internet is so bad for comics comprehension in general.
    The audience is too young, and they think they know it all.
    Young kids who try to knock Patience down with unjust criticism need to get over themselves.

    I wonder if any review will ever realize what makes Patience such a wholly mesmerizing read?
    Don’t listen to these whiners. Patience is a masterful work on all levels.

    OK ’nuff said!

  5. irequirechocolate says:

    I didn’t pull anything interesting from the above, “nobody cares” comment, but then again I’m under 40 so I must not have the maturity to “get it.”

    The review is dead on.

  6. layers of the onion says:

    The review is way off. Why? Because it fails to mine the depths of patience as presented within the book.
    The Internet provides its users with the illusion of individual comprehension that is more akin to a ‘conceit of knowledge’. [Socrates]
    Meditate on the definitions of patience.

    Let’s imagine that like the Internet, in the book Jack is given a magical gift as well, and yet he is shocked to discover the true benefits of it don’t come easily.
    There are some vital life experiences that cannot be taught without genuine first-hand involvement.
    What in life is valuable that is not earned?

    Few people [without the right perspective] would grasp the explanation to the ‘key’ even if I bothered to explicitly spell it out.
    That is the duality of the title Patience.

    Keep in mind that ’40 years old’ is not an absolute don’t interpret everything so literally.
    ‘Over 40’ is merely an arbitrary estimation of an age that assumes a monumental shift in one’s values, emotions, and responsibilities has occurred for most people.

    The present world’s web-saturated brains forget about patience, they rely on instantaneous results.
    You may perceive your logic to be infallible armed with Google 24/7.
    You probably want me to stop concealing my intent and lift the veil.

    What have you earned from impatience?
    Will you profit by, or learn from it?
    Again, Patience comes to the forefront.
    Wait for it.

    As I recall, didn’t somebody once claim patience was a virtue?

  7. Matt Seneca says:

    but will you bother to explicitly spell it out doe

  8. Lenny Stevenson says:

    Dear nobody cares/layers of the onion,
    Your “criticisms” of the review actually typify the problems of communication and discourse via the internet in their incoherence and navel-gazing. Your remarks do not address any specific points in the review or the book.

  9. Johann says:

    This is interesting, thanks. I have yet to read it, but from what you mentioned there is a turn to a bit of a toned down way of going into this for Clowes. Apart from the various layers of the story and the mentioned character motivations, can this be seen as a bit of methodically different approach than previously used by Clowes when it comes to the set up his dramatics?
    I get the feeling the reduction of his usual variety in dialog is a mirror of Jack’s lack of awareness and his personal perception of what is going on in his life as well as that of Patience as he discovers it thru time. He has the option to fix things via time travel, but ends up at short hand solutions.

    Gilbert Hernandez comes to mind with his stand alone novels that feature Fritz as an actress in a backdrop of often used plots or tropes, that are to some degree pulp novels, but go far over simply using the settings as graphic attractions for the reader. In turn you get a psychogram of their surroundings, sometimes more frantic, sometimes more puzzled, as the protagonists (or spectators?) sight on things would be. Can this be a way to see Jack’s “floating” thru this story as in: “Where does this guy touch base in all this?” Narration seeming a bit shallow as is his character’s filter (Sorry Jack!). Someone who isn’t quite at home in their life.

  10. Mike says:

    Great reading. Not really agree with the review. First of all the artwork feels a little rush compared to other works. I also Think that the force of this book comes from its ability to make the reader constantly THINK . It is really a philosophical and profound using a great plot without really developping the caracters because it doesn’t need to. The point is to make the reader think about life , the importance of our choices and the things that really matter. I also found the ending really brilliant and not really the ending of the murder mystery but the ending about the choice Patience had to make in the end. Finaly , may be it is a book for an older audience because the thematology is a lot about family, children etc and so it is maybe less attractive to a younger audience.

  11. vollsticks says:

    Finally read it. Very mixed feelings. As someone else commented Clowes has seemed to consciously make a decision to “open out” his breakdowns–maybe as a sort of rebuke or just a statement against Wares’ incredibly influential, panel-dense approach, I dunno…some of the art looks down-right awful though, off-model in places, and WHAT the FUCK was the deal with future-future Bernie’s time-travel suit?! That is some of the worst design I have have ever seen. That fucking metal arm, what was that about?! There were times when the linework and characters didn’t even look like Clowe’s work–there’s a particular panel of Patience’s face in bed that doesn’t even look like his work….and don’t get me started on Jack’s raygun (?), it looks like a fucking hairbrush…worst GN of 2016. Anya still fucking rules though

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