Mister Wonderful

Mister Wonderful

In his recent works, Dan Clowes is refining a figure uniquely his own, an archetype we might locate somewhere between the “loveable curmudgeon” and the “imperious weenie”—call him the hapless megalomaniac. The latest incarnation of this Clowesian genus is Marshall, a mid-life sad-sack who gets introduced to us under the prodigious moniker of Mister Wonderful. In the pages of this slim volume, we accompany our hero through a series of trials which include a blind date, a test of strength, a chivalric defense of his lady fair, and, well, the ordeal of even just having to put up with our world's endless succession of hateful shitheads and human wreckage.

Clowes affectionately includes his protagonist in that number, of course, and it's a judgment with which Marshall might be inclined to agree: though self-denigration is our man's saving grace, solipsism is still his primary failing. So while Mister Wonderful may be an ironic title, it's kind of only mock-ironic—Marshall would roll his eyes at the epithet, but would also hope you might accept it. However broke and “morbidly desperate” this guy may be, credit him with the diffident belief that at least he's better than the rest of these assholes.

Or most of them, anyway: exempt blonde, “perfect” Natalie from that lot. This is Marshall's blind date, whom he instantly enshrines as a kind of sardonic, benevolent saint, someone to redeem and ennoble his lowly existence. Even Natalie, however, Marshall often silences by imposing his own self-centered monologue over her word balloons—his conception of her is evidently more important than anything she might actually say or think. In effect, Marshall shouts over top of every other claimant for our attention in the book, perpetually redirecting our attention back to me, me, me—it's a technique mirrored, in this book, by another new addition to Clowes's stylistic repertoire.

Here, huge full- and double-page panels erupt into the goings-on, usurping any kind of narrative flow to ensure we realize just how decisive and fraught is each present moment. By focusing our attention in such a way, these splash pages read like POV glimpses of how Marshall arrays his world around himself. While we're thus deeply involved in those privileged moments that comprise his existence—strictly the important stuff, like checking his watch or his email, entering a room, glancing up from his beer—the implication is that everything else might as well drop off the page, so irrelevant has it become to Marshall's sense of now.

But all these insistent double-page spreads are also the cartoonist's solution to the problems of reformatting this feature from its first appearance in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Originally serialized in twenty installments, the strip got some perverse mileage out of the disjunction between its cliffhanger format and its prosaic subject matter. So, in one episode Natalie has finally shown up for their date, but will Marshall be able to sneak away and pee? Tune in next week! Will the evening merit one more cup of coffee and a bit more chat?? Bated breath, tenterhooks!

I'm not just being cheeky—Clowes's impeccably paced and structured pages place exactly this kind of undue emphasis on their endings. These halts in the storyline become at once comic and, somehow, propulsive. Clowes draws constant attention to the absurdity of reading any kind of significance into such pedestrian moments in daily life. And yet, in his pauses between installments in the paper, or in his larger-than-life-size splashes in the book, he is often at pains to step back, asking us to cipher out the importance Marshall sees in every last minute of his evening here, and to commiserate accordingly, too.

So Clowes diagrams life as a series of crises, but with minor and major events ascribed the same status and significance—having to pee, ordering a coffee, going to the hospital, can all be climactic, epiphanic, ridiculous. In the way they make these points, however, I prefer the original strips, if only for the audacity with which they withhold information between episodes. The book opts too often to smooth over such bumps, and papers over the radical ways that Clowes has lately been hiding his characters' frailties and flaws off-screen. If Mister Wonderful's stop-gap splashes sometimes explain away eccentricity, elsewhere Clowes has been only too content to make us anxious about the crucial, ugly plot points that disappear between the pages of Wilson or The Death Ray.

Still, I cavil a bit only because the book's accomplishments are otherwise pretty unimpeachable. This is the Dan Clowes of Caricature in fine form, telling an apparently simple story with a deceptive amount of complexity. The voice he creates for Marshall is equal parts trenchant commentary and stubborn self-defense, but Clowes doesn't so much write this role as he inhabits it. The wicked observations, the petty hubris, the abrupt plunges from ivory-tower spite to the depths of despair: these are Clowes's signature moments, inscribed with a sure and steady hand. So, sure, the grandeur in that title can be sarcastic and self-aware—yeah, right, “Mister Wonderful”—but goddamn if the way it's stamped out in the sky isn't convincing and self-assured, too.