As pointed as he often gets about the generally arrested state of comic-book development, legendary cartoonist Daniel Clowes has shown remarkable fidelity to the medium. Though plenty of his writing has reached its audience in collected editions, it's always been serialized first. It's bizarre to identify his latest work, Wilson, as his "first original graphic novel," but it is. Wilson follows the life of its aging namesake in a chronological series of rigidly formatted, self-contained pages of six or seven panels each. The pages consciously evoke the simple setup-to-punchline progression of the Sunday funnies. He used a similar technique with his recent "Ice Haven" stories, imagining an artistically heightened comics section where all the strips shed light on each other, crisscrossing to tell a deeper story. Wilson borrows their shifting palette of colors and styles, but keeps the reader trapped with a world-class jerk.
Clowes' bases his best work in the grotesque. He's either placed a protagonist adrift in a nightmarish world operating under sinister rules he can barely suss out, or subtly amplified the odd ugliness of modern American life until the mundane felt like a weird dream. Wilson's Oakland is perfectly normal, it's just that, as a totally self-absorbed blowhard, he has trouble navigating it. Clowes has gotten great mileage out of seething misanthropes, and Wilson consistently delivers choice zingers on the author's perpetually smoldering pet peeves (when asked by a small-talking cabbie if he's seen The Dark Knight, Wilson's classic reply is "What? No, I don't have any children"). Over book length, the format's perpetual jokeyness halts deeper humanization. Wilson's tone-deaf harshness remains funny, but with the cage of the single page even his life's genuine pathos plays like a cheap gag. It's five panels then punchline, whether coming unglued in the wake of his father's death or hassling some guy in a coffee shop. "Likeable characters are for weak-minded narcissists," Clowes recently told a Washington City Paper interviewer. And dickheads are better in small doses.