Daniel Clowes, writer/artist
The New York Times, September 2007-February 2008
The key sequence in the comic Dan Clowes serialized through The New York Times‘ Funny Pages section a couple years back (!!!) comes in its October 28th. 2007 installment. Up to that point, and afterwards in fact, you could fairly comfortably play the theme song to Curb Your Enthusiasm in the background while reading and get roughly the right effect. The titular character, a graying sad sack named Marshall, is so self-obsessed in a self-deprecating manner that it’s almost a mental illness. In a series of one-page sequences he waits for a blind date he’s increasingly sure will never arrive, mentally lashing out at himself and his fellow coffee-shop patrons in a torrent of caption boxes that superimpose themselves on action and dialogue alike. Clowes’s comedic pacing is drum-tight, his portraiture hilariously scathing, able to capture the pleading vulnerabilites of a human face and then exploit them ruthlessly. You’re left wondering if this will ultimately be as biting a portrait of a pathetic, bitter guy as was The Death-Ray (only, you know, with no ray guns).
Things don’t exactly improve when Marshall’s blind date, a lovely if seemingly scatterbrained woman just shy of 40 named Natalie, actually shows up. Marshall, who at this point is half-drunk, immediately begins constructing elaborate fantasies of their happy life together, basically calling her the most perfect person who ever existed–the better to preemptively excoriate himself for blowing it with every fumbled word or body-language cue. Most of what she says to him is obscured by his interior-monlogue captions: Immediately after thinking to himself, “O.K., Marshall — now’s the perfect time to show what a sympathetic and attentive listener you are — eye contact, Marshall! Concentrate!”, he interrupts a word balloon containing the story of her failed marriage with a giant block of narration beginning “So here’s the basic gist:”. It’s smart cartooning, as you’d expect from Daniel effing Clowes, and it’s nasty and funny, as you’d also expect.
Then something unexpected, and subsequently unremarked-upon, happens. Marshall relates to us the story of Natalie’s common-law marriage, a 15-year relationship that began in grad school and ended when she could no longer forgive her boyfriend’s laughing dismissal of her worry that their lack of an actual marriage or children meant he was ashamed of her. It’s just a four-panel sequence, but it’s done in these lovely glacial blues, and there’s this gut-wrenching effect Clowes uses to convey the idea that “every time she went into that room, the laugh was there”: A large, three dimensional, yellow block-letter “HA HA,” first sitting on the kitchen table, then towering over the whole room like a monument.
It’s not made explicit, but here’s the thing: This isn’t Natalie’s memory of the disintegration of her relationship. This is Marshall’s mental reconstruction of Natalie’s story, pitched to us with the same no-bull neurosis as everything else he’s told us so far. Only it’s beautiful, it’s thoughtful, it’s sad and crushing. For these four panels only, all traces of Marshall’s compulsive self-absorption and solipsism are gone. Whatever he thinks of himself in the moment, we know he really did empathize with Natalie, he really did listen attentively, he really does care about her not as an idealized ticket out of his miserable lonely life, but as a person with a story all her own. For all the Larry David humor and brutal caricature in here, that’s the beating heart of the story, hidden under all the black. I think it’s worth remembering the next time you hear someone dismiss Clowes as a misanthropic self-loathing crank. Mister Wonderful is a story about the need to cling to one another in the face of not just the world’s awfulness but also your own, because what else are you gonna do? It doesn’t skimp on the awfulness, but the clinging’s the point.