REVIEW: Adventures of the sad-sack.

23 04 2010

Most of you are probably aware that there are a few different kinds of comic books. There are mainstream comics — superheroes and villains, duking it out in dark and bloody semi-alternate universes. There are also graphic novels, a term generally referring to more serious long-form narratives told in illustrated form. Think: Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, and Marjane Satrapi’s recently adapted tale of her childhood in Iran, Persepolis.

There is also another category: alternative comic books. Daniel Clowes’ Wilson and Gabrielle Bell’s Cecil and Jordan in New York [both published by Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly] fall into a subset of that which I can only describe as sad-sack comics. Fittingly, the term sad-sack (“an inept or blundering person”) actually originates from a World War II-era comic book about a lowly private experiencing some of the absurdities and humiliations of military life. I couldn’t have put it better.

Daniel Clowes is best known in the non-comics world for the films based on his work, Ghost World (2001) and Art School Confidential (2006). Wilson is his first publication to be initially released complete, rather than in serialized form. It tells the story of Wilson, a middle-aged curmudgeon who is less grumpy-but-loveable and more mean-spirited and disliked.

He’s a familiar character — jovially starting conversations with strangers only to cut them off mid-sentence with “Spare me the history lesson, okay?” and “Christ — do you realize how ridiculous you sound?” His daily walk the dog, complain, insult strangers sociopathic routine is cut short when his father grows sick. He flies across the country and begins a journey of what I can only describe as experiencing the absurdities and humiliations of everyday life.

Wilson is told in vignettes, the drawing style changing with each chapter. It ranges from cartoonish and colourful — in these, Wilson is a tiny, balloon-headed imp with a cucumber-nose — to a more fleshed-out illustration, showing each of Wilson’s worry lines and wrinkles in careful detail. This mirrors the complex character Clowes has created. Wilson is a man who is neither hero nor villain, but sometimes pretty close to both.

Gabrielle Bell’s collection of stories Cecil and Jordan in New York focuses less on the humiliations than the absurdities, but humiliation certainly plays a big part. Its most absurd chapter — the title story, about a woman who’s directionless life causes her to transform herself into a chair (“I’ve never felt so useful”) — was adapted by Michel Gondry for the film Tokyo (2008).

Bell’s stories are semi-autobiographical, ranging from childhood (“Ew! What’s that smell?” “It’s Gabrie-smell! She’s upwind from us!”) to art school (“Anna’s attempt is an excellent example of everything I dislike in painting,” her teacher tells the class, pausing in front of her piece. “We are left with a work that is purely surface, that tells us nothing new, except for how self-absorbed and neurotic the artist herself is”). Like Clowes, Bell is a master of the awkward silence.

In the course of eleven short stories, we get to know a woman who is rejected by crushes, creeped on by gross men, and generally disappointed by friends. However, in each story Bell’s protagonist possesses a kind of Pippi Longstocking combination of outsider humour and ability to survive. Far from descending into angst, they come out on the other end with a shrug and a joke.

These comic books may not be for everyone. They’re heavy and yet could be criticized for being a bit middle class, First World-problem self-absorbed. They don’t tackle historical epics like graphic novels or bloody battles of good and evil like mainstream comics, but there’s something honest about them. We see ourselves in those hero stories, but we can also see ourselves in the stories of Clowes and Bell. Sure, each of us has a hero and a villain inside. Somewhere in there we’ve got a sad-sack too.

– Mayana C. Slobodian

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