Back in 1993, in a story series from his comic book Eightball that eventually became the graphic novel (and film) Ghost World, Daniel Clowes created the semi-autobiographical character Enid Coleslaw — a smart, cynical 18-year-old whose name was an anagram of his own. Almost two decades later, some things have changed. Clowes’s new book, Wilson (Drawn and Quarterly), is his first that wasn’t serialized first in Eightball. It’s also his first with D&Q, the esteemed Montreal graphic-novel publisher. And nowadays, he seems to identify more with his new title character — a paunchy, bearded, bumbling, bumptious, “opinionated middle-aged loner who loves his dog and quite possibly no one else.”
The book, which culminates with Wilson’s hilariously disastrous grab at family normality, is hardly a roman graphique à clef. But as Clowes pushes 50 and sorts through his feelings about this too-fast-changing world, there is an autobiographical feel to the story, which is made up entirely of one-page comic strips, each drawn in a different style, and each ending with a sort of punch line. Clowes spoke to me from his home in Oakland.
First impression? This guy Wilson is a real asshole.
[Laughs.] Well, there you are.
But I found myself softening to him after a while.
He just sort of emerged from some random sick part of my brain into my sketchbook. I just started writing these strips about this irritating guy. The more I worked on it . . . I don’t wanna say I liked him, but I found his human side. A guy like Wilson, he doesn’t quite know why he’s scaring people away. And that becomes quite poignant, I think.
Is it safe to say he’s having a midlife crisis?
Yeah, I would say so.
You’re almost 50 yourself.
I’m sort of reporting back my findings of hitting middle age and seeing all the ways you feel about the world in ways you didn’t anticipate you were gonna feel. He’s sort of my way of trying to come to grips with some of that stuff, and maybe try to see which of those things are really profound and serious, and which should not be taken seriously.
What would Enid think of Wilson?
Enid would probably get a kick out of Wilson. He’s the kind of person I tend to tolerate a lot more than other people do. I know other people are often heading for the hills when guys like that come by, but I’m often amused by this type, and I think Enid would be too.
Why did you finally draw Eightball to a close?
The whole periodic-comic-pamphlet thing just seems like it’s finally no longer. Nobody wants to sell comics, because the price is too low. Everybody wants to sell books. To do a comic book, it just seemed like this kind of affectation: “I’m gonna do this old-fashioned comic pamphlet.” It felt like I was trying to say something about the material by doing it as a comic, and I didn’t think it had anything to do with this book at all. So I sort of decided to embrace the book.