Dan Clowes’s comics have ranged from grotesque surrealism (Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron) in the spirit of David Lynch, to sensitive realism (Ghost World, Caricature) in the spirit of J.D. Salinger. Mister Wonderful, part of which was originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine, is on the sensitive realism end of Clowes’s storytelling spectrum.
Mister Wonderful is a novella-length work about a divorced, self-conscious, middle-aged guy named Marshall who’s going on a blind date with a girl named Natalie (also recovering from romantic disaster). They’ve been set up by a pair of mutual friends. Marshall says of his lowered expectations, “All I want is someone to eat breakfast with on Sunday morning, someone to read the parts of the paper I throw away (travel, garden).”
The big question of Mister Wonderful is whether Marshall can get over his neuroticisms (grossly lying about how much money he makes) and his social ineptitude (screaming at a homeless man during dinner) and make a connection with Natalie. While a navel-gazing, lonely, main character is predictable for an underground comic, Clowes’s illustrations and page layouts redeem Mister Wonderful.
Like fellow cartoonist Chris Ware, Clowes is experimenting with ways to get inside his characters’ heads, to not just listen to their inner monologues, but to look at how they remember and how they fantasize. To do this in Mister Wonderful, Clowes tries a few different things—sometimes inconsistently: he shifts the hue of frames to make them stand out as digressive recollections; he simplifies the drawing style in other frames to stand as daydreams; and he has Marshall’s inner thoughts appear in yellow frames but dialogue in white, and often eclipses the dialogue with Marshall’s private doubts and confusions.
Clowes also subdivides the number of frames on each page—and the pages of this book are unusually long in size—in order to squeeze a little tangential reverie into the sequence. Or he fills an entire two-page spread with one scene. This creates an elaborate visual rhythm, a soundtrack of colors and shapes that’s missing from black-and-white comics that monotonously repeat the same frame layout.
By the end of Mister Wonderful, Marshall is headed to a seaside park on a grey autumn day. He’s toting a sack of bagels and a Sunday paper, and headed to a moment resembling actual, hopeful contact with a female human being. The comic doesn’t have the ironic teenage angst Clowes is more known for, but it’s a well-told story about middle-aged loneliness, presented in a colorful, charming, and oddly shaped hardcover book.
Daniel Clowes’s Mister Wonderful was published on April 12 by Pantheon. To purchase it, click here.