Wilson, the title character of Daniel Clowes' latest book, is smart and incredibly funny, but he's largely alone and filled with a sense of regret that prompts a very strange chain of events. He's flawed, just as you might expect for a character coming from the mind of the famed cartoonist, and coming to terms with the quick passage of time. Friday night, Clowes will stop by Skylight Books to discuss Wilson.
We spoke with Clowes by phone to get the lowdown on the evolution of the character and the book.
What was the evolution of Wilson?
The genesis of it was, well, my dad was in the hospital very much like Wilson's dad was in the hospital in the story. To keep from going crazy in there, I thought, I'm going to draw some little funny comics to amuse myself, to take my mind off this. I didn't think about it for two seconds, I just started drawing little joke comics with this guy that just emerged right out of my head immediately, without any censorship or forethought or any of that. The next thing I knew, I had drawn hundreds of little comics with this guy. His personality was intact from minute one, but I did note that there was no real story to it. I just had him reacting to all kinds of things that I was thinking of and, the more I got to kind of know the guy, the more the story suggested itself. This guy is completely alone, absolutely unconnected to anyone in the world and it's just now hitting him that this is his condition and he's trying to do something to create a family kind of after the fact, long after he should have had that figured out. That's what suggested the whole story. Once I started writing the book, I had a pretty clear narrative thread in mind.
Were there things that you started to change after you began writing the book?
Yeah, it was very loose. I had a very loose structure. I actually had a lot more to the story. It was much more filled in. I got more and more interested in tearing it down to the absolute minimum, anything that didn't need to be shown, I tried not to show. I wanted there to be a lot more suggestion and a blank space in between the pages. Some of the strips, there are years in between one strip and the next. Other strips, there are just a few minutes in between. I wanted the reader to kind of participate more than you normally do in comics. I wanted people to be able to fill in their scenarios in between the events and make it their own story in a way that you don't normally do in comics.
Had the idea of reader participation been a part of your work before?
I think early in my career, I was very interested in being this sort of godlike dictator on the comics page and really controlling the reader and kind of forcing people into my own mindscape and taking absolute control as much as you can in comics. With this one, I was more interested in making it a little more collaborative, having spaces where the reader can kind of personalize the story in his own way.
Do you like to keep things open for readers at the end of the story?
Yeah, I don't necessarily like endings that contrive an artificial moment of completion. The kind of stories that I tell, especially with Ghost World and Wilson, are not the kind of stories that lend themselves to a really definitive ending. Life doesn't really have that. It's an intuitive thing, you have to feel for the ending. With Wilson, I had kind of a lot more at the end. It was more built-up. Ultimately, I pared it down to the four or five closing strips that I thought kind of succinctly said it all. You have to kind of put them together to feel that pause at the end. I just felt like that last strip, there's nothing that could go beyond that. That was sort of the final strip for the guy.
One thing I particularly like about Wilson is the relationship between him and his dog. What inspired that?
I must confess to having a similar relationship with my poor dog. I have this dog that I've had for the past eight years. While my wife and son are off at work and school, this dog is here with me all day and I find myself talking to her all the time. I take her out for walks. She is a pretty exceptionally cute dog and so I'm constantly having conversations with people about the dog. People are often ignoring me and talking directly to the dog. It's a big part of my life. There's an emotional connection that you have to these animals. It's hard to explain and it's a very personal thing, nobody else can quite relate to your relationship to your pet. Nobody else feels the same way about your dog that you do.
When you were writing Wilson, did you have a specific range of years that you were working with?
I did have it sort of figured out. I wanted it to be as timeless as possible. I have him using a pay phone in one of the strips. It's really supposed to be 2008 or so, there weren't a lot of pay phones, but it's still plausible. He's certainly the guy who would walk eighty blocks to find a pay phone because he doesn't have a cell phone. It kind of fit his character. It's generally in the 21st century. The ending strips I think are maybe in the future, they're maybe 2014, but it's in the first fifteen, twenty years of the 21st century.
In the scenes where he's in Oakland, as Wilson's aging, you can see the city changing too. Was the city like a secondary character in the strips?
Yeah, I think that he's very much an Oakland guy. That was my impetus when I started. I wanted this guy to be from Oakland, the kind of guy you would see walking around in the neighborhood where I live. There are many types who are Wilson-ish. It's an area where you have people who are really smart and really educated, but perhaps didn't make the choices to make a lot of money or to set up their lives so that they had a stable family or anything like that. They chose to sit in their room and read Heigel for ten years and do stuff like that, that didn't necessarily lead to success or esteem amongst your peers. It's a specific type that I feel doesn't always get talked about a lot in the media, you don't really see them represented. Certainly, all of my friends, pretty much, are of this class of people. I wanted that very specific Oakland-ish guy in there.
The world of Oakland, it's a nice city, I really love it here, but it feels like things are decaying, stores are disappearing and things are changing at kind of a rapid pace and it's kind of hard to say how it would all turn out.
Even though it's specifically Oakland, it's a situation that people in other cities can relate to.
I'm glad to hear that now that it's out. To me the nail salons was very specifically Oakland. I thought that's some odd Oakland phenomenon that's not going on anywhere else. People all over the country were telling me, “Yeah, what's with all the nail salons?” That's apparently everywhere.
Do you think that there's a sense of nostalgia in your books?
I try personally not to be nostalgic. I don't think I am terribly nostalgic, but I am aware of the passage of time and how things that you felt were permanent in the world are fading away and how all of us are losing our foothold in the world and ready to drift off into oblivion. When you live in a modern city and everything is changing at a visible pace, that's always apparent. We're always being reminded that the things that we may think about and remember, there's no trace left of them. We have to experience them while we can because they disappear more quickly than you imagine.
Scenes from Wilson