Apart from hopefully lining his wallet a bit, Dan Clowes isn’t doing himself any favors by repackaging this story. His most lightweight effort in more than a decade, it was a pandering trifle to begin with and it only suffers from being given the book treatment.
Originally published in the New York Times Magazine in 2008 and now labeled “a midlife romance,” it’s basically a wish-fulfillment story written for what Clowes’ imagined would be the typical Times readership: the kind of intellectual but lonely middle-aged white male, on retreat from the social world, who has been populating his comics for a while now. Rather hilariously, he has cited the estimable but also slightly smug filmmaker Errol Morris as the model for Marshall, the hapless protagonist of this tale.
Anyway, it seems to me that Clowes spent way too much time thinking of this imaginary Errol and too little listening to his redoubtable storytelling instincts when he writing Mister Wonderful. The level of craft on display is of course high, and the panel-to-panel storytelling hits a lot of compelling beats: Marshall’s love interest Natalie seeing her boyfriend’s dismissive laughter linger in her life as a blocky “HAHA” is a haunting and wonderfully simple graphic rendition of her alienation, for example.
And Marshall roaming the big house party at the end looking for her is captured with such perfect sense of how his inner turmoil informs his experience of navigating the throng of all the wrong people in what feels acutely to be a wrong place, that it’s such a pity that he turns out to be a walking cliché. His violent temper is never anchored in any real sense of who he is, remaining a Character Trait rather than something emotionally earned or in some way enlightening to the reader. Marshall and Natalie’s difficulties in coping with life are postulated, cleaving too close to cliché for the happy ending to feel like a satisfying resolution.
Making things worse — but of course ultimately better — is the fact that Clowes went on successfully to realize the same formula in the small masterpiece Wilson (2010), in which the broader, expressive approach and greater formal playfulness paradoxically manage to draw out a character that feels so much more real than Marshall. A book that, like all of Clowes’ best work, suggests life beyond the panels.
Oh, and the book version of Mr. Wonderful, in which Clowes for God knows what reason has reformatted the portrait format of the original to a wide-screen landscape oblong, necessitating the blowup of selected panels to way beyond breaking point. It brings unfortunate reminders of the ignoble 80s trend for cutting and pasting European albums into small, scuzzy pocketbooks — the comics equivalent of pan-and-scan, but with addition and magnification instead of cropping.
The disproportionate attention given to certain moments in the story that worked perfectly well in the original by spreading them across two pages feels disjunctive and puzzling, but when a spread suddenly is devoted uniquely to an fairly random sound effect — Marshall and Natalie driving in his beat-up car — the sense that this is padding for the hardcover, more than anything else, becomes palpable.
Clowes is such a great cartoonist that this would have been a satisfying inclusion in a compilation of his better recent short stories, but here the lack of inspiration he brought to this marquee gig is laid painfully bare.
PS — Ditko/Clowes?
Read also Andreas Gregersen’s essay on Clowes’ Ice Haven and The Death Ray, right here at the Bunker.