Daniel Clowes, Mister Wonderful

Publisher: Pantheon

2011, 77 pages, hardcover, $19

the opening set-up sounds simple enough. There is a guy, middle-aged, no longer married, and quite down on his luck, sitting in a coffee shop, waiting on a blind date who is running late. His name is Marshall. The woman he’s waiting for is named Nathalie. Will you care? Yes. You will. Through his narrative and visual artistry, Daniel Clowes, from the first page to the last page, makes the reader care, deeply.

Before Nathalie shows up, Marshall’s personality and overall ‘status’ in life is deftly established. As readers, we get to peer in on Marshall’s interior thoughts. We observe his humorous anxiety as he wonders if one woman, sitting alone, could be the woman his friends Tim and Yuki have arranged for him to meet. While considering the chance that this solitary woman is the-never-before-met Nathalie, Marshall is quick to think the following: “No, she looks far too wholesome and undamaged to have been set up with the likes of me.” Not long after the woman’s boyfriend shows up, Marshall relays some of his back-story. Here too Clowes’s sharp-edged sense of humor is on beautiful display. Following his divorce and a six-year “dry spell,” Marshall reflects on the experience of his last tryst (with “an unstable, crank-snorting sociopath”) in this way: “It wound up costing me $800, my grandmother’s earrings, and a laptop, but such is the price of transformative human events, I suppose.” The hilarity, in this case, and really throughout the voyage into Marshall’s insecure consciousness, removes any sentimentality from this graphic novel (which is subtitled as “A Love Story”). At the same time, the comedic nature of Marshall’s thoughts and moods, which swing from crushing dejection to getting-way-ahead-of-himself-elation, deepens the reader’s empathy for him. We laugh with Marshall. Or, you could say, for him, when he cannot quite laugh for himself.

Because the reader empathizes with the protagonist from the start, the story has plenty of room for other interesting elements to grow and thrive out of Marshall’s vulnerability, which, one could argue, is the story’s core emotional ground. Just as he is caught in his most despondent reverie, thinking about life passing him by, musing on the transience of time and how he is sure to perish “alone and forgotten,” Natalie arrives and, in an emotional swing, perfectly captured by a close-up (spanning two pages) of his wide open eyes and the interior thought “Oh My God!” repeated three times, Marshall falls for Nathalie instantly. As he interacts with her we get to discover another endearing character. Nathalie is kind-hearted, funny, and, in her own way, just as “damaged” as Marshall, recovering, or trying to, from the break-up of a fifteen year relationship. As they get to know each other, our sympathy quickly stretches out to include Nathalie just as thoroughly as it does Marshall. Now that Nathalie is here, we root for a happy, meaningful connection between these two battle-scarred survivors. We feel suspense, knowing how easily their bond could break, given Marshall’s unpredictable behavior, speech, and, more broadly, the inherent fragility their own separate emotional states.

Once they leave the coffee shop, the story follows Marshall and Nathalie through several very compelling twists and turns (out on the street and then at a volatile party) and ultimately ends in a scene at a park, the next morning, which is both restrained and genuinely moving—beyond words. In addition to its authentic emotional underpinnings and the instinctive ‘rightness’ of the story’s movement, Mister Wonderful succeeds so well as a work of first-rate art because it never fails to surprise, astonish, and entertain its readers along the fast-paced yet always rich and emotionally resonant journey that unfolds. Whether a cynic or romantic, one could pick up this graphic novel and simply delight in the joyful leaps Clowes makes from one line or panel to the next. Clowes’s inspired creative touches make this is a book that’s fun, impossible to forget, and well worth revisiting. Viewed as a whole, what emerges is the most beautiful kind of love story: One that points to the reality of suffering as well as the pain-alleviating wisdom of a heart that’s opened up.

—Richard Robertson