Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I’d like to welcome everyone back with some jaded misanthropy and a picture book. I received this week’s books for Christmas back home and both were excellent, though not quite graphic novels in the traditional long-form sense.
Wilson, written and drawn by Daniel Clowes, is the tale of an aging egoist living in self-perpetuated misanthropy. Each page is an enjoyable self-contained scene, formatted like some bizarre existential joke, complete with set-up, development and a punch line equal parts awkward, funny, and painful. Different pages are executed in different cartooning styles, ranging from semi-realistic to giant heads with dots for eyes. However, when read in sequence, the individual vignettes form a single complex narrative of Wilson’s life, in all its pettiness and authenticity.
For Wilson, Hell is other people, but only because he makes them hate him with his constant belittling and dismissiveness. Wilson constantly approaches strangers to talk at them, ignoring or mocking their responses to his questions. He complains about the lack of human connection in his life, but when other people attempt to interact with him, his reactions range from snide to outright cruel, bordering on sociopathic.
Wilson’s musings are funny to readers because we see the irony in his condemnation of others. When he accuses his dying father of “evasion and sarcasm,” we understand that throughout his life, Wilson has been denying responsibility for his actions and hiding behind a wall of sardonic cynicism. Wilson’s words are powerful because they are unintentionally self-descriptive, and by writing Wilson in such a way that we indentify with him despite — or perhaps because of — his serious, serious flaws, Clowes also forces us to recognize those imperfections in ourselves.
Wilson is available at McCabe.
Mouse and Kat and The Evil One
Stuart Sharpe’s Mouse and Kat and The Evil One is honestly more picture book than graphic novel, a typographical and design experiment bound into a toddler’s board book format. It explores the relationship between visual layout, text, and narrative in the same way other graphic literature does. Sharpe uses bold colors and vector shapes to create an engaging tale of good and evil, capture and escape, adventure and peril, and the power of art and words to enact change.
From the first page, Sharpe’s text and illustrations are striking and simple, engaging the reader in the story. The visual flow of the text is reinforced by color and by layout parallels in the illustrations. For example, Mouse is consistently blue, Kat is green, and the Evil One, red. A description of Mouse and Kat spotting a spaceship in the middle-upper left of the page corresponds to an illustration of the same event in the same place on the opposing page.
The book is aware of its own existence as a work of art and more specifically as a work of fiction. It emphasizes the power of ideas as weapons. In their first confrontation, Mouse and Kat and the Evil One fight using traditional science fiction weapons, zooming around in spaceships and zapping each other with lasers. On the Evil One’s return, though, he uses “the poison of the hateful symbols… bombards and mixes them with bad meanings.” Kat and Mouse likewise fight back with their own positive ideas, which ultimately triumph. This conflict demonstrates the power of art, which allows us access to complex ideas and systems of thought, and can be used either as an oppressive propagandistic purposes or as an expression of individualism and liberation.
Mouse and Kat and The Evil One portrays both the entertainment and social value of art, and it challenges artists to make good use of their art.
Sharpe created an animation of the first half of the book, available on his website. You can preview and purchase the book there, as well.
For those who are interested, a new weekly graphic novel/comic books/webcomic club is happening on campus this semester. Email me (jhuang1) for more information.