Something Old, Something New: Wilson vs. BodyWorld

So yeah, I did a piece on Dan Clowes' Wilson and Dash Shaw's BodyWorld for the Baltimore City Paper this week. There's a ton of other stuff to discuss about these books than what I crammed into a thousand or so words, but my main point is simple: Wilson is pretty much a loathsome waste of time and BodyWorld is just jesus christ amazing.

Primarily I was wrestling with the feelings I had while reading Wilson, which were "Wow, the younger me would've loved this but now I just find it really obnoxious and off-putting." I see why the books works but I don't care. This kind of cynicism, this disdain for everybody--which Clowes undoubtedly has, this isn't as simple as mistakenly reading Wilson as Clowes' voice--makes me uncomfortable and sad. And that's the intention but um, whatever?

When you read it right along with BodyWorld, the books are almost arguing with one another. There's literally no way Shaw was making his book as a response but it works through that lens. BodyWorld's Paulie Panther is very Wilson-like but we end up kinda "getting" him and feeling for him, even though he's a clueless asshole. And then there's the issues of visual narrative and like, a care for the comics form, which Clowes--like Ware--loves and loathes. Dash Shaw just loves comics and it's rushing through the whole damned book. In the review, I compare BodyWorld to Infinite Jest and I mean it!Anyways, click below to read my take on these two graphic novels...
"Every year--at least since Art Spiegelman's Maus, and most certainly by the time Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth was a bookstore-ready hardcover--a few sophisticated, sprawling comic books make their way out of the alt-comics echo chamber and into the mainstream. Last year it was David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp and R. Crumb's Book of Genesis; April alone saw the release of Daniel Clowes' Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly) and Dash Shaw's BodyWorld (Pantheon). Though it won't replace the great American novel anytime soon, the past 20 years have certainly witnessed the rise of the great American graphic novel.

Both Wilson and BodyWorld are graphic novels in the loaded, fancy sense of the term, but each book also subtly defies the expectations for the kind of smarty-pants comics that get write-ups in magazines and, well, free alternative weeklies. Clowes' collection of depressive joke strips--a parody of the Sunday funnies--about a middle-aged, out of touch douchebag, shuns comics' recent fascination with the grand statement, opting for a terse take on America in the aughts. It feels like a relic from an earlier indie comics era when every release didn't have to swing for the fences. Shaw follows up 2008's Bottomless Belly Button--a 720 pager about divorce--with an erotic, pulp-obsessed, 384-page book about a strand of weed that makes you psychic: It's a new kind of comics epic..."


Matt Seneca said...

I liked this post a lot. BodyWorld hasn't exactly been blowing up the comics internet, I guess since it isn't "new new", and it was nice to finally see something on it.

I agree with you about the relative merits of the two books, but I was wondering what you thought of BodyWorld's ending. I thought that book read a lot better serialized online, where you (or at least I) didn't notice stuff like the lag in forward motion during the last third of the book, or Shaw's switch to a way less interesting nine-panel grid from the 12 he uses in the first two thirds. Though I agree that the art gets better and better toward the end.

I thought the best part of Wilson was Clowes's use of the Sunday page-ish format to purposefully break his story up in an elegant, uniform way and incorporate a bunch of different visual ideas. It seemed to me an interesting way to battle the "graphic novel-itis" a lot of guys get, where it's obvious they're overthinking the creation of a Very Long Work. (I thought Bottomless Belly Button had that problem.) Anyway, as compared to the chapter format BodyWorld uses to break up its contents, I liked it way better. In Wilson you know every page is going to be something new, because Clowes has designed his entire book that way -- whereas in BodyWorld the sudden, jarring shift in layout and graphic design style after chapter 8 kind of upsets the killer groove Shaw's story rides for the first 200 pages. I would have liked a "Part 1, Part 2, Part 3" type thing a lot better.

No arguments as to your thesis, though -- BodyWorld is a way better book overall, and any format quibbles I have with the chapter breaks are irrelevant in the face of the formatting revolution that book is. The verticality, the fold-out maps? I read that thing on the subway and people were looking at me like I was from the future. "Something new", indeed.

brandon said...

Glad you liked the article! I agree 'Bodyworld' has been a bit slept-on, probably because it was already serialized online, but well, that's not really an excuse.

I think it definitely meanders, especially in the end, but I kinda liked that. It was sorta where my "Infinite Jest" comparison came from: All this shit is building up and building and then only 1/4th resolved. I actually think the whole book has the feeling though, a lot of stuff is just sorta slowed down.

Also, I really liked the nine-panel grids and found them really affecting, especially as the action kinda opens up. So basically I liked the stuff you didn't like which is funny.

And it seems like what you liked about Wilson is what bugged me? So it's more like the formal aspects of one and not the other clicked for one of us. I think my issue with Clowes visual ideas in 'Wilson' is that I didn't see a reason or logic to them? Like why one strip looked like this and not the other.

It's funny what you say about the reading experience of 'Bodyworld'--print vs serial--because I'd agree it reads better online, but Shaw himself suggests that the book is to be read in a few big gulps, while the serial version isn't, but I'd say the book demands more breaks. Weird.

Matt Seneca said...

Re the books' formal devices, I guess what I liked about the first half of Bodyworld better than the second was that the tighter grids just put more on the page. I think the opening up of the layouts works alright at the VERY end, like beginning with that big panel where Pearl is sitting in the gym by herself, but there's a stretch, like in the third quarter of the book, where the nine feels like it's more of a waste of space.

I agree that the different styles of each Wilson page didn't make story sense, but that didn't bother me. It was enough just to see a comic where every page looked new and different -- in terms of pure visuals I liked it better than any other of Clowes' books since all the pages don't look the same! It helped me get through a pretty tepid story, wanting to flip the page to see what the next one would look like.