What is happening to Wilson? He keeps changing. He's like the astronaut at the end of 2001: now steady, now quivering, his age and carriage apparently in flux; we can sense some heavy mystical transformation going on, but we can tell by his astonished eyes that underneath it all, he's still him. Well, change might do Wilson some good. In his steady state, he's kind of a dick. "I love people!" may be the first words out of his mouth, but six panels later, and possibly forever thereafter, it's as though he's had it with all of us. That's the joke.
We see the rebarbative fortysomething solipsist alone on a walk, puzzling over how he came to live in Oakland. As a kid, he hated Oakland. Now he's coming around. "It's kind of a beautiful place, I have to admit," he says. "Decent folks ... a good, honest American city, y'know?" Then something catches his eye. "Jesus Christ, that bum is taking a shit right on the goddamn sidewalk!"
Clearly Oakland author and illustrator Daniel Clowes is putting his protagonist, and his readers, through some kind of paces. Wilson the book, like Wilson the man, runs a gamut of cartoon styles in a relentless, cumulative series of single-page setup-punchline gags. That, too, is the joke. It's so Clowes can show us just how far we've come, for better and worse, from the fading old comforts of the Sunday funnies.
"When you imagine the future," Wilson laments, "you always think there's going to be more stuff, but really there's just different stuff, and it's never the stuff you were hoping for."
He registers his disappointment by flinging insults at nearly everyone he meets: the dog-walking neighbor, the cafe guy, the equity manager in the airport, the I.T. dweeb on the plane, the worrying woman in the SuperShuttle, or his own dying father. And others still. No one is safe from Wilson's derision. Maybe his dog is safe, but she'll be out of his life soon enough.
The beauty of it, and the horror, is how easily we can see where Wilson is coming from. He resents his isolation just enough to perpetuate it. In another scene, seated at a small table against a voidlike white background, tapping away at his laptop, he asks, "If I'm connected to so many people, why do I feel so profoundly alone every time I turn this thing on?"
After his dad dies, Wilson goes looking for his long-lost ex-wife, wondering whether she ever had that baby. The ensuing family reunion does not warm the heart. But Clowes does achieve a sort of golden ratio of internal proportions. Each panel is to each episode as each episode is to the whole: autonomous but also foundational, emotive but economical.
Some readers will wonder whether the world really needs another maladjusted, illustrated misanthrope. (See also the work of Adrian Tomine, Ivan Brunetti, Robert Crumb — and Daniel Clowes. Obviously the Oscar-nominated creator of Ghost World, among several other rightly beloved comics, has a way with misanthropy.) But it's telling that Wilson's failed social assimilation is of a sort that has been going on in this medium since the beginning. If superhero comics traded in alter egos, and Crumb comics in altered states of id, Clowes has necessarily and productively split those legacies' differences.
Wilson's anxious, introspective solitude also could be said to be in the mode of Charles M. Schulz, but with the difference of explicit vulgarity and discernible aging — the latter, of course, being its own explicit vulgarity. "Christ," Wilson says near the end, "it's unbelievable how you go from feeling young to old in a few short years." We know how it goes, the more things change.