In the first seven panels of his graphic novel Wilson, Daniel Clowes succinctly establishes the eponymous hero's character. Wilson first exclaims to no one in particular, "I love people!" When a woman walks by, he engages her in conversation. As she begins to complain about her life, he interrupts her: "For the love of Christ, don't you ever shut up?"
WIlson's weak-kneed optimism doesn't last an entire page. His misanthropy is barely tempered by the pale yellow and blue backgrounds that highlight his pot belly and receding hairline.
Words like "insufferable" and "crank" come to mind after an initial reading. As the drawn landscape changes from cheerful pastels to cheerless monotones, you continue turning the pages to find out what Wilson's fate will be. He is engaging inside his cartoon world, but some kind of evolution had to take place in order to translate that abrasiveness into a feature length film. After adapting some of his previous works into screenplays (Ghost World and Art School Confidential), Clowes talked about the differences between the two mediums during a recent interview.
"The thing about a comic is it's very forgiving of a grim tone," the Oakland-based Clowes explains. "It's a comic, and you filter through that lens. You can be as brutal and grim as possible and it doesn't wear down on you. It has a lightness about it." On a screen, he continues, "If that's an actual human being, with pores and ear hairs close-up, that becomes awful and tragic in a way that, when it's just a circle with two dots, it's very different."
The casting of Woody Harrelson as Wilson also changes the equation. Clowes hadn't thought of Harrelson as a Wilson at all: "He didn't even pop into my head. When they suggested him, all of a sudden I realized how that was going to make this character acceptable in a certain way. It's going to make him not unbearable, because he would bring his history of Woody Harrelson-ness to this, and you can't 100 percent hate him."
Clowes is right. Beneath the caustic asides, Harrelson deploys a fine blend of goodness. He makes Wilson's sense of isolation the bad thing, not Wilson himself.
The engine that drives the graphic novel is Wilson's lack of a social life or belonging to a family or community. He wants to change that soul-killing feeling but doesn't know how. For much of the book, we aren't reading Wilson's thoughts. He's speaking out loud to no one in particular, or, as is often the case, to anyone who passes by. Wilson has no sense of personal or conversational boundaries.
"Normally he'd be a character who's all thought balloons, or captions, but that didn't seem right," Clowes says, reflecting on his approach to drawing Wilson. "I didn't want him to feel introspective, even though he is in a way. I wanted him to be all external. It only worked if it all comes out, and he's talking at the world. The only formal comparison I could think of is a soliloquy in a play." That had to be modified for the film.
In the screenplay, Clowes initially tried to have Wilson talking to himself and his dog. However, he notes, "that made him seem schizophrenic. It just made him seem mentally ill, and that undercuts the whole story, so I had to devise ways for him to always be speaking with other people. It also gave the opportunity to have all these new characters, and all these great actors have their little two minutes of speaking time." Margo Martindale, Judy Greer and Mary Lynn Rajskub all make memorable cameos.
Wilson is not strictly autobiographical, but Clowes acknowledges that he feels "like a Wilson much of the time. I spend so much time just working in my studio, drawing, and talking to myself, talking to my dog. I feel very much trapped in that kind of world that he would be in. The minute I'm done with something I feel worthless. I just feel like, 'Oh, what am I doing? I have no purpose in life.'"
Members of the Clowes Fan Club can rest easy though. After signing my copy of Wilson, the artist says he'll be spending the afternoon working on the screenplay for Patience, his sci-fi magnum opus from last year. He may feel like Wilson between projects but, unlike the character he created, Clowes has found his calling.
"Drawing comics became a way I could feel at peace with myself, feel like I could process life through that filter, and it became part of me," he says. "It was like learning a language. When everything is in chaos, that's when I feel comfortable, when I'm in that room and in that space."