An insecurity about the “graphic novel” form is embedded in its very name. The term is defensive, an assertion that comics working at a high level of artfulness and seriousness are good enough to be thought of as something other than comics.
As much as I love comics of nearly every kind, from newspaper-strip juvenilia like Big Nate to the assertively sophisticated long-form works of Alison Bechdel, I can’t avoid thinking of graphic fiction (and nonfiction) in comparative terms myself. I think of Bechdel as intellectual because the discursive passages in her books remind me of Rebecca Solnit’s essays. I think of the Hernandez brothers (collaborators Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario) as masters of character development because the rivalrous lovers in their Love and Rockets books are as fully realized as the embattled couples in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The nostalgically seedy metropolis in Ben Katchor’s ongoing accounts of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer is imaginatively credible in the same way as the stories in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel. The spare, quotidian eloquence of Adrian Tomine’s work reminds me of Ann Beattie’s.
Daniel Clowes, the artist and writer best known for Ghost World, the 1997 graphic narrative of two young slackerish women faithfully adapted to the screen by director Terry Zwigoff (with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Clowes and Zwigoff), is a graphic novelist of a rare breed. He writes and draws books that are profoundly human, emotionally complicated and veracious, but at the same time pure comics. The great strength of his work is its humanity. Yet it finds that strength through the comics medium, doing things that only comics can do, in the language of drawings and word balloons. Clowes’s books are works of high comics, and his new one, Patience, is not only among the best of his best, but also the work of his that is the most like nothing other—and nothing less—than a comic book.
Patience, the story of a man transformed by the murder of his young pregnant wife, is outwardly a science-fiction story: The hero grows into middle age haunted by her death and travels back in time on a mission to save his wife and the unborn baby. At its heart, though, the book is a study of the morality of desperation. Beneath its pulpy, knowingly outlandish cartoon surface, there’s an improbably emotive tale of two complicated people who make mistakes and struggle with their consequences.
It has taken a lifetime of reading, writing, and drawing comics for Clowes to achieve the coolly assured and utterly unpretentious creative maturity and virtuosity with the form on display in his new book. As he has recalled in interviews, he grew up as a comics obsessive in the 1960s, the era of blissfully ridiculous superhero comic books, in which Supergirl galloped around the sky on a Super-Horse and her cousin Superman kept a bottled city of miniature duplicates of his Earthly friends in his Fortress of Solitude. Clowes, reading comic-book images before he learned how to read words, absorbed the visual vocabulary of the medium and tried to make sense of the pictures, imagining when he saw a couple kissing in a panel that the woman was attempting to eat the man’s face.