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.

“All my leisure activity was to sit in this room and just look at all these comics,” Clowes recalled in an interview. “At that point, I think it became part of the way I saw the world. I was so in tune with the vision in these comics that I was filtering the world through what I saw in them.”

His earliest serious work, made after he earned a BFA from Pratt in 1984 and produced some adolescent goofiness called The Uggly Family for the Mad knock-off Cracked, was Lloyd Llewellyn, a series of black-and-white comics published by Fantagraphics in the mid-1980s. The title character was a kitschy parody of dime-novel detectives, drawn in the style of cigarette-ad cartoons of the 1950s. The multiple sets of double L’s in Lloyd Llewellyn’s name were a wink to a gimmick in the Superman comics of Clowes’s childhood, which had lots of characters with names like Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang, and treated the alliteration as if it were a mystical unifying motif in the Superman cosmology.

There wasn’t really much to Llewellyn’s character; he was a jokey reduction of a pop-culture stereotype. Still, Clowes’s precocious facility with the comics form infused the Lloyd Llewellyn stories with cryptic visual poetry. The particulars of Llewellyn’s apartment were unstable, like the details in a dream. The place seemed to have a hundred rooms, and they were constantly changing. In one panel, the furniture would be arranged one way; in the next panel, everything would be moved around. The characters never seemed to notice this, and Clowes never drew special attention to it. He understood, as a comics artist still in his mid-20s, that the medium had expressive possibilities all its own.

* * *

Clowes matured as an artist and writer in the pages of Eightball, an anthology comic devoted entirely to his work, published at irregular intervals from 1989 to 2004. A boxed set of the first 18 issues, printed like fine-art monographs on bright white heavy-paper stock and bound in two hardcover volumes, was packaged in 2014 by Fantagraphics as The Complete Eightball, and it documents the consistent fertility of Clowes’s imagination. It shows, at the same time, how much his approach has changed over the years. (Beginning with Volume 19, published in 1998, each issue of Eightball was devoted to Clowes’s serialized long-form project at the time. Those works—David Boring, Ice Haven, and The Death Ray—have all been published as free-standing books and are not included in the Complete Eightball package.)

In the first few years of Eightball, Clowes’s visual style was stiff and flat. He rendered faces in obsessive detail, with lots of exacting cross-hatching. He reveled in grotesquerie, drawing some of the most unnervingly hideous faces in the history of over-the-counter comics: one of a collector of cult exotica with rows of pathetic hair-implant sprouts etched with precision on his scalp; another of an old hack cartoonist with a wax-teeth smile, a stringy pencil mustache, droplets of sweat running down his forehead, and a comb-over of greased, too-long hair.

Many of his characters were no less unappealing emotionally. In the bulk of his work until Ghost World and in much of what has followed till his latest book, most of the people have been self-absorbed, hostile, misanthropic, inert, or otherwise difficult to warm up to. As Clowes explained in an early interview, “It’s hard to have characters who are honest and that you are honest about that the audience is going to like.”

Clowes has said that he sees all his characters as “different parts of [his] own personality.” The distaste for humanity in much of his work, particularly in his early years, runs so deep that one can’t help but wonder how much of it was really self-loathing.

Over time, Clowes’s visual style has grown lighter, softer, cleaner—less detailed and more suggestive—while many of his characters have become more appealing. He has learned how to understate and imply emotions with a few judiciously placed lines. Many of the stories in the early anthology-format issues of Eightball were episodes of various continuing features: Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Pussey!, and Ghost World. When Clowes prepared this material to be collected in books dedicated to the individual features, he redrew many of the panels in a simpler, airier style. The differences, in some cases, were striking. In one panel of Ghost World as it originally appeared in Eightball, one of the two main characters, Rebecca Doppelmeyer, is scowling unpleasantly as she reads a TV-listings magazine. In the book version, she looks pretty and content.

Rebecca, the Betty Cooper–ish emblem of stability in Ghost World, and her friend, the cranky, sulking Enid Coleslaw, were both overt expressions of different sides of Clowes at the time of the work’s creation: Doppelmeyer was his doppelgänger, Enid his id. (As Clowes fans no doubt figured out immediately, “Enid Coleslaw” is an anagram of the author’s name.) More significantly, Rebecca and Enid were, according to Clowes, the first characters he created that he saw sympathetically. “I think it’s clear they’re given a sort of sympathy I don’t extend to the male characters,” Clowes observed.

His next major book, David Boring, was published by Pantheon in 2000 after serialization in Eightball, and it shows Clowes making a point to create a multidimensional male character who is, at very least, not hateable. Boring’s surname is a nod to a vintage Superman artist, Wayne Boring, as well as an ironic character description. The book concerns its main subject’s obsessive pursuit of an impossible romantic ideal, mixed up with echo-chamber excerpts from a mock ’60s superhero comic called The Yellow Streak, along with a subplot about the threat of nuclear disaster. The book is strange and slyly perverse, more innovative than Ghost World if not quite as rewarding emotionally.

Patience brings together everything Clowes has learned to do since he published his first Lloyd Llewellyn story 30 years ago. It is wildly imaginative in a way that is right and sound for a comic, while also being maturely emotive. Clowes, who has an 11-year-old son, underwent open-heart surgery for a life-threatening cardiac problem a few years ago. The themes of Patience are ones clearly dear to him: parenthood and mortality.

The plot, like that of a vintage Hitchcock thriller such as Vertigo or Rear Window, is fairly complicated, tightly planned out, and ultimately incidental to the psychological content. There are two main characters, each nicely developed and flawed but also sympathetic: Patience, a young wife and mother with a sordid past, who is murdered by page 13 of the 180-page book; and Jack, the young husband and father who starts the story as a weak-willed loser, lying to his wife about being promoted to a dispatcher’s job when he’s really handing out porno flyers on the sidewalk. The second chapter jumps ahead 17 years, to a time that Clowes neatly evokes with the retro-future shorthand of elevated trains, women with blue skin, and men in caped outfits straight out of one of artist Al Plastino’s visions of the 30th century in the Legion of Super-Heroes comics from Clowes’s youth.

This latter-day Jack gets his hands on a time-travel device and uses it for the rest of the book to try to sort out Patience’s past, come to terms with his own history, and not only avenge the murder of his wife and unborn child but prevent it. The situation, for all its obvious otherworldliness, provides Clowes with a mechanism to explore worldly questions of special resonance to those who, like him, have been forced to confront their own mortality: How did I end up this way? What could I have done differently? How would I change things if I could get a second chance?

Jack’s adventures through time and his conscience take turns that are terrifically entertaining, startling, a bit silly, and ultimately moving. Patience is a work of high comics so smart, so serious, and so finely wrought that I shouldn’t diminish it by saying it’s better than any novel without pictures I’ve read this year.