The past is far behind us / the future doesn’t exist sing the puppets of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. But eventually everyone runs out of time. Never truer than in Patience, which longtime Daniel Clowes fans may not find to be his best work, but is nonetheless unlike anything he’s ever done before – and first time readers will find it an excellent introduction to his talents. Clowes has never created a book of this length or focused upon a protagonist so intense as Jack Barlow, a haunted man whose surname references the vampire of Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot. Like an ageless ghoul, Jack lurks outside of time, referring to himself at one point as a ghost. The story begins with the murder of his pregnant wife, the eponymous Patience, so he’s already dead inside – at least until the discovery of time travel gives him the opportunity to somehow prevent that murder.
The story begins by establishing Jack’s total adoration for Patience and his hopes for their future family are a breathtaking refutation of the divorce-trauma cynicism about traditional family life which characterized Clowes’ generation. Strong stuff from an artist whose name was so synonymous with Gen-X in the 90s that Coca-Cola hired him to design packaging for ironically, intentionally mediocre soda pop. His Fantagraphics contemporary Peter Bagge eventually got married with children too, but even Buddy Bradley’s embrace of fatherhood over any hedonistic autumn years as an aging ink stud (or even Robert Crumb’s for that matter) was never celebrated so sincerely as in these first few opening pages before the bottom drops out. Clowes has also never written a protagonist so obsessively focused on one singular life-or-death matter as Jack’s quest to recover the new beginning his new family symbolized. Personally, Clowes’ The Death-Ray speaks to me more but maybe that’s because I’m not yet a husband or father. There’s palpable excitement for the reader upon realizing how ruthlessly driven Jack Barlow is about what may be an impossible effort, and knowing he has the rest of the heavy tome to see that one objective through.
Except for a few pointed scenes of internal narration by Patience herself, Barlow constantly narrates directly to the reader, alternately terse and conversational. Clowes has done similar character narration before, but never with the film-noirish tone of a furious and potentially doomed man as his star. His anger is far removed from the outbursts of frustrated, semi-passive loners to whom Clowes usually gives center stage. Barlow may be angst-ridden but he’s no nerd; he’ll cave your face in if you get in the way of his mission. He’s also scarily funny, when sometimes indulging the one typically Clowesian trait bestowed upon him; his lack of patience (ahem) for any oblivious idiots blocking his path. The absurdity of these remarks within an otherwise extremely grim story compounds the occasional comic relief into an unexpected shotgun blast; Enid Coleslaw with a laser rifle. Fuck you, asshole – I’m from the future! Even on top of the havoc played with the metaphysics of time-space, Barlow makes the book exciting and unpredictable by sheer force of his personality, and with a menace previously unexplored by the author.
A brief look into the future and some striking double-page spreads of Jack’s body traversing the fourth dimension are the only scenes in Patience as colorful as the front cover and endpapers. They seem like bait to lure in sci-fi fans, because the vast majority of the book’s settings are the fascinatingly banal suburban vistas which Clowes is now a practiced master at rendering. Every scene is deliberately staged for the simplest, most naturalistic compositions, so as not to distract from the long-form character drama. In terms of exploiting the comics medium’s unique qualities, his longest work is also his least ambitious. It’s a far cry from his previous book Wilson, which changed art styles drastically on every page. Patience probably would have worked better as a limited 5 or 6 issue mini-series but Clowes and Fantagraphics know that no one reads comics “issues” and you can’t count on super-creeps noticing your new, capeless title one rack over from the Harley Quinn jack-off material and Deadpool: Crisis On Infinite OMGWTFLOLs. The book’s length actually made it the first time I’ve had to read anything of his in two sittings, which is a new experience. Fortunately there are basically chapter demarcations every time Jack Barlow travels to a new year, so you often have good points to pause and digest at your own pace.
Until this book, I’d never noticed Clowes’ simultaneous disgust for both the upper and lower classes that reoccurs throughout all his work. The plot of Patience hinges on both the privileged amorality of rich overprivileged jerks and the alcoholic violence of underprivileged rednecks, with white trash as almost constant white noise in the background. The always impeccable character designs put as much vivid detail into the stony sidelong glance of an overpriced boutique baby clothes saleswoman, or the condescending smirks of fey urban hipsters, as the glazed bovine misery of midwestern housewives, or the rodent giddiness of their skanky daughters. One great scene finds Jack in a trendy city bar full of pretentious sophisticates who love how “futuristic” his clothes from the future look. Clowes grew up in Chicago and has previously expressed in Eightball his unease with that city’s overly self-conscious compromise between wealthy and working class cultures. He also knows well the spiritual wasteland of the small towns beyond; Jack stalks Patience’s past through her entirely hateful hometown which bears the generically Midwestern name of “White Oak.” The crux of his future wife’s life is escape from this dead-end place, but even as a married couple living together in the (generic, but probably Chicago) big city, they can’t help feeling cheated that there’s so much wealth all around them when all they want is enough to get by and raise their child.
The question of what will happen to our antihero if he’s successful in changing history is deftly sidestepped because Jack isn’t the type of guy to think that aspect through – explicitly, he twice shrugs off any such theorizing as “sci-fi bullshit.” Somewhat disingenuously with the book’s packaging, including the cheekily hyperbolic (but not inaccurate) back cover tagline “A cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love” – the story is at its core a murder mystery with time travel used as a sleuthing method rather than a “time travel” or “sci-fi” adventure. Clowes seems to have only slightly less disdain for genre trappings than Jack Barlow. Only a few pages are spent in a Sixties-ish retro-future for providing him a time travel device, and late in the story when another visitor from the future makes an appearance, he come clad in a ludicrously stupid looking costume. Towards the end I found myself guessing a predictable paradox and sure enough, Jack/Clowes mentions that possibility as an obvious pitfall he’ll have to avoid. Our protagonist’s contempt for “sci-fi bullshit” allows him to see a Twilight Zone twist ending coming just as well as the reader. The actual conclusion cleverly ties together every story thread in a logical way while cohering with the plot’s depiction of time travel; it’s emotionally and intellectually satisfying.
Recommended for everyone, but especially husbands and fathers.
Writer, artist & colorist, Daniel Clowes; production and technological assistance; Alvin Buenaventura; editor and associate publisher, Eric Reynolds; publisher, Gary Groth & Fantagraphics Books, Inc.
Touche. I was wondering if Clowes had anything to say I wanted to hear, but you’ve made me curious enough to try. And yes, I am a husband and a father.
You might also really like “The Death Ray”, which is sort of Clowes’ version of Spider-Man. Is there anything that’s particularly turned you off from him in the past? Did you read Wilson a few years back?