Robot 6

Do you need to like a character to like the comic he’s in?

from Wilson by Daniel Clowes

from Wilson by Daniel Clowes

“Likable characters are for weak-minded narcissists.” So says Daniel Clowes, the author of the recently released Wilson — and given that the book and its irascible protagonist have proven about as divisive as the Lost finale, his tongue may be only partially in cheek. The titular character in Clowes’s novel is a self-described people person who’s constantly decrying the way culture and technology fragment and divide society, but he does this in the nastiest and most insulting way possible to everyone he knows, leaving him no better off than the IT workers, superhero-blockbuster fans and so on he lambastes. He’s a tough character to like.

But does that mean Wilson is a tough book to like? Isn’t there such a thing as an unlikable character you love to read about nonetheless? Tim Hodler of Comics Comics says no and yes, respectively. In a post on the book, Hodler argues that the response to Wilson, particularly the negative response, has centered far too much on Wilson’s unlikability, ignoring the way other art forms have showcased jerks for centuries to memorable effect:

Because you know who’s unlikable? Oedipus! Medea! Hamlet! Macbeth! Captain Ahab! Three out of the four brothers Karamazov (probably a different three for every reader but)! Pretty much every character from the novels of Jim Thompson, the movies of Stanley Kubrick, and the poems of T.S. Eliot! I haven’t even mentioned the comics yet, but it is clear that the form boasts a very long, venerable, and distinguished tradition of characters that don’t invite “emotional investment” (from Otto Soglow’s Little King to Mark Newgarden’s Little Nun). Not everything good in art depends upon triggering the reader’s sympathies—and emotionally attaching yourself to fictional characters is not art’s only valid response.

Obviously comics have a grand tradition of anti-heroes, or at the very least characters with a nasty or unpleasant streak, who nonetheless come across as pretty cool or sympathetic in other ways. But unlike, say, Wolverine or John Constantine, Wilson doesn’t have any of the hallmarks of badassery. He’s just flat-out repulsive. But so what? Can’t using a repulsive person as your main character open up a whole new set of story opportunities and emotional responses?

To take this back to Lost for a second — because it’s that kind of week, after all — I was always taken aback by the fervor of the show’s anti-Jack fans. All the things about him they cited as reasons he was the series’ most annoying character — his stubbornness, his failures, his insistence on taking charge and making decisions he was ill-equipped to make — made him the series’ most fascinating character to me. His journey from clear-cut square-jawed hero (albeit with daddy issues) to suicidal perpetual screw-up struck me as a hugely gutsy and rewarding choice by the show’s writers. It didn’t matter to me that I wouldn’t want to hang out with him, or follow him across the jungle; as Hodler says, that kind of thing isn’t the be-all and end-all of fiction.

So what say you, Robot 6 readers? Are you willing to give comics about creeps a chance? Or do you think comics work better when you’re able to truly feel for their characters?

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17 Comments

Took me a while to get into “Dead Like Me” and “Wonderfalls” because the protagonist of each of these excellent shows was so completely unlikeable.

Stuck with them and that made it for me, but only because others had done so before and expressed that these were shows worth sticking with.

To me, characters disliked by the viewer, reader, or what-have-you are generally disliked or hated because they’re far too close to the individual fan’s own life experiences. Most people hated Jack Shephard because he had so many common human flaws, such as the desire to take charge, find the solution on his own and, of course, fix everything (especially prevalent among the male gender). He could very easily remind the viewer of their father, brother, lover or themselves.

I had the same problem with a David Lapham book I read recently, the name of which I won’t mention because I will be very harshly judged. I hated it at first, and then I realized I hated it because it was, in a sense, about me and the people in my life. Now I love it.

But yeah, Brutus and Alex DeLarge sort of suck as people (as characters, they’re fantastic, obviously), but I’ll be damned if Cassius and Dim aren’t amazingly fun.

First, I strongly agree with this line from Holder: “Not everything good in art depends upon triggering the reader’s sympathies—and emotionally attaching yourself to fictional characters is not art’s only valid response.” I think that’s true, and it isn’t touched on or considered in a lot of talk about what makes for good stories or characters.

No, I don’t have to like a character to like the story. Today I was reading Torpedo volume one, and the main character of that book is not sympathetic at all. I like Blade of the Immortal a lot, and most of those characters aren’t sympathetic. I keep watching The Tudors even though I downright hate–not love to hate, just hate–the king, Cromwell, etc. In all of those series there is something in the drama, in the writing, the execution of the story, the acting, or whatever, that makes me enjoy the work as a whole.

On the other hand, there are characters whom I dislike so much–who are so annoying or disgusting–that their presence in a story overwhelms whatever strengths the work has. Those characters aren’t simply unlikable, they actively push me away from the story. Jack on Lost comes close to that for me. I still watch the show, but I’ve often fast-forwarded through scenes focused on him, regardless of any clues or story beats I might be missing. It’s hard to think of many more examples, b/c I avoid reading/watching them.

Lord Cornsyrup

May 25, 2010 at 3:48 pm

I think the answer depends on the talent of the writer and how a character relates to the story being told. For example, the things that make Ahab “unlikable” in Moby Dick is what drives that story. It is a story of madness and obsession.

It is the character within the context of the work-not the character in and of itself. If someone wrote a new play with just the character of Hamlet, I am not going to see that play just it has Hamlet in it.

Simon DelMonte

May 25, 2010 at 6:51 pm

First off, I am with you about Jack Shepard. He has long been a favorite, and I have long not gotten the hate for him, or for Matthew Fox. But I think that Jack is essentially likeable. It was Ben Linus was forever creepy and offputting and yet the show’s most fascinating character. I loved seeing him in action, but would never, ever want to meet him.

Secondly, let’s say this: sometimes Batman, the most popular and successful super-hero out there, is a total jerk. Arrogant, cold, harsh, and unlikeable. And yet Batman. He can be fascinating because he grapples with his humanity, with his inner demons, and with his tendency to treat his loved ones badly despite knowing better.

And what of Jack of Fables? I didn’t particularly care for this comic because of how worthless Jack is. But it clearly has fans who read it despite him. Or because of him.

I loved Robert Kirkman’s Irredeemable Ant Man series from a few years back specifically because there was no possible way for you to like the main character.

Holder’s literary comparison isn’t convincing. Hamlet is very likable: funny, fragile, strange and compelling on the strange. Nor are Macbeth, Ivan Karamazov or Ahab people I’d want to have dinner with, but they are psychologically rich characters and thus compelling to watch self-destruct. If Wilson is “just flat-out repulsive,” that seems a far cry from these great flawed protagonists.

I don’t think so, and that isn’t restricted to comics. Two of my favorite shows ever are Seinfeld and the Wonder Years — two shows that have, from what I can see, extremely annoying characters that I wouldn’t want to spend any of my time with. But I loved the shows so much.

In comics, I’ve been known to like a random Hulk story now and then, even if I really really don’t like the Hulk. Same goes for Iron Man. And I absolutely can’t stand Adam Warlock, yet I loved the Infinity Gauntlet.

I don’t necessarily need to like the main character. But I do need the reading experience to be pleasant on some level. If the main character is unpleasant to read about, then the book, or comic, has to make up for that in some other way. If I like the main character, then maybe that’s all I need.

Ganon: Well, here’s the thing–when I called Wilson “flat-out repulsive” I was doing so in comparison to anti-heroes or villains we love to hate, like Wolverine or Constantine or Ben Linus for that matter. What I’m saying is that Wilson lacks those sort of badass wish-fulfillment characteristics that antiheroes or villains tend to have. Wilson’s not “cool” like that. That said, we can like characters because we enjoy the role they play in the stories they’re in. Hamlet and Macbeth may be varying levels of creep, but as I said in the post, they enable Shakespeare to tell a different kind of story than if they were guys you’d want to get a beer with. As Lord Cornsyrup puts it (wow, there’s a phrase you don’t see every day), the very things that make Ahab “unlikable” are what drive the story of Moby-Dick.

It seems a little like a mug’s game to try to discuss Wilson as a character if you haven’t read the book, but I like him in the sense that I like the story he enables Clowes to tell, which is very funny (largely thanks to Wilson himself, who’s hilarious) and frequently a punch to the gut.

Is he “psychologically rich,” necessarily? I don’t know what I’d say to that. He doesn’t grow, not really, but how much does that matter? Tim alludes to this a bit in his own post by citing things like Jarry and Brecht, but psychological complexity isn’t any more of the be-all and end-all for great fictional characters than is likability. And you don’t even need to go back to your intro-level theater courses to come up with examples: Most of the great “characters” constructed by comedians who play themselves are funny because they’re not psychologically complex and don’t grow, from Laurel & Hardy to Tim & Eric. So I’d say that in comparison to, say, Ghost World, or even Mister Wonderful, I think Clowes is after something different in Wilson, and it’s weird to judge the book harshly because the character isn’t Falstaff.

I can agree with that, Sean. Indeed, I think that the counterpoint of Jarry can explain why people tend to disconnect from a work like Wilson, insofar as this suggests a deliberately avant-garde artistic orientation that seeks to challenge its audience. (By the way, hardly the same thing as Laurel and Hardy, whose flatness as characters is part of a creative intention to amuse us). Which is to say, Wilson may just be asking the audience to take a bigger leap than simply foregoing the action and revenge fantasies: it’s asking them to move past a certain order of pleasure that can be derived from character, psychology and development. I love Beckett, but I’m hardly surprised most people don’t. Such challenges are entirely welcome, in comics as anywhere else, but I think they tend to challenge even sophisticated audiences, not just those who like Wolverine killing people.

Thanks, Sean. I planned on coming on here to explain myself to Gannon (as I said in a comment back in the thread of my original post, I may have unintentionally confused people with the Shakespeare and Melville examples), but you’ve already done a good job of doing exactly that.

Oh, and Gannon, one interesting thing about Beckett, of course, is how he used the flatness of Laurel and Hardy character types in his Godot. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Wilson fits into that Beckettian tradition of bending around flat comic archetypes to unusual effect.

Thanks for the response, Tim. There is a weird transfer between the pop and the avant-garde (Laurel and Hardy to Beckett). I wonder how often comics makes that transfer? Grant Morrison does and I’m sure others who aren’t coming to mind at the moment. Do you think Clowes has done that in Wilson?

“King of the Hill’s” Peggy Hill character drives me absolutely crazy. I can’t decide if she’s more ignorant or narcissistic, but neither quality endears to me.

Having said that, I think that’s what the writers set out to do with her.

@Ganon: It depends on how you define “avant-garde,” I suppose, but basically yes. Though maybe not in the way you’d expect. You could even argue he takes the opposite approach to Beckett: examing a “real” character through the lens of comic-strip formula.

Seems like a bit of a false dichotomy to me. I can enjoy main characters like Steve Rogers or Captain Picard, who are about as likable and decent as anyone could be, just as much as a despicable monster like Kratos or selfish assholes like Dethklok. It’s much more about how the character fills the role they’re meant to than what role they’re actually playing.

Sean T. Collins

May 26, 2010 at 11:50 am

I just want to thank Tim for bridging the gap between Jarry and Laurel & Hardy with the single word “Beckett.” That about sums it up!

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