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