In 1994, Dan Clowes had recently completed his first attempt at a longform comic story, the surrealistic Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and he had just embarked on his most realistic story to date, Ghost World. If you were to tap a Clowes fan on the shoulder in those days and tell her that in the future, Clowes would create a graphic novel that identifies him visually as an heir to superhero comics icons Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, she would either laugh at you, tell you you’re making shit up, or inform you that strangers tapping her on the shoulder and making weird predictions in public places make her very uncomfortable.
And yet here we are: Fantagraphics just published Patience, an enormous new sci-fi comic from Clowes. Specifically, it’s about time travel. This is the first time in recent memory that Clowes has openly embraced genre — Ice Haven was kind of but not really a mystery, The Death Ray was literary fiction that skirted the edges of a superhero story — and in that respect, it’s hard not to characterize it as some kind of a turning point in his career.
The book tells the story of Jack, a man who falls in love with a woman named Patience. One day, he comes home to find her dead (Or did he kill her? He’s certainly not the most reliable narrator.) Eventually, decades after he’s blamed for the crime and eventually exonerated, Jack discovers an experimental method of time travel. He goes back to Patience’s past and tries to save her from dying. Broader questions of destiny and free will are raised.
These are the elements of a pretty straightforward time travel story. But Patience is unmistakably Clowesian, which means the aspects that he doesn’t choose to show us are just as meaningful, if not more, than what’s on the page. As Jack’s attention wanders, so does the narrative: sometimes important things happen just off-panel, as though a cameraman became bored while filming a TV show and let his lens wander around the set at just the wrong moment. Occasional word balloons are chopped off by obstructions, leaving a kind of erasure. Early in the book, Jack talks over a conservative TV commentator. He asks, “Why are we watching this again?” And his word balloon overlaps the one springing from the TV, so the latter now reads:
As my country veers
precariously toward the
You can kind of fill in the blanks there, but in other instances the word balloon is almost completely hacked away by the edge of a panel, leaving a few pointy stubs of letters hanging precariously off the edge of a page. And sometimes the thing that’s being said is very likely an important piece of dialogue, the sort of thing that might change our understanding of the plot.
The ambiguity is enhanced by the fact that Jack is a classic Clowes creep of a main character: he’s abrasive, and his obsession over Patience wobbles like an unbalanced clothes dryer. “That girl’s an angel,” Jack tells himself early on. “She’s got a heart of pure gold and she’d absolutely stick by me no matter what happened. I have to always remember that.” Those clichés piled on each other feel like an earnest lie, like Jack’s madly trying to convince himself of something. By the time he travels back to the past to save Patience’s life, his battered face barely can hold an expression; he wears sunglasses to hide his eyes from everyone. His misanthropy extends even to the story that he’s starring in: at one point in Patience, he whines in a caption, “I’m so goddamn sick of all the science-fiction mind-fuck bullshit, all the guessing games and impossible, unsolvable riddles. I just want it all to fucking end.”
Readers will likely not share that sentiment: sure, Jack is a difficult man to follow for almost two hundred pages, but Patience is a joy to read, in part because Clowes’s art has never been this incredible. Fans of his traditional dense pages, packed with small panels of faces bearing complex emotions, still will find plenty to enjoy here. But Patience broadens the scope. It’s physically a large book, and Clowes frequently indulges in enormous panels—even, often, splash pages and double-page spreads. If you were to read Ice Haven and Patience in quick succession, it would be like watching Fargo on an iPhone and then immediately going to see 2001 on an IMAX screen.
These larger canvases give Clowes room to breathe, and he fills all that space in fascinating ways. After the story first jumps to 2029, we meet Jack as an old man in a futuristic bar. He’s drinking alcohol out of a bong-shaped beaker, people are wearing funny things on their heads, and there’s a weird, supposedly futuristic light over Jacks’ head. But Clowes also takes the time to illustrate, in the background, a woman watching a very large TV in the back of the bar. Something about the woman onscreen is making the woman in the bar nervous. She’s reared back in her seat, a bit, her lips parted. Like a lot of Clowes’s characters, she’s halfway between beautiful and deformed, as though there’s maybe a couple generations of inbreeding not too many branches down on the family tree. We don’t see her again, but she’s utterly captivating.
Clowes seems to be having, forgive me, the time of his life with the sci-fi elements of Patience. Jack nearly has sex with a blue woman who seems shipped in from a low-budget Star Trek porn parody. A bartender wears a dental implement on his head presumably for purposes of fashion. And then in a few breathtaking psychedelic passages, Jack endures the tortures of time travel in wonderfully visual way: stripped of his skin, he runs, screaming, through passages lined with probing, fleshy tendrils. A laughing black skull explodes through the sky. Jack finds himself floating in a Kirbyesque cosmic tableau, with columns of smoke and sparks and crystals whizzing past him as aspects of his physicality come alive: we can see some veins through his sweatshirt, his muscles through his pants, his intestines in his gut, the outline of a phone in his pocket.
It’s as though the two titans of early Marvel Comics, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, suddenly stepped in to take over the story at points of Patience. Fans of those two will feel as though they’re seeing an old friend again after a long absence. I can’t think of another example in comics to compare to Clowes at this point in his career: never to my knowledge has an artist with so many phenomenal books to his name made such a shift in his style so dramatically and so successfully. Imagine if, in the mid-1980s, Charles Schulz walked away from Peanuts and decided to paint wall murals interpreting Grateful Dead lyrics. That’s overshooting Clowes’s transition in Patience, but not by too much.
The problem with writing a time travel story is, always, the ending. There are only a few ways you can go: everything works out, the protagonist is ironically punished for their attempts to change the timeline, everything is different, nothing is different. Clowes embraces one or two of those endings, but he’s also true enough to his Clowesian spirit of ambiguity to leave things up in the air. Which is to say that some readers will probably feel ripped off that Clowes didn’t manage to discover some new twist on the genre. (It’s 2016. There is no new twist on the genre.) That’s okay. Everything about the book, even its title, is telling them to pause and think and take a little time with it. This is a good lesson to learn.
Even Jack is aware of the genre tropes he’s messing around in. He admits in a panel that “…yeah, of course it’s crossed my mind that maybe somehow, by some cosmic fluke, I’ll turn out to be the killer.” You can’t really tell a time travel story anymore where the character is unaware of time travel tropes, or without addressing the broader base concept that — whoa — we’re all traveling through time, at a rate of one second per second. Ultimately, though, none of that is important. What is important is what you do with time (making good time, spending time, killing time, having time to spare) and Patience is a remarkable physical chunk of time. It represents five years of Clowes’s life, and it should represent many hours of reading and rereading in yours.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant