If you’ve read my reviews in the past or spoken with me in person about comicbooks, then you most likely know that when it comes to Daniel Clowes’s work, I have never been able to take a final stand on whether or not I like his comics. Though Eightball as a complete series ranks high in my favorite comics of all time, I really dislike Ghost World, which debuted in Eightball. Clowes’s cynicism and ability to navigate the line between absurdity and reality always motivate me to take a look at anything he creates, but sometimes, he soaks so much contempt for humanity into the pages that I have to stop reading because as much as humans can cause frustration, pain, and anger, I myself cannot look at humanity with such bitterness and despise. I’m sure that says something about my character, but regardless, that optimism despite disappointment in humans (be it foolish or not) modulates my attraction or repulsion to any of Daniel Clowes’s work.
However, those sentiments apply only to creations before Patience, Clowes’s most recent book, which arrived in March of this year. Patience explores the all consuming power of love on the space-time continuum and presents a very different Daniel Clowes to his readership. Sprinkles of skepticism and wit garnish Patience, but overall, the book has a far more introspective tone. Clowes’s visual art stands tall here; in 2016, he has achieved his best artwork to date. His storytelling has more balance than ever, and his writing has a surprising and impressive fluidity.
Sadly, as much as Patience attests to Clowes’s continued growth in skill as a cartoonist, it simultaneously exposes the loss of boldness and subversiveness in his voice as a creator.
Jack Barlow has little in this world beyond his wife Patience. Immediately, when the book opens, we learn, along with the couple, that Patience is pregnant. Jack responds with joy, and Patience responds with happiness but with hesitance. The two love each other, but they may not have a stable income to support their child, which worries Patience. What initially looks like a projected concern for Patience emerges as an actual problem when the readers see Jack going to work, not at a desk, which Patience believes is the case, but at a sidewalk where he hands out flyers. Jack, aware of the multiple responsibilities of parenthood, also worries about his work situation and for that reason has avoided telling Patience about what he actually does to pay the bills, but everything changes on the night that Jack raises enough gumption to tell Patience the truth.
Upon returning to their apartment after work, Jack finds Patience dead. Someone killed her, but no clear suspect stands out. Jack conducts his own investigations for years but without any success. Time passes, and we meet Jack again in 2029 as a middle aged man. Patience still plagues his mind 17 years after her passing, and her unsolved murder haunts him, preventing him from moving forward with anything in his life.
After getting kicked out of his local watering hole, Jack prevents a woman from getting beaten by her boyfriend, and the two spend the evening talking. The girl turns out to be a prostitute and offers Jack a go for his help, but given his grief, he cannot handle such intimacy. Instead, they continue to talk, and the girl mentions how one of her clients has a time machine. Though Jack does not initially believe that the time machine exists, it is his only hope in trying to understand Patience’s death, and so he tracks down the man with the time travel abilities, and he manages to step back in time and into Patience’s life before him.
In his explorations into the past, Jack witnesses the events of Patience’s unspoken life history. The desire to prevent Patience’s murder drives every move he makes, but Jack also uses the time traveling as an opportunity to protect her in moments of sadness and pain that she had hidden from him, which weaves his middle-aged future self into her timeline into the future. Interference with the past usually changes the future, but oddly enough the steps Jack makes in Patience’s past do not drastically change the course of her life, and he eventually gets the chance to prevent her death.
Here, Patience proceeds in its ending toward the sanguine, a term I would not have expected to use when reviewing a Clowes book. Without getting into full details of the end, as the book closes, Jack describes the importance of every event in his and Patience’s life and in the universe at large, and this conveys a level of hubris that would warrant a torrential downpour and flooding from the gods. Every moment to Jack only begins to matter after he’s gone back and changed the course of time, and as he travels back and changes time, he even begins to think that his future self was meant to be part of the past, an arrogant and myopic viewpoint. All parts of life matter to Jack only when he finally gets his way, and this is an offensively bourgeois mindset because time and the world move beyond our minuscule existences, and who are we to determine what matters or not. If everything matters, then Patience’s original death had meaning to it, and claiming that the death occurs because Jack needs to travel back in time to prevent it and to learn more about Patience renders her death into more of a plot device, which is completely fine if the story aimed to simply be entertaining like Time After Time, but Patience culminates in a philosophical statement that only selectively applies to the book itself.
With his closing statement on life and the universe in Patience, Clowes almost seems to apologize for his previous contempt toward the world, but the apology comes from a place I find more offensive than misanthropy: arrogance. In 2016, Clowes is a highly accomplished author who can really do anything he wants. He has a son, even though he claimed he had enormous doubts about fatherhood. Life for Clowes has turned out extremely well, and now, the contempt of his earliest work disappears into a grandiose statement about meaning in life. Sure, we cannot all live in angst for all of our lives, but Patience ultimately feels like a book created out of comfort, out of a bourgeois belief that one can control everything and that if we want something to happen, it will.
Patience perfectly positions itself with the indie rock, creative class Generation X members who seemingly have their lives under control and think that they can bypass death with children, finance, exercise, and organic juice. Maybe I’m too young for this and have a streak of nihilism in me that drives me in my mid-20s, but I just cannot agree with the perspective of Patience, and I hope I never will.