Daniel Clowes may be one of the most notable comic artists of our era, a pillar of the '80s-'90s scene who's continued to do great work up to the present day, but he does tend to fixate. His recent books have focused, laserlike, on a human type that's shown up repeatedly in his comics over the last 20 years: a lonely, self-hating man living in his own head, desperate for connection, yet sabotaging it when the chance comes. This man — Wilson in 2010's Wilson, Marshall in 2011's Mister Wonderful, nameless in many other guises — is a heartbreaking figure, and Clowes' controlled style makes it sublimely painful to watch the character live his pathetic life. But he has, nonetheless, been around an awfully long while.
That's why it's so exciting to see the directions Clowes heads in Patience, his story of true love and time travel. Clowes does create another lonely, obsessed male character here, but instead of brooding endlessly over the woman he's lost, Jack does something to help her. In the course of his quest he and the reader get an intimate, heartbreaking portrait of Patience, Jack's one and only love.
Patience begins with a rare (for Clowes) few moments of happiness for the characters: Patience has just discovered she's pregnant. "I will not let my baby grow up like I did," Patience reflects. "She's going to feel loved and secure and protected if it ... kills me!" Jack says he doesn't want to hear about Patience's life before they met. He adds, "I already love the baby so much I can't stand it." They're worried about money, but it feels like anything's possible. Then Jack comes home to find Patience has been murdered. In fact, she's been "fridged," to use feminists' term for a female character senselessly killed in order to provide an impetus for the rest of the story. It's troubling to find Clowes using the gambit.
Tormented by grief, Jack devotes himself to finding the killer. Time rolls on, and "every day," he says, "another thin layer of history separated me just that much farther from the truth." Next thing we know it's 2029, and Jack's life is still where it was 14 years earlier. The only difference is he's now surrounded by bizarrely shaped "future" objects and outlandishly dressed people. (Clowes sketched a vision of the future years ago in an Eightball comic, and it's fun to see how much of it has stuck with him. Inappropriately sexual public displays and everpresent monitors broadcasting a dictator's speeches? Yep! Truck drivers crossdressing in wigs and muumuus? Sadly, no.)
Now that it's the future, though, there's something Jack can do see Patience again. He learns of the existence of a time-traveling device and promptly hurtles back to when she's about 20. (It's not a very precise time-traveling device.) As he struggles to get control of the technology and find Patience's eventual killer, he observes the dark side of Patience's life, "all the ugly [stuff] I never wanted to hear about back when I had the chance."
As Jack witnesses Patience's late teens, a picture emerges of a brave young woman who's managed somehow to escape the bottomless self-absorption of everyone in her family. Patience suffers terribly, but she maintains a fundamental decency and self-reliance without being improbably virtuous. That makes her a heroine of some sort.
Unfortunately, the book doesn't stay with Patience. Jack's time traveling is far from foolproof, and his attempts yank him to different times and places. He suffers strange visions, and his body breaks down and reforms. This gives Clowes a chance to draw fantastic shapes, weird bolts of energy and other fun things, as well as rolling out his patented juicy color scheme. He also sends up the sci-fi and noir genres with ridiculous plot twists and goofy characters.
But the time spent with Patience, in both her past and her changing present, feels much deeper. Jack is more sympathetic than his predecessors in the Clowes oeuvre, but he's still fundamentally like them — obsessed and wrapped up in himself. It's telling that Patience is defined by her lack of these qualities. Clowes draws her more carefully than the bad people she encounters, as though a pure heart could show on one's face. Who knows? Maybe it can.
Etelka Lehoczkyhas written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.