William Goldsmith, Vignettes of Ystov; Nick Hayes, The Rime of the Modern Mariner; Daniel Clowes, Mister Wonderful

02/04/11, The Times

One brilliant graphic novel in April may be an accident but three together looks like supremely intelligent design. It is difficult to keep the word ‘genius’ at bay while reading Vignettes of Ystov by William Goldsmith. A book like no other, it is a series of two-page chapters, each concentrating on a single or a pair of characters in the imagined city of Ystov (possibly an ex-Soviet Republic or an Iron Curtain country). The characters are all gently weird: a duo who counts coincidences in order to debunk them and who later follows the trajectories of recycled furniture; a smell-obsessed “nose lover” who tries to sculpt the perfect nose and create a gallery of modern smells; a strange foods vendor (‘albino jellyfish wrapped in eucalyptus bark’); a janitor who meticulously catalogues and displays dustpan detritus over a lifetime. Some chapters are like haikus, for example, the one about a woman who sits opposite a man carrying a bunch of crocuses in a crowded bus. Slowly characters from one chapter start appearing in others, creating links that bind the book into a kind of crazy anthropology of a fictional town. Absurd, funny, exhilarating and utterly original, the book brings to mind those fait-divers in newspapers, which inspired Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines. It is drawn and lettered exquisitely, with each chapter washed in various shades of one contrasting colour, say, orange or blue, besides the grey and black, and written precisely and beautifully. Goldsmith is one of the finest new talents who are remaking the form; we’d do well to watch him.

Nick Hayes’s The Rime of the Modern Mariner, a rewriting of Coleridge’s poem, is a work of sustained labour and, often, a thing of soaring beauty. The mariner in Hayes’s tale tells of his spell stuck in the North Pacific Gyre, the scene of extreme environmental degradation and a shocking picture of what man has done to the planet and its inhabitants. Saved from death and haunted by what he has seen, he roams the land, telling his cautionary tale to anyone who will listen. How successful Hayes’s polemic is will depend on how much indulgence you have for lines such as, ‘So I turned around frustrated/And looked across the sea/And saw we were surrounded by a wash of polythene./Swathes of polystyrene/Bobbed with tonnes of neoprene/And polymethyl methacrylate stretched across the scene.’ Using a limited palette of blues (and black and white, of course), Hayes makes his artwork look like woodcuts, refracting Eric Gill at times, at times the Arts and Crafts school.

Daniel Clowes, the reigning king of delicate misanthropy, is back with yet another coruscating tale of self-doubt, self-loathing and the possibility, or otherwise, of finding love in Mister Wonderful. No title ever bore the dark weight of such irony. Clowes, now indisputably one of the finest chroniclers of excruciated American masculinity, pegs his latest work on the hook of blind date and scrutinises the minefield of relationships from the undivided point of view of an unattractive, broke, newly-redundant, middle-aged man with an unsuccessful marriage and six years of being single behind him. Marshall, almost stood up on the date, realises, to his utter incredulity, when she does turn up, over an hour late, that Natalie is young, intelligent and gorgeous. The evening progresses from dinner, through a mugging, to a party where the unravelling, always present in the scenes, appears onstage. And yet, after the climactic devastation, in equal parts hilarious and dismaying, hope for redemption is held out. Dense with interiority, surgical in its precision with emotions, Mister Wonderful is yet another of Clowes’s poems of losers and outsiders.