It’s partly ironic, as Marshall himself notes he’s not exactly a great catch, although as the story progresses he gets the opportunity to act like—or at least attempt to act like—a knight in shining armor a few times
The title could just as easily refer to Clowes himself though. As should come as no surprise at this point in the cartoonist’s career, the book is wonderful.
Originally created for The New York Times Magazine, where it ran serially, the expanded and modified Mister Wonderful shares the horizontal, comic strip-novel appearance of the earlier Pantheon-published Ice Haven, although Mister Wonderful is much more straightforward and focused on a single character with a single story.
It begins with Marshall sitting alone in a coffee shop, waiting for his date Natalie to show up, his mind racing as he looks at each woman by herself and wonders if she’s his date, and going over how he got here. His thoughts are presented in yellow narration boxes, familiar to readers of superhero comics from the second half of the last century.
The nature of the story will be familiar to anyone who has seen very many movies, as it’s sort of a one crazy night narrative, beginning at 6:09 p.m. and terminating with breakfast the next morning, with stops at a party and the hospital in between.
It’s written like a short story or novella however, with Marshall first-person narrating most of it, flashing back to scenes of his past, telling us about Natalie telling us about her own past and imagining and fantasizing things.
Despite the easy comparisons to other media, however, Mister Wonderful is the best kind of comic book—the kind that could only be told as a comic.
Clowes uses splash pages to great effect, the spreads of two, six-to-eight panel pages occasionally making way for a massive two-page panel revealing an important beat. Marshall “thinks over” dialogue, and the reader sees the narration boxes placed atop dialogue balloons. Sometimes, the reverse happens, and dialogue bubbles peek in from off-panel, obscuring his narration box.
Other comic book-specific aspects are even more highly visual, like Clowes’ illustration of Marshall’s wandering thoughts of his ideal relationship, or drawing of a very specific post-apocalyptic street scene to illustrate the simple thought “There’s so little time left. Not just for me but for all of us…”
In one scene, Marshall argues with a Mr. Mxyzptlk-like imp of himself. In another, when a character talks about harsh words hanging in the air, Clowes draws those words as physical objects in a scene.
It’s a remarkable work. Clowes is a master cartoonist, and every panel features delightful linework, making the book a pleasure to look at as well as to read. The reliance on old-school kids’ comics storytelling techniques to tell a very grown-up story—the back cover refers to Mister Wonderful as a “midlife romance”—makes this an actually quite rare comic book that isn’t just for kids anymore (Pow, biff and bam).
What’s perhaps most remarkable, however, is the degree to which Clowes creates a character, allows the reader to inhabit that reader’s skull and hear and live with the character’s thoughts, and sustain it for so long.
It’s a relatively short story, easily read in a single sitting, and I’m hesitant to use the word novel in association with it, although it certainly functions like prose fiction, like good old-fashioned literature. Clowes just uses comic book panels instead of words, and he uses them as effectively as some of the best of today’s fiction writers use their words.