The description from the back cover of Patience, the new graphic novel from cartoonist Daniel Clowes, actually sums up the book much better than any recap or synopsis possibly could: “A cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love.” Of course, even that descriptive summation doesn’t quite scratch the surface of Clowes’ new work. Like his recent books Wilson and Mr. Wonderful, Patience is a complex, nuanced, and at times challenging story about characters trying, in their own sometimes misguided ways, to understand love. While Wilson and Mr. Wonderful focused on the particular neuroses of their title characters, Patience tries for a grander, more universal approach by casting the story across space and time. In the end, however, Clowes manages to create a familiarly character-driven and focused story that fits comfortably with his own idiosyncratic oeuvre.
Patience opens in 2012, with the title character telling her husband that she is pregnant, triggering a mix of joy and nervousness in both characters. While they express excitement initially, the internal monologue of the husband, Jack, reveals a gnawing doubt about his economic future as he debates how to break the news to Patience that he didn’t get the big promotion at work he’d claimed. But, when he returns home from work one evening, he discovers Patience has been strangled to death, and he is the leading suspect. His eventual release from police custody leads Jack on a journey to discover who murdered Patience, focusing on her junkie ex-boyfriend.
Jack’s obsessive search for answers takes a strange twist in the year 2029, when, almost by chance, he discovers that time travel is possible. Since finding his wife’s killer has been his single, guiding focus for most of his life, Jack jumps at the chance to go back to 2006 and stop Patience from meeting the man he believes killed her. Jack poses a stranger (who, it must be noted has more than a passing resemblance to The Terminator thanks to his ever-present sunglasses and cool jacket) sees firsthand the parts of Patience’s life she had kept secret from him. In one hand, this makes Jack care for Patience even more since he sees just how hard life could be for her. However, there was a reason she kept something private, and Jack finding out about them raises some complex moral questions. This voyeuristic element of the story blurs also the line between love and selfishness: Jack’s sole purpose in life is to save his wife, but in doing so he is also seeking a sort of redemption for himself. Even if he does save Patience, their relationship may never be the same after all that he has been through. This mix of obsessiveness and affection runs throughout the story, giving the book a familiar “Clowesian” sense of cynicism and satire.
Of course, like any time travel story, there are complications in Patience, and Jack has to travel even further back in time, making his mission even more difficult. These twists in the story may feel like plot contrivances, but they actually reveal Jack’s character, adding more nuance and complexity to his mission. Jack’s single-minded focus raises some existential issues as well: his search for Patience’s killer becomes his sole purpose in life, what gives him meaning, and he is willing to do anything to complete the mission. Like many of Clowes’ characters, from Enid Coleslaw in Ghost World, or the eponymous lead character in David Boring, Jack is relatable and sympathetic character and strangely off-putting at the same time. Although his love for Patience is obvious, his rude, sometimes hateful, interactions with other characters make him a hard protagonist to root for. However, the end of the story shows that Jack is capable of altruism and compassion after all.
As Jack finally returns to 2012, armed with knowledge about Patience’s past, the story shifts to her perspective as Clowes introduces a slight twist to the story that plays with the logistics of time travel. On one hand, this change in perspective is a clever way of leading to the conclusion of the story. However, it fundamentally changes the relationship between Patience and Jack. Even still, whatever awkward narrative leaps Clowes makes are justified by the genuinely touching final pages of the book, which attempt to capture the mysterious complexities of love. These final moments are among the most honest and sentimental in Clowes’ work, as the banal declarations of love between Jack and Patience at the beginning to the story are replaced with a hard-won wisdom and understanding. As the title implies, love requires a lot of patience.
Like Clowes’ previous books, Wilson and Mr. Wonderful, Patience does explore some complex themes. The fine line between obsession and love is blurred by all of these stories, but Patience feels like the most honest and clear-eyed of the bunch. The lead character of Wilson turns out to be a complete monster, and the lead in Mr. Wonderful never seems to shake his awkward self-doubt. Jack’s prickly attitude an callousness is a cover for his sole driving mission, which is motivated by his love for Patience, and in the end of the book, Clowes is able to resolve the contrast in a way that asks a more universal question about determinism and how love draws people together.
Artistically, Clowes works in his familiar style here. Wilson and Ice Haven saw him alternating between simple, Charles Schultz style cartooning and his more realistic approach. Patience sticks to the more realistic style of cartooning, but Clowes does experiment with some visually striking passages showing the vivid hallucinations Jack suffers as an side effect of his time travel. These passages have a surreal, almost 2001: A Space Odyssey look to them, which give the story an appropriately sci-fi visual flair. That sort of colorful illustration style is something Clowes used more frequently in his older material, so it is interesting to see him go back to it after the more grounded approach in his more recent work.
Although Patience is the most openly sentimental and touching book Clowes has written, anyone familiar with his work will probably find this a comforting and familiar read. Its tone recalls his best known work, and the meandering narrative style is reminiscent of some older works like The Death Ray and David Boring. While the ending tries to address some larger themes, it may not ring true of as poignant for some readers. Anyone new to Clowes might be better served by starting with Ghost World, but overall, Patience is a worthy and rich addition to Clowes’ canon.
As a time traveling love story, Patience is a more sentimental and touching book that Daniel Clowes usually writes.