Review: Daniel Clowes’ “Patience”

It seemed especially apt to burn through the latest graphic novel from Daniel Clowes on Valentine’s Day.  Billed as “a cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love,” Patience is a modern romantic celebration replete with all the proper twists and a healthy dose of self-fulfilling jabs to melt even the frostiest of winter hearts. Paired with Clowes’ newest account of misfits and their bleeding hearts, the relentless Appalachian snow never felt so appropriately embracing.patience
It’s 2012, and Patience and her husband Jack Barlow, are expecting their first child. Both are thrilled, albeit a tad worried about the impending responsibility, and the shift their lives will inevitably undergo.  Although completely “goo-goo” for each other, the underlying fabric of their relationship is built on many subtle mysteries hidden meticulously in the past. Each is a joy to unearth, while at the same time feeling a bit like a betrayal because, as Clowes’ characters tend to go, their menial existence resonates for the reader–that is: these characters are knowable. Patience and Jack are imbued with a recognizable and familiar (though not stock) life from the first panel onward, and all of their movements and lingering insecurities are eloquently drawn in the book’s bright detail. They believably ache for each other, which only makes the first of many tragedies all the more gut-wrenching.
Jack returns home to find Patience dead on the floor, and the police prematurely arrest him before the facts are straightened out.  Clowes does not linger on this timely happening, as our country is currently embroiled in the controversies that arise over delivering or not delivering truth and justice, but make no mistake that the author is subtly poking fun at our legal system as we see Jack’s life ripped apart by the man with no possible means of recovery.  His release and subsequent obsession with Patience’s untimely demise leads to the colorfully dense, yet scientifically trashy world of the year 2029.
After seventeen years of harbored emotional imbalances, a now gray-haired Jack stumbles upon a solution to his woes:  Bernie, an overweight scientist, has created a time-traveling device. He is heartened.  “And right there – POW – I could feel the blood gushing back into my heart.  I was born again, a walking hurricane!  A deadly mother-fucking force of nature!”  Where Jack will choose to go is a foregone conclusion, but when he returns to 2006 and takes on the role of guardian angel to Patience, Clowes subverts the time travel genre by having Jack fully aware of the space-time continuum and all its slippery loopholes and altered aftermath. The use of this plot device only emboldens the love Jack and Patience share, as Jack chooses to risk his own existence, as well as that of everyone else, on the hope of reuniting with Patience.Clowes, patience       

Like in his previous work, The Death Ray, Clowes has a keen ability to completely ignore the more empirical aspects of previously dissected scientific concepts; instead he employs a campier approach similar to serialized science-fiction of the 1950’s.  However, Jack Barlow is no Flash Gordon.  His flaws and compulsions to save Patience and return to a fantasy future are much more self-serving than any hero, and nearly twenty-years of harbored aggressions and sexual frustrations are waiting to be unleashed should the slightest harm befall her.
Making direct contact proves quite troublesome, and Jack is soon thrust back to the year 1985, out of “juice” for his time gadget, and no closer to saving Patience’s life in 2012.  Again Clowes claws at the fabric of standard time-jumping clichés, poking fun at the thrills of fixed Super Bowl gambling and killing Hitler’s mother, whilst still illustrating the absolute horrors experienced by his lovesick protagonist. An acute pathos is on display during a particularly bittersweet scene when older Jack visits his childhood home and tosses a football to his younger self.  The surprise comes not that the universe doesn’t cave in, but in the treatment of a tender moment dilated and immediately processed.  “When I was first standing on that porch, part of me wanted to stop everything and move back in.  Be a father to myself, a husband to my mom. I know, what a creepy fucking thought.” An observation like that is refreshing, as the general weight of continual time travel takes its toll on protagonist and reader alike.  Jack laments, “It’s like a part of my soul is still out there in the void, like I’m a suck-ass Chinese knockoff of myself, made with crummy parts.”  Jack’s longing and drive to remedy his life’s misfortune, knowing full well he may cease to be, makes Patience one of Clowes’ most humanistic tales. Ultimately, understanding big existential rumblings takes time, and–you guessed it—patience.

Through direct interference that’s best left a surprise, the older Jack sends Patience into somewhat of a stupor. The twenty-something, forever plagued by her past relationships with a barrage of small-town assholes, is bewildered when she finally meets the much younger Jack in the natural course of her own timeline.  Patience’s acceptance of this burgeoning love, as well as keeping all the previous chaos a secret from young Jack proves an increasingly troublesome—albeit very funny—process. “I feel like my stupid brain is trying to fuck everything up.  It’s a fucking crime that I can’t enjoy my life at a time like this,” she says. Patience’s POV continually comes across as vital as Jack’s, and the two share neurotic concerns that naturally knot them together.

Employing truthful dialogue and eye-popping craft in every beautifully-rendered panel, Patience is another well-polished brain scramble from a creator in his prime.  Each carefully constructed element–from its trippy splash pages to meticulous layouts– rises above the rambunctious commotion, ultimately leading the reader towards moments of sympathetic understanding and lush transcendence, all rooted in the writing of good characters.  Beneath the frills of neon and time-fabric surfing sits a tale far past the cliché conversation heart fluff that is so often the precedent of love stories. With Clowes–POW—the future of connection is still rife with possibilities.

Christopher S. Bell has been writing and releasing literary and musical works through the Johnstown, Pennslyvania-based art collective My Idea of Fun since 2008. His sound projects include Emmett and Mary, Technological Epidemic, C. Scott and the Beltones, and Fine Wives. Bell’s work has recently been published in The Madison Review, Red Rock Review, Quail Bell Magazine, Commonline Journal, Mobius, Gesture, Crack the Spine, Foliate Oak, The Gambler, and Eclectica, among others.  He is also a contributor to Entropy.