Few artists have done more to elevate the status of comics in the public imagination than Daniel Clowes, and Patience, as befits a graphic novel billed as “a cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love,” is his longest and most ambitious work yet. It opens in 2012, as underemployed schlub Jack Barlow finds his pregnant wife Patience dead in their apartment, brutally murdered by an unknown killer. Devastated, he vows to avenge her. Seventeen years on, no closer to doing so, Jack decides to kill himself. Before he can do so, however, he befriends a blue-skinned prostitute who lets slip that one of her clients claims he can travel through time. Jack steals his technology and then embarks on a long and bloody quest through the past to prevent his wife’s murder.
Although Clowes has deployed sci-fi tropes before, most notably with the space-age nostalgia of Lloyd Llewelyn, the perverse surrealism of A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and the skewed superheroic world of The Death Ray, Patience is his first attempt at a sustained science fiction narrative. It’s no surprise that of that genre’s recurring tropes, Clowes has chosen time travel. His work has always been tinged with a sense of cosmic regret, and so his deployment of time travel as a means of overcoming mortality and mistakes seems like a natural thematic progression.
However, this is still a Clowes book, and so happy endings don’t come easily. Time travel in Patience isn’t as simple as entering a date into the time machine and being transported directly there to evade the Moorlocks, steal the almanac, or prevent the assassination of President Kennedy, as the case may be. Rather, Patience is more akin to films like Rian Johnson’s Looper or Christopher Nolan’s Memento, where the protagonist stumbles through the narrative in a state of existential confusion, unmoored from time and morality.
Time travel in Patience is a wrenching, bewildering experience. It requires Jack to inject a liquid into his neck which makes him vomit and ache. After time travelling, he feels as though the molecules of his body are disassembling, as if he is “a radio that’s not quite tuned into the station; like there’s this fuzzy static vibrating in my bones.” Jack is totally indifferent to the logical conundrums of time travel, happy to toss a football with his childhood self on a whim. “Eight feet apart and neither of us exploded into a suck-hole of anti-matter or whatever,” he thinks afterwards.
All he knows for sure is that the more he travels, the worse things become. He is crippled at inconvenient times by agonizing hallucinations of his mind and body being torn apart into cosmic dust. As he learns more and more ugly details of his wife’s past, his goals become clouded and unattainable, and he lashes out in ever-intensifying bursts of violence.
Few contemporary writers are as attuned to the quiet desperation of American life as Clowes, and Patience, despite its sci-fi trappings, takes place in a world of downwardly-mobile poverty. Jack and Patience worry constantly about bringing their baby into a world where money is scarce, in part, we learn, because both of their childhoods were similarly impoverished. Things are no better in Clowes’ future, which is distinguished from the present only by its alien, organic shapes and bizarre sunglasses, but where people with money still disdain and maltreat those without. In these worlds, poverty and alienation dehumanize men, who in turn dehumanize those around them. Clowes depicts the male ego as forever fracturing and festering, his male characters forever trying on different roles in justification of behaviour which is often objectively monstrous.
Despite the poverty of its settings, Patience is the most visually arresting of Clowes’ books. As Jack travels through time he is surrounded by candy-coloured outgrowths of crystal, flesh and light, unfolding in a cosmic void. More prosaically, few artists, in any medium, can depict the human face with as much subtlety and sympathy as Clowes. This attention to detail is mirrored in the plotting. Although this is the longest, and in some ways the loosest of Clowes’ books, the narrative is carefully and intricately constructed, and details which appear superfluous on a first reading are later revealed to be critically important.
In the end, Patience is a profoundly hopeful book, perhaps more so than any of Clowes’ previous work. It proposes a world in which death is not the end, and in which the redemptive possibility of love exists, somehow, at the heart of things. Time, it appears, has mellowed one of comics’ foremost misanthropes.