Book Review: Monica by Daniel Clowes: Trip the Trauma Fantastic

In Daniel Clowes’s new graphic novel, Monica (his first in seven years), the titular hero goes on a flippin’ strange quest to find some meaning in life. And it’s the absurdity of this quest that fascinates Clowes.

Surviving the tumult of a ‘60s, Bay Area childhood marked by parental abandonment, Monica encounters a ghost in a radio, slips into a coma after a car crash, becomes a rich seller of candles, tosses her wealth away during a midlife crisis, sets out to find her mother (long missing-in-action), and joins The Opening, a supersonically weird new-age cult.

All that but grazes the surface of this glorious, whacky book. And it happens across nine digestible, interconnected stories, which total a slim 106 pages. By the story’s end, we come to know our hero. Clowes highlights fragments from Monica’s life, taking us on a surreal trip with tangential interludes that add teasing depth. This is ambitious, narratively wild stuff; but it works.

Given some answers as to her origins and the reasons her mother left her, Monica finds just a small, slippery blob of closure. Questions—and the restlessness that surrounds them—pervade. But where she and we arrive is not without meaning or insight. None of this comes cheap, though, and neither does it run deep. As she reaches the end of the line on the Northern California coast, an apocalyptic discovery awaits.

I won’t say more about the story. The novel ends in a manner I found both satisfying and bizarre.

Some time ago, I’d read Clowes’s Ghost World (1997). His sensibility as a storyteller is, as best I can tell, unchanged. Though none of his characters escape his dry parodic eye, he examines even the most freakish of his lost women and men with sympathy. I never explored his other work. Now I should. Monica is great. It has the aura of an exquisitely constructed puzzle that rewards a re-read.

With clean and bold illustrations, Clowes melds different genres (horror, noir, sci-fi, teen romance, war). This allows entire chapters to evoke the eras, the aesthetic spirit, of the comics that inspired him in his youth. Monica is a wiggy, profound glimpse at a woman’s life and an homage to the pop-art and underground comix that helped forge Clowes into the graphic novelist he is today.

Monica is a modern classic. I love it.

Published by Fantagraphics Books, Monica came out on October 3, 2023.

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Jack Cormack

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