Monica by Daniel Clowes review – pitch-perfect portraits of an ever scarier US

Daniel Clowes’s graphic novels are getting darker. If some readers found his last full-length comic, Patience, a little on the bleak side – a tale of obsessive love, poverty and domestic violence, it was about a man who went back in time in order to discover the identity of his wife’s killer – they’re unlikely to find much relief in its successor. Seven years on, the cartoonist has produced a book that speaks to all our present anxieties. Yes, outwardly, Monica has the colourful, retro feel of an old EC Comic (an American publisher of genre strips – horror, sci-fi, war – from the 1940s until the mid-50s). But its heart is far from nostalgic. With its conspiracy theories, crank cults and hints of an impending apocalypse, it seems to belong to the era of global warming and Donald Trump as much as it does to the past.

Playing around with form a little, Clowes gives us nine short stories of varying styles, which are linked by its eponymous heroine. But this isn’t straightforward. Sometimes, the connection is hazy; as Françoise Mouly, art editor of the New Yorker, has already written, even after multiple readings, everyone will have their own idea of what exactly is going on. However, there’s something reassuring about the figure of Monica, a small child when we first meet her and a grey-haired, middle-aged woman by the time the book ends. An eternal outsider, prickly and damaged and sharp-tongued, she’s instantly recognisable: here, at least, is another of Clowes’s female misfits, a type we’ve loved ever since Ghost World was published, more than a quarter of a century ago.

A page from Monica

The action begins with Foxhole, a snapshot of a story set in Vietnam during the war. Then we’re back in the US, in California, where Penny, the girlfriend of one of the soldiers we’ve just seen, is getting deep into the counterculture. Monica is Penny’s daughter, the product of one of her many flings, and we see the hippy movement through her eyes: a preternaturally clear-sighted viewpoint that brings to mind the Joan Didion of Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Penny is – this cannot be ignored – a poor, neglectful mother, and everything that happens to Monica subsequently stems from a big and terrible decision she is about to make. It will, in the fullness of time, bring Monica to the edge of reason: she will hear the disembodied voice of a dead man, and briefly join a heinous cult, its few pathetic, brainwashed members still following their corrupt leader long after the 70s are over.

This strange and gripping book is often frightening and sometimes deeply sad. But it’s also wickedly funny at times: it is, in other words, a series of pitch-perfect portraits of an increasingly odd and scary-seeming US. (“This is my social circle,” thinks a mature Monica at one point. “All the beautiful, crazy women – and man – who make America’s geometric turquoise jewellery and heron-based graphics”, a line that made me laugh out loud.) I might not – yet – fully understand everything about it, but I felt, in some peculiar and unnerving way, that it had an awful lot to tell me. In short, I could not put it down.

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