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A Triumph of the Comic-Book Novel

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Pantheon
Detail from a page of Chris Ware’s Building Stories, showing the ‘girl’ in red at bottom left and the ‘married couple’ on the steps of the building. The top and right of the image show the ‘old lady’ who owns the building, both in the present and in her memories of her younger days.

In 1988, Gore Vidal predicted that by 2015 “The New York Review of Comic Books will doubtless replace the old NYR.” It was a joke, of course, and a warning (Vidal preferred “book books,” as he called them), but we’re just a couple of years short now, and he wasn’t all wrong. The past decades have seen an unprecedented amount of serious attention paid to comics, and for good reason: they’re better—stranger, subtler, more ambitious—than ever before.

A medium that had spent most of its existence being mocked, ignored, and denounced, its books shoddily printed and sold only in specialty shops that, as one artist recalled, were “really just one step away from a pornographic bookstore to a lot of people,” began winning the awards meant for “book books,” and showing up on the walls at MoMA and the Whitney Biennial (The New Yorker called this “pant[ing] after the youth market”). Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Holocaust comic Maus was nearing completion even as Vidal wrote, and there has been no shortage of successors, from the politically minded reportage and memoirs of Joe Sacco and Marjane Satrapi to the acid, unnerving fictions of Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns—to, above all, the intricately bleak work of Chris Ware.

Ware’s first book, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, was published twelve years ago to acclaim that hadn’t been seen since Maus. It won the Guardian First Book Award and the American Book Award, and Ware was called everything from “a genius” and “the most versatile and innovative artist the medium has known” to “the Emily Dickinson of comics.” It was a dense, experimental, maniacally thorough exploration of familial estrangement, self-deception, and sheer human awkwardness, as revealed in four generations of the Corrigan family. The titular Jimmy is neither smart nor, in most of the book, a kid, but instead an almost supernaturally meek Chicagoan in his mid-thirties who travels to Michigan to spend Thanksgiving with the father he’s never met; this is interspersed with scenes from the brutal, lonely childhood of Jimmy’s grandfather, James Corrigan, who is abandoned by his own father during Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Ware’s drawings are meticulous, even chilly, with flat, muted colors and the straight lines and perfect curves of an architectural rendering. The panels follow an orderly horizontal grid, but have a discomfiting tendency to occasionally shrink to near illegibility; or they might suddenly demand to be read from right to left, or even disappear entirely, to be replaced by pretty but unhelpful typography (“Thus,” “And so”), complicated diagrams, or plans for a paper model of one of the stories’ locations. Dreams and fantasies invade the story without warning—when Jimmy first meets his father, we see him brutally murdering the sheepishly friendly man, while their desultory small talk struggles on.

Corrigan begins with a set of “General Instructions” to the reader, the kind of thing a worried publisher, trying to sell a long, complex comic book to the general public, might have insisted on. But Ware’s instructions are flamboyantly unhelpful, a dense little maze of minute type, multiple-choice quizzes, and intricate diagrams, all written in a pompously gloomy style (“As such, the thinking person would have to conclude that, in general, the seeking of emotional empathy in art is essentially a foolhardy pursuit, better left to the intellectually weak, or to the ugly”).

Readers can fail the “Exam” just by admitting they are female. Much of this is simply self-mockery, a constant in Ware’s work—a later collection of shorts came packaged with suggested alternate uses, including “Food for Insects and Rodents” and “Recycled Wood Pulp in the Paper of a Better Book”—but beneath that is something more sincere, even a little old-fashioned: a slyly ambitious artistic manifesto, in which Ware declares the two beliefs that underlie his work.

The first is a particular vision of how comics function. For Ware, they are not, contrary to what one might think, a form of visual art or drawing. Cartooning, as he put it in a later essay (in the “Instructions” this argument is part of a large wordless diagram, a flurry of arrows, equations, and subpanels around a single image of a mouse hitting a disembodied cat head with a hammer), is “a language of abbreviated ‘visual words’ having its own grammar, syntax, and punctuation.” The simplified, geometric forms of Ware’s comics are not his natural drawing style. His sketchbooks, two volumes of which have been published, are filled with detailed drawings of people and the natural world, done with a scratchy, organic line clearly indebted to the work of R. Crumb, and utterly dissimilar to what is found in his comics work. The smooth, geometric forms in his comics are icons and symbols as much as pictures, “a sort of symbolic typography” meant to be read and understood, “not scrutinized individually as one might carefully peruse a painting or a drawing.”

This minimalist, even prim style lets Ware depict body language and gesture with great subtlety and clarity. There is a page early in Corrigan that shows Jimmy’s father, Jim, delivering a vain, blustery little monologue while they wait in a doctor’s office (Jimmy has been hit, rather gently, by a truck, after wandering absent-mindedly into the street). In a dozen almost identical square panels, showing him from a three-quarters angle on an almost blank background, Jim chatters away about talkative neighbors (“I just cut ’em off, y’know? I don’t have time for that kinda thing…”) and a needy ex-girlfriend (“I’m like whoah…I’ve been down that road, lady…I already did kids…”—a particularly thoughtless story to tell the abandoned son with whom he’s trying to reconnect). All the while, he rubs at his nose, knifes his hand through the air, pushes away an invisible wall, aims his thumbs back at himself with a smug smile, coughs uneasily into his fist—a display of loneliness, obliviousness, and a peculiarly masculine insecurity so exactly rendered, so viscerally recognizable that it feels almost indecent to read.

The second conviction declared at the outset of Corrigan is a surprising one, given the formal experimentation Ware is known for: a broad, powerful belief in realism as the highest goal of art. In the pompous language of the “Instructions”: “It is commonly undisputed that the paramount end of all aesthetic pursuit is the securing of a method for reproducing human experience in all of its complexity, richness, and comparable mundanity.”

The book is deeply affecting, and at times quite beautiful—all the more so for the pain and uncertainty out of which that beauty arises. Midway through the book James sneaks into the World’s Columbian Exhibition’s Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building with an attractive redheaded classmate (a nod to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts). The enormous structure, then the largest building in the world, is still under construction, its array of windows and girders dazzling, almost abstract in its vastness. The pair make their way up to the roof, James trembling with fear (“I’ll make her leave I’ll make her”)—and suddenly they’ve made it, and the panels expand, only two per page, to show the city and the water stretching away beneath them, and we find ourselves in the middle of the sort of perfect moment a child might remember for the rest of his life. James goes silent, awestruck and infatuated. Ware strings narration within and between the panels, breaking up the sentences like the lines of a poem:

She’s right

He can see his house
He can see just about everyone’s house

In fact

it seems as if he can see the whole world from up here

But
for him
The whole world

is for that moment

The single strand of red hair
which dances silently around his nose & eyelashes.

Ware is often accused of miserabilism, of having “an emotional range of one note,” as one reviewer put it. The rapturous moments in Corrigan are indeed rare and short-lived. Ware cuts immediately from this moment on the roof to the redheaded girl calling James a bastard and knocking him to the ground as they return home (to the funeral of James’s grandmother, no less). But they linger in your mind, and carry you through the rest—the missed opportunities, failed encounters, everyday cruelties—as they might in life.

In the dozen years since Corrigan was completed, Ware has published two collections of shorter work, Quimby the Mouse and The ACME Novelty Library Final Report to Shareholders and Saturday Afternoon Rainy Day Fun Book. He has also been serializing two long new stories in a variety of newspapers and magazines, as well as in his own long-running comics periodical The Acme Novelty Library. One of these, Building Stories, which tracks the daily lives of the four inhabitants of a Chicago apartment building, has finally been completed and published—Ware’s first long comic since Corrigan. The comparatively boisterous Rusty Brown, about a socially isolated collector of children’s toys, remains incomplete, though for much of the decade it seemed by far the more active of the two projects.

Quimby the Mouse collects mostly early cartoons, a page or two long, in which Ware combined occasionally extreme experiments with form—168 tiny panels packed on a page, or a story in which the speech and narration have no relation to the images—with oblique autobiography. The most memorable are the unnerving “Quimbies the Mouse” stories, in which one of a pair of Siamese-twin mice ages and dies while the other remains young; Ware reminisces in the book’s introduction about the beloved grandmother whose illness inspired them.

The Final Report is more of a grab bag, including early parts of Rusty Brown, a satirical “History of Art,” and Ware’s “gag” stories, in which he runs antiquated pulp archetypes—“Rocket Sam,” “Big Tex,” “Frank Phosphate: Man of the Air”—through a wringer of modernized suffering and despair. Frank Phosphate’s sidekick panics, and dies a gory death; Rocket Sam, lonely on an alien planet, builds a robot to hug him; and so on.

The centerpiece of the book is a long, wordless, untitled story featuring a portly, middle-aged superhero, naked but for a small domino mask—a figure that appears in a lot of Ware’s earlier work, though usually clothed. Like most of the artistically minded cartoonists of his generation, Ware has mixed feelings about the men-in-tights genre that has long dominated American comics. He resents being associated with them, mourns the more personal and experimental newspaper strips like Krazy Kat and Gasoline Alley that were overshadowed by their rise, but says he learned to draw by tracing and retracing poses from superhero comics, and admits that when he sees “the particular color combination of Batgirl’s uniform…I still find it sexually arousing.” (He also claims that “Dan Clowes has told me the same thing.”)

In the Final Report story the superhero is a monstrous, infantile god and his adventures an inscrutable fable, lurching hypnotically from slapstick to horror to metafiction. Floating in a void, he creates the stars by poking at the darkness with his finger. Millennia later, on earth, he rescues a woman from a plane crash, tries to impress her by ripping the head off a passing bear, then kills her with a rock to make her stop screaming. He kidnaps a young girl, then, when she is grown, impregnates and abandons her. He allows himself to be incarcerated, and scratches a cartoon summary of the story up to that point on the wall of his cell in what is unmistakably a simplified version of Ware’s own style. Eventually, he abandons the earth for the moon, and the universe slowly fades out into nothingness again.

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