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A Triumph of the Comic-Book Novel

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Pantheon
A page of Chris Ware’s Building Stories, showing the ‘girl’ in bed at various times in her life, including while pregnant and with her husband and daughter

Rusty Brown began as a similar though more naturalistic exercise in low-culture parody and poisoned nostalgia. In the early, fragmentary installments, Ware uses a mix of ironic Seventies-era pop culture—tacky colors, bulbous fonts, and action-hero poses—and acrid realism to show how an unhappy child can become a thoroughly repulsive adult. Young Rusty is viciously bullied at school, withdraws into a self-aggrandizing fantasy world while his parents fight at home, and abuses his only friend, the naive Chalky White, whenever he gets the chance (the cruelty that unhappy people inflict on others is a recurring theme in Ware’s work). Adult Rusty is a delusional brute, lost in his resentments and juvenile obsessions; one strip shows him crouched naked in his trash- and toy-strewn apartment, masturbating and talking to himself.

But as Rusty Brown has continued, it has been taken over by unexpected tangents, to the point where it is now hard to imagine how the whole will eventually be collected. The ACME Novelty Library #19 is devoted to the early erotic and professional life of Rusty’s father, Woody, including a thirty-page rendition of a science-fiction story Woody published in the 1950s, “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars.” Surprisingly, Ware plays this story of Martian colonization, murder, and cannibalism almost entirely straight, and the result is genuinely chilling.

The ACME Novelty Library #20 (later sometimes known as Jordan W. Lint), ostensibly a continuation of the same “ongoing, ridiculously long work,” features the Brown family only in passing, on a single page. Instead, it tells the entire life story of Jason Lint, one of Rusty’s school bullies. Ware gives each year of Lint’s life a single page-long vignette. The first few pages move from chaos to order as Jason’s mind develops, a cartoon analogue of the opening of A Portrait of the Artist: a welter of crude hands, eyes, and mouths coheres into the faces of his mother and father; scattered syllables turn to words, then sentences and thoughts. As Jason goes from resentful high schooler to hard-partying frat boy, from born-again Christian family man to corporate phoney to lonely old man, and his interior monologue bounces from ecstasy to boredom to anger, text of all sizes spreads across the pages, slipping over and between the panels. In a technique he also uses in Building Stories, Ware structures these pages like collages: panels form into small associative clusters, overlap, sit off by themselves in a corner. It is Ware’s most compressed and light-footed work, an audacious attempt to mold the language of comics to the contours of an individual consciousness.

Jason Lint is hard to like, a selfish, self-pitying, limited man, but that does not matter. The drama is in the knotty, unpredictable sweep of a life—of any life—when seen as a whole. With Ware’s page-per-year ticking like a metronome, the sudden shifts of Jason’s childhood and young adulthood are surprising and moving, and the long interregnum when he “finds himself” in marriage, fatherhood, and religion seem an oasis of calm—the panels larger and more regular, the text sparser and contained—especially compared to the increasing disorder and unhappiness after he leaves his wife and children for a succession of girlfriends and a failed second marriage. And then he dies, and the comic empties out, a few last scattered memories fading to simple dots, and then to an empty page.

In September 1999, as Jimmy Corrigan was nearing completion, Ware visited the preserved apartment of the outsider artist Henry Darger. Darger had lived an isolated existence, working feverishly on thousands upon thousands of pages of eccentric fiction and drawings. “The whole room,” Ware wrote in his sketchbook journal, “was set up entirely in the sole service of the maintenance of aching loneliness—it was strangely uplifting, though, and an apt yet strange condensed metaphor for the way we all go through life.” Within the year, Ware had begun work on Building Stories, which takes that metaphor, and that mingling of pervasive loneliness and unexpected uplift, as its starting point.

Building Stories centers on a run-down Chicago apartment building, whose three floors form a kind of triptych of loneliness. The “old woman” (as she is referred to in passing—none of the four inhabitants is ever named, a much less noticeable decision in a comic than in a prose novel) on the ground floor, who owns the building and has lived in it her entire life, has settled into solitude for good; she doesn’t dream of companionship, but remembers the dreams of it she used to have, with a mix of regret and relief. The “married couple” on the second floor are lonely together, trapped in a cycle of fighting and apologizing so habitual it precludes any real contact between them. And the “girl” on the third floor—the book’s heroine, actually a young woman in her late twenties, a shy art school graduate with a prosthetic leg and a menial job at a flower shop—is lonely with a youthful, frenzied desperation, convinced she’ll be alone forever: “God…I can’t bear it…Am I really so awful? I must be…I must be…”

All this unhappiness is housed not in a bound comic book (let alone a “book book”), but a rectangular cardboard box—like what a board game would come in—containing fourteen “distinctively discrete” printed items: a slim hardcover volume, a faux children’s book, long fold-out strips, stapled pamphlets, several enormous broadsheet sections, even something very much like a game board, showing the building in all four seasons. There are also two sections—a stapled booklet and a newspaper—that focus on “Branford, the Best Bee in the World,” a semi-anthropomorphized sad sack whose desperate attempts to provide pollen for his family, avoid the bullying of other male bees, and stop fantasizing about sex with the queen provide a comic counterpoint to the more solitary and realistic characters.

Though there is, buried in those “contents,” a traditional, linear story—of how these people came to this building, and to this miserable time in their lives, and, in the case of the girl, of how she eventually leaves it and starts another life—it isn’t so much read as circled around, scouted out. (Instead of a reading order, Ware offers suggestions for “appropriate places to set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents within the walls of an average well-appointed home.”) As one makes one’s own way through, landmarks are established, related to each other, reconfigured in light of other, later landmarks, and a map begins to form.

The girl lies in bed, miserable, contemplating suicide. Ware draws the scene as a vertical two-page spread, dominated by black. At the bottom we see the girl from above, curled up in the dimness. Her thoughts float above her, a swirl of text and symbols concerning her aging parents and deteriorating body, the different ways to kill herself, her possible futures, all looping around and around the words “I JUST WANT TO FALL ASLEEP AND NEVER WAKE UP AGAIN.” Elsewhere either before or after this particularly grim landmark, we see the same view of the girl, in the same dim light, but her hair is different, and she’s sleeping peacefully; or she’s younger and skinnier, or pregnant; or there’s a man in bed with her, or a different man and a little girl…and the map grows.

One of the most prominent of these landmarks is a single day: Saturday, September 23, 2000. One of the longer booklets, squarish and bound in cardboard like a children’s book, devotes a page to each hour of this day. The landlady putters about, remembering. The girl deals with a plumbing mishap, talks on the phone, feeds her cat. The couple fight, then begin to make up—Ware zooms in on the man’s hand as he apologizes through the bathroom door, its mechanical clenching and unclenching hinting at how routine this speech has become. The day, in all its mundane particularity, seems representative, it can stand in for whole years of these lives, making up a present around which the other pieces are situated, as past or future.

It is from a day very much like that Saturday, for instance, that the landlady looks back on her life in a different booklet, as she sits in her living room waiting for lunchtime, her cleaning lady working in the background. Ware shows it to us in pages of extraordinary inventiveness: a pair that show the view from her front window, as it has changed through the decades; others that show her from birth to present as a series of paper dolls, complete with tabs; and a spread in which she descends the building’s three flights of stairs—in a homage to a celebrated 1913 Sunday page by Charles Forbell, the panels follow the architecture, long and slanted for the flights, squared-off for the landings; she’s a toddler as she begins her descent, then a child being scolded for running, a young lady ignoring a suitor, and finally an old lady at the bottom, reflecting on how she doesn’t “allow families with children to rent here anymore” because “this is not a playhouse, understand?”

It is from that present, too, that the girl looks back on the naive, unsatisfactory groping that has brought her to her third-floor stasis. At college, she dates a much older, struggling actor named Lance. Despite his increasingly odd sexual practices—he begins to prefer watching her masturbate, generally in a mirror, to actually touching her—she becomes pregnant and has an abortion, after which he moves away. After graduation she works as a house sitter and then an au pair for a rich couple with a nine-year-old son.

In a dense, quietly unnerving section, she first explores the family’s belongings—trying on the wife’s clothes, discovering the “secret headquarters” the son, Jeffrey, has built in a hidden closet—and then is integrated, suddenly and uneasily, into their lives. The son develops a childish sexual fixation, secreting in his “headquarters” a series of crudely explicit drawings of her. She suspects the oft-absent husband of infidelity, then discovers it is the wife, in fact, who is straying, and she gains a sort of eroticized sympathy for him. And then she is fired, as Jeffrey has become too “attached.” “Jeff’s had this…problem…in the past,” the husband cruelly explains. “We just hoped that in your case, you know, he might not…”

But September 23 turns out to be not so mundane after all, not so much an ordinary day as the last ordinary day of its kind. At the end of it, having been lured out to a birthday party, she re-encounters Phil, a former classmate, now an architect. They return to her apartment, they kiss on her couch—her first kiss in six or seven years—and he leaves, promising to call her in two weeks. In an uncharacteristically whimsical touch, Ware occasionally anthropomorphizes the apartment in this section, giving voice to its world-weary, slightly catty thoughts, and as Phil drives off it pipes up. “Oh, the poor thing,” the building thinks. “You don’t have to be a hundred years old to know that boy’s never going to call her back.”

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