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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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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.”

But the building is wrong, and the odds are pretty good the reader already knows it. Half of the fourteen items in Building Stories’s box are devoted, at least in part, to the aftermath of this encounter: Phil and the girl get married, have a daughter, and move to the suburbs together. We glimpse their lives in a series of fragments—money worries, Halloween, arguments, apologies, shopping, worries about aging and “peak oil.” The pages tend to be larger and more open, and with the building gone (we get a brief image or two of its demolition in 2005), they feel just a bit hazier, and less claustrophobic. There’s nothing as sustained as the book of September 23, nothing as dark as the girl’s night of despair. The suicide of an old school friend is an occasion for genuine grief, but also for petty resentments and competitions, and a return to flower-arranging that, we learn elsewhere, eventually results in the girl opening her own flower shop.

One of Ware’s favorite techniques in this work is to center a page on an object—a faded snapshot, a flower, a birth control dispenser, an empty room—and let the panels and text spread associatively around it. A set of panels surrounding a notebook, for instance, tells of a creative writing class the girl attends. One of the shortest bits of Building Stories is a large broadsheet section, only four pages long, with a center spread organized this way. The object at the center is the girl’s six-month-old daughter, curled up in a pink onesie, drawn, startlingly, at life size. The broadsheet around her shows the girl’s father dying of cancer, and her returning home for the funeral with baby in tow, reminiscing in her childhood home, and attempting to comfort her grieving mother.

Tucked away in the corner of the page, in panels smaller than the infant’s feet, is one of the most surprising moments in all of Ware’s comics, a moment that in everything he’s previously published seems simply inconceivable. The sobbing widow turns to her daughter and says, “I just wish he could see how happy you are now, that’s all…” And the girl knows she’s right: “the awful part is…I really am happy…finally. I am happy.”

“The raw core of human experience,” Ware declared back in the 1990s, “is loneliness. There’s always that sense of isolation, whether you’re with someone or not.” Throughout Building Stories, Ware’s attention to the awkward physicality, the constant humiliations and cruelties of human existence is as precise and as brutally funny as it is in his previous work. So it can come as a shock to realize that he’s changed his mind, and this scene is utterly sincere. All those pages of chores and worries and marital recriminations, and the despair and terror that preceded them, drawn with such unsparing care, were, at the same time, showing exactly that: an idea of a happy life, and how it came to be.

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