A Triumph of the Comic-Book Novel

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…

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