Chris Ware makes comics. He’s been doing this since he was an undergrad at the University of Texas in the late Eighties and then a discontented grad student at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early Nineties. He self-published his first book of comics in 1992, photocopying and distributing it throughout Chicago to zine- and comic-friendly bookstores like Quimby’s in Wicker Park. He soon got a publishing deal with Fantagraphics Books, one of the two North American houses (along with Drawn and Quarterly) at the head of the alternative comics business. Ware calls his oeuvre The ACME Novelty Library; each issue of ANL runs serialized chapters from his novels in progress, as well as shorter one-off comics. The first of these graphic novels, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, was completed in 2000. The winner of the Guardian First Book Award and the American Book Award, it was the most widely lauded graphic novel since Art Spiegelman’s Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
Ware has kept making radically creative comics ever since, amassing a lot of cultural-institutional power along the way: he’s gotten to edit important anthologies (Issue 13 of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Comics 2007); curate museum shows (“UnInked” at the Phoenix Art Museum); and design covers and comics for The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. There’s been a glossy full-color monograph from Yale University Press dedicated to Ware. There’s even been a collection of academic criticism, a couple hundred pages full of art history, comp lit and English scholars trying to carve cozy niches out of his work.
And it’s clear why: to read and to see Ware’s comics is to behold a totally new way of thinking and seeing, of telling stories and expressing ideas. Comics are a timely medium for the kind of culture we live in today, especially with regard to our inundation by visual information. But Ware also seems to have figured out how to bring together two typically opposed forms of modern storytelling, one form that’s spare and objective like The Sun Also Rises, and one that’s excessive and subjective like The Sound and the Fury. It’s phylogenesis-grade creativity—the kind of creativity that inspires centuries of imitators and dissidents.
Ware currently has two novels in progress. One is called Building Stories and one is called Rusty Brown. Volume 20 of The ACME Novelty Library, released in November 2010 and the subject of this review, contains the most recent chapter of Rusty Brown.
The subtitle of ANL20 is Lint, which refers to Jordan “Jason” Lint, who, in the first couple chapters of Rusty Brown, is a pothead high-school bully in Omaha, Nebraska circa the early 1970s. ANL20 tells Lint’s life story from his first dot of perception in 1958 to his last nightmares in 2023. Each page of the book shows (more or less) one day from each year in Lint’s life. Ware’s drawing style and page layouts mirror Lint’s consciousness as he grows up, ages and then dies. The first few pages of ANL20 have the gentle, flat look of kindergarten classroom posters. As Lint becomes a dope-smoking, guitar-playing teenager, the pages get loaded with his noisy, horny egotism. Then, when Lint becomes a white-collar Omahan, married, with children, the pages get clearer, the meaningful moments bigger and fewer. ANL20 therefore reads something like Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which uses a third-person narrator whose language gets more complex as young Stephen Dedalus grows up.
Lint belongs to the pantheon of despondent American dads along with guys like George Babbitt, Rabbit Angstrom and Lester Burnham. Which is to say that he suffers from the disease that inflicts domesticated suburbanites who don’t particularly believe in anything greater than what Nietzsche called “a little pleasure for the day, and a little pleasure for the night”—a morality that consists of making money and having fun, fitting in and impressing the neighbors.
After graduating from the University of Nebraska, Lint moves to L.A. to get into the music industry. But his dad stops sending him money, the recording sessions go nowhere, he sleeps around; within a few years he’s back in Omaha, wearing a tie and staring at his reflection in the office of his father’s financial services company. He gets married and has two sons. Soon he’s taping inspirational Stephen Covey quotes to the dash of his SUV and reminiscing on the phone with old frat buddies, complaining how he doesn’t get to play guitar too much anymore except at his wife’s church.
Lint’s father was an abusive alcoholic, and for a brief moment it seems Lint is going to become a different person, to find God and get with the program, and not end up like the old man. But Ware’s storytelling specialty is domestic tragedy in the spirit of The Glass Menagerie—parents dooming their kids to repeat their mistakes and misery. And so Lint becomes a selfish, mean bastard just like his dad, traumatizing his own kids just as he was traumatized. Soon Lint’s life really turns to shit with divorce and bad investments and 9/11 and middle age and a messy lawsuit and estrangement from his kids. And there are dreams and nightmares and repressed traumatic memories and perverted fantasies that loop back into one another. Ware conveys the texture of these experiences within the page and across the book by repeating images, phrases and colors—red, especially, gleams from most pages like warning lights.
Lint’s story hits a dubious climax as he discovers a comic that his son Gabe published as a memoir about his (Gabe’s) awful childhood at the hands of his abusive father. Lint finds this novel as he’s googling “Gabriel Lint” and sees a New York Times profile of his son. The November 29th, 2019 article reads like a mission statement for Ware’s own ambition as an artist making comics. It says about Gabe’s book: “One critic has called it ‘synaesthetic,’ likening it to Joyce’s revolutionary prose, but in [Mr. Lint’s] case one feels as if he’s systematically replacing one’s memories and feelings with his own.” What follows are five pages from Gabe’s work, showing Lint grabbing his young son and breaking his collar bone for spying on his older brother in the bathroom. The drawing style of this comic-within-a-comic is based on that of Ware’s fellow cartoonist Gary Panter—jagged, trembling and explosive, it’s the expressionistic opposite of Ware’s precise, effaced method.
The scene of Lint hurting his son is conspicuously missing from that page in the book and that year of his life—missing as in repressed, buried, overlooked. ANL20 shows us how Lint experiences his life, how he prefers to think of himself, but that’s also a story of gaps and erasure, of the difference between what he ignores and what others can’t forget.
Some complain that Ware’s work is just very … depressing. Douglas Wolk writes in Reading Comics that Ware has “an emotional range of one note” and makes readers “watch his characters sicken and die slowly, torment (and be humiliated in turn by) their broken families, and lead lives of failure and loneliness.” There is something to this, and Ware is certainly known for his constant self-deprecation, both in interviews and in the dense marginalia and cutout activities of his books. If there were a soundtrack to his work, it would probably be Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” with all its morose pluviosity, the drip of resignation that so well suits “existential psychodramas” like Louis Malle’s The Fire Within and Woody Allen’s Another Woman.
Yet Ware’s stories—set almost entirely in the drab, dull Midwest—remind one of what Joyce did for Dublin and Dubliners. Or Faulkner for Lafayette County, Mississippi. To take someone usually considered simple and boring and unsexy (an average middle-class Midwesterner) and to turn his or her life into something ecstatically intricate and movingly dramatic—to do this seems like a very real spiritual gesture, one calling to mind an Emersonian aphorism like “the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common,” or a passage from a Virginia Woolf novel: “One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, it’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”
Even if much of what’s going on in Ware’s stories is ugly or sad, the visual style of his pages and books is just the opposite—beautiful and precious, ornate and overwhelming. Ware illustrates the ANL by hand and now self-publishes it, each chapter a limited edition printing, the covers often decorated with floral cloth, gold foil lettering, and, in ANL20’s case, actual words from the story. The contrast between his vibrant, colorful layouts and the somber, bleak mood of most of his stories causes a David Lynch/Blue Velvet kind of dissonance, where the viewer gets equally strong signals that everything’s just great, clean and happy, and that everything’s fucked-up, nasty and grim.
Moreover, as Ware himself has grown up (he’s now in his early forties, living in Oak Park, Illinois with his wife and young daughter), the emotional range of his stories has gotten wider. ANL19 is about a high-school English teacher remembering his first, disastrous love affair as a young man and the sci-fi writing career he was once on the cusp of; it may be the most touching story about the regrets of a writer since Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro. ANL18 (part of Building Stories) centers on the ennui of a young woman who’s missing half of her left leg and lives alone in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. It’s revealed in later chapters of Building Stories that the woman eventually has a child, moves away and gets over her twenty-something angst.
Perhaps to tell the opposite of the above parents-dooming-kids myth—with happy, loving parents bringing up happy, loving kids—is not the great challenge for Ware. The great challenge would be to tell of children rewriting the fate their parents signed for them. Ware hasn’t tried that story yet, but he’s got time.
Ware’s work has changed, evolved, in his twenty or so professional years. Ten years ago he was proclaimed “The Smartest Cartoonist on Earth” by the Chicago-based critic Daniel Raeburn, but I think he’s only recently begun to produce his best work. It was in the fall of 2006 that he rose to a new level, when he designed five covers for the Thanksgiving issue of The New Yorker. Four alternate covers ran on the print issue, and one cover—a cover that I think deserves mythic proper-noun status, The Fifth Cover—ran only on the website. Art Spiegelman said The Fifth Cover “may be the richest and most complex single page of comics ever made.”
Ware divided The Fifth Cover into 256 cells. In those cells are dozens of little scenes and phrases and images that represent an elderly man’s memories of his brother who died during World War II. The memories flow out from a photo of the dead brother in the center of the page, seemingly with no set path or direction.
When you read The Fifth Cover you feel like you’re simultaneously seeing little moments take place in time and seeing those same moments exist out-of-time in a guy’s memory, in his head. The page works as a fractal: the structure of the comic repeats itself at different orders of magnitude (i.e. full page, half page, quarter page, 1/8th, 1/16th, etc.). That “structure,” however, is a loose collection of moments, memories and mementos. That the brother died because of a stupid mistake at basic training—the kind of absurd story that wars are made of—is expressed in the shattered layout of the frames. The Fifth Cover shows the flipside of the seamless stories we use—comfortably, conveniently—to narrate our lives and our history. With The Fifth Cover, Ware got human consciousness onto a single page in a way that maybe no one, ever, has done before. And he did it as a web-only extra.
Most of his work since then—especially The ACME Novelty Libraries #18-20—has been done with the same fractal technique as The Fifth Cover. With these works Ware figured out a way to synthesize two great storytelling traditions in modern literature. He figured out how to bring together restrained, spare objectivity (à la Flaubert, Chekhov or Hemingway) with excessive, baroque subjectivity (à la Dostoevsky, Joyce or Faulkner). He figured out how to combine just-the-facts minimalism with every-last-detail maximalism.
Ware could not have pulled this off in any other medium. Comics can combine straightforward, objective scenes into a dense, subjective montage. Ware uses a very clean (some say antiseptic, cold) illustration style that lets you easily read the scenes, as if they formed a pictographic language. He then arranges and composes those scenes—the frames—into complex, enfolded patterns.
In one scene of ANL20, Lint leaves a party to go over to his future wife’s house. We see him sitting with her talking about his job and how he’s settling down in life, telling her she couldn’t imagine the stuff he used to do (next to those words is a minuscule drawing of Lint snorting coke). The text of Lint’s speech varies in font size and color. This allows Ware to extract a subtext in all the talking, to show how Lint’s words aren’t so much conveying information as presenting him as her potential mate. As Lint mentions his job to Leslie, we see a scene of him at his computer at the office—his daily routine. Then we see Lint’s romantic fantasies about life with Leslie: marriage, a house, a kid, the kid graduating from school, Lint and Leslie growing old together. There are objects that stand out from the page, too, like a self-help book that Leslie gives Lint about being a child of an alcoholic, or Lint’s thumb that he bites in a way he’s always done since childhood, or Leslie’s breast that Lint’s head is near as he rests in her lap. After all of that we see Lint in the bathroom, checking on a portable TV the score of the Nebraska-Michigan game that he’d been watching at the party. Lint goes “Oh Man. Fuck. Fuck!” when he sees that his alma mater has lost.
All of the above takes place in just one half of one page of ANL20. We leap between scenes in the present, the imperfect and the conditional—what’s happening in the moment, what’s going on day-to-day, and what’s being imagined into the future. Ware’s technique is precise and minimal at the same time as overflowing and maximal. The point is to show how we exist through time, through dull repetitions and memorable exceptions, through fantasies into other realities, through public events that stream at us in frames and screens—all going on simultaneously, all woven together.
Here’s another example. After Lint has divorced Leslie and is seeing a new woman, we see him on the treadmill at the gym, getting back into shape. Next to this image of him are 36 frames: memories of breaking up with Leslie, thoughts of his kids and his investments, visions of sex with his new girlfriend and the bigger house he’s moving into. Lint’s inner monologue—his observations and complaints and rationalizations—is sewn through the frames, the alternating text sizes and colors synching with his jogging and heavy breathing. Then you turn the page and see a man falling from the World Trade Center. You see Lint’s bald spot, his hunched, tense shoulders as he’s watching coverage of 9/11 in his office and trying to call his sons. It’s History bursting, overflowing, gushing into the busy consumerist brio.
Lint’s story is a very clear and disturbing synecdoche, Lint being the part, America the very powerful and aggressive whole. But ANL20 invites us not only to see the whole through the small part, but also to see how the private experience of the part enables the public whole to function as it does. Gabe’s memoir about his dad’s abuse explodes in its visual style and emotional effects on Lint, just like 9/11 was an explosion—physical, emotional, spiritual. Lint is a bully who grows into a monster, obsessed with money and power and instant gratification, just as America too has gone from a bully to a monster, obsessed with money and power and instant gratification. To be like this involves hurting and abusing others, taking things from them, making them suffer. And the psychology that underwrites this violence prefers to, needs to, overlook that suffering, to forget it, delete it. But sometimes those others respond, react, retaliate. The aggression comes back. The repressed returns.
In Lint’s final years, in the 2020s, he’s at a big electronics store that’s going out of business, the shelves mostly empty. The cashier asks, “Things getting pretty bad out there, huh?” Lint jokes to himself, “Now that I’ve actually got money … there’s nothing left to buy.” Lint then goes to look at his mother’s grave and sees graffiti on it. In the background a couple of men are warming their hands over a fire inside an oil drum. It’s a hint that disaster and collapse—the grim, catabolic side of history and civilization—have reached even Midwestern Omaha.
The signs are ambiguous—maybe it was just the weather that was getting bad, maybe the cemetery is now in a run-down part of town. But it’s unlikely. In an earlier one-off comic of Rusty Brown, Ware drew images of apocalypse, of suburban wastelands, of Rusty wearing a “SUPPORT our TROOPS” banner like a cape while scavenging for action figures in a wrecked house, the husks of bombed-out Omaha skyscrapers in the distance. As Lint’s last days are a fugue of hallucinations and flashbacks, of desperation and confusion, you wonder what the last days of a civilization must be like—maybe equally pained and remorseful, deluded and detached from reality.
ANL20 can be read as a linear sequence of scenes, one after the other, diachronically (the narrative events of Lint’s life) and as a montage of all those moments at once, out of time, synchronically (Lint’s consciousness). But it can also be read as the simple story of one Midwestern Baby Boomer’s life and as the story of consciousness in a particular (American, imperialist, consumerist) historical phase. To finish reading ANL20 and then to go back and flip through the pages and glance at all these scenes you’ve just read is to see the sum of both a human life and a form of human consciousness, all the discrete moments, the years and eras and events, the past and future, the memories and the daydreams, all of it, all at once. It’s to see time pass.
The storytelling dialectic of ANL20—the linear and the non-linear, the sequential and the chaotic, the one-at-a-time and the all-at-once, the personal and the historical—seems to this reviewer to be more like the truth of conscious experience and human life than anything he’s come across in other books or movies or paintings or video games or theater or music. Ware’s work has the world-historical quality that art has when it uses the forms and modes and texts of its time to do the timeless work of thinking about what it means to be a human being and of showing how complex and beautiful and devastating life can be.
Ware’s comics feel so apt, so meant for our times, because the essence of comics as a unique medium is, more or less, to juxtapose a set of images. In our digital, online world, we live through and are surrounded by juxtaposed sets of images. They’re in our pockets, at our desks, and on our living room walls. By juxtaposing his images into fractals, Ware’s comics can express a timely idea (fractal geometry is a part of what’s now called Complexity Science, which also includes chaos theory, A.I., cybernetics, world-systems theory, etc.). They also very elegantly show how your existence both contains infinitely smaller, equally complex systems (especially the stuff in your head—memories and fantasies and dreams and nightmares) and is contained by infinitely larger, equally complex systems (your family, city, country, planet).
And to be alive right now is to feel that, on the one hand, the world as you experience it, here, in your life day in and day out, is very real and meaningful and within some kind of control and determination on your part. Yet on the other hand you simultaneously feel that you’re a highly replaceable cell in a very moody and mortal super-organism and that if the big system goes down, you’re going down too. Moreover, that big super-organism exists through time very differently than you do, and time seems to be accelerating for that super-organism; the discrete changes that have marked its history are appearing exponentially faster, while the size of that organism and the energy it’s consuming are also increasing exponentially. As such, something apocalyptically climactic seems to be the fate of this super-organism, e.g. it’s going to spectacularly die, or spectacularly morph into something else entirely (such scenarios can be realistically and/ or fantastically seen in works like Children of Men, WALL-E, The Road, Terminator 2, Final Fantasy VII, Childhood’s End, 2001, Fallout, La Jetée, etc.).
Even if this eschatological anxiety isn’t new, we need a way to express it to ourselves, to criticize and understand it. I suggest that comics can be just what we need to do this. In other words, if a young aspiring creative person wants to work in a personal, intimate medium these days—one that is fighting for its place in society the way only a young medium can fight for its place, one that isn’t steadily and decadently and exhaustedly folding in on itself (prose fiction, poetry, painting, sculpture), one that could really speak to these twenty-first-century times in which we live—then that person should think: comics. He will find no better reference for the possibilities and potential of the form than Chris Ware and his ACME Novelty Library.