Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Acme Novelty Library: The annual mind-blowing reaches to multiple planets

Hey, that review of Punisher War Zone #1 I mentioned yesterday?  Here it is.  Ennis and Dillon go!

This is a bit of an experiment, so please suffer with me, if you have the patience:

Acme Novelty Library #19
By Chris Ware

I find it hard to talk about Chris Ware's comics, since I feel intimidated by the talent on display; I don't feel like I'm able to verbalize what it is that he does so well, and any arguments I might make would seem weak and poorly-justified.  But never let it be said that I back down from a challenge; here's a sort of stream-of-consciousness look at the latest chapter in the ongoing "Rusty Brown" opus:

The opening section of this story is a fascinating science fiction story about life on Mars.  For somebody who seems to disdain genre entertainment (unless that attitude is limited to superheroes, due to their dominance of the comics medium), Ware has put together an excellent bit of sci-fi.  Or maybe it's just a good delivery mechanism for a bit of dark psychological exploration.  Whatever the case, it's a perfectly-paced bit of revelation, full of mundane details about life on another planet and the loneliness that results from complete isolation from the rest of the human race.  The protagonist and narrator of the tale is one of two couples sent to colonize Mars, and when things don't go perfectly, he starts to lose his grip on reality, turning into a murderous maniac.  But since he's the one telling the story, this isn't apparent from the start; it's a slow, subtle reveal, and Ware captures the transition perfectly.  At first, his actions seem fairly reasonable given the circumstances, but we gradually see how far gone he is as his actions become nastier and more obsessive.  It's harrowing stuff, only exacerbated by the tone almost unvarying dryness of the narration, focused on the mundanity of life.  And Ware nails the details, from the simple aspects of daily life to the goofy, not-exactly-realistic 50s-era science, to the awful actions of his character.  It's a totally believable story, at least from a character standpoint.  And the art works perfectly to relate the story, conveying those little details in the small panels that Ware does so well and regularly opening up to reveal the emptiness of the Martian landscape:

And then, we get the reveal the this has all been a story called "The Seeing-Eye Dogs of Mars", written by Rusty Brown's father.  He's doing some reminiscing, looking back at the magazines and anthologies that published his stories, and this leads us to the real meat of the volume, as he flashes back to his post-collegiate youth and his first love.  But if you expected this to be a happy tale of youthful romance, you don't know Chris Ware.  Yep, Woody (as he was nicknamed at that time, after brand name of his electric typewriter) is a typical Ware character, barely able to muster the courage to speak in public, full of twisted emotions and crippling neuroses.  But he does manage to score with a secretary at the newspaper where he works writing obituaries, mostly because she decides to deflower him on a lark.  And of course, he falls deeply in love, even though it's completely obvious that she is not serious about him in the slightest.  Cue lots of scenes of Woody obsessing over her, planning to get married and live happily ever after, even though she will barely give him the time of day.  Except for when she shows up to screw him again.  It's painful to watch, but while Woody is plenty pathetic, Ware doesn't make him a hateful, simpering doofus; instead, he humanizes him, to the point that we feel sorry for him and maybe even empathize with his plight.  Maybe it's the wonder and confusion he seems to feel at first-time sexual intimacy, narrating lines like "It was weird...she'd always seemed so feminine before...but now she was weighty, solid...hairy...I mean, did all women look like this?"  While he doesn't seem like a well-rounded individual, he has realistic emotions and reactions to his experiences, and we can see how they affected his entire life.  In fact, we even get a flashback within this flashback to his childhood, in one sequence that sees him take drastic action to confess his love to her, he races up the stairs to her apartment and thinks back on everything that got him to that point, everything that he wants to tell her.  As is probably obvious, she rejects him, and he spirals into a pit of despair, getting even more pathetic, masturbating to the smell of a science fiction magazine of his that she once touched.  And just when he seems to be getting over her and doing some writing of his own, she shows up again, starting the cycle all over.  It kicks off a horrible cycle that Ware illustrates by cramming a page full of about as many tiny (about one square centimeter) panels as he can, as if he's zooming out from what had previously been a close-up on the details of Woody's life and taking the long view as everything continues to fall apart.  Just when everything is at its worst, he gets "rescued" by the woman who he ends up marrying, and we see that he settles for a life with her, forever pining for the woman he loved who didn't really love him back.

It's a bleak portrait (which really isn't too much a surprise with Ware), but a fascinating, compelling one, due to the masterful presentation.  Ware knows all the right moments to show, how to vary the size of the panels and how to convey the perfect (repressed) emotions through seemingly simple character art.  It's beautiful, and amazing to watch as it plays out.  And while the entire book is narrated, either by the protagonist of the sci-fi story or by Woody himself, so much more is visible in the artistic details.  We see how various elements in Woody's life integrate themselves into his story, from the blind dog he had as a boy to the color of his characters' wife's hair (the text states that it is red, like Woody's wife's, but the images show it as brown, like his lover's).  And one detail that I liked is that Chalky White's sister, who Woody seemed to be obsessed with in previous volumes, is not a virginal beauty that awakens new life in him, a la American Beauty, but simply reminds him of his lost love, right down to her similar disdain for science fiction.  

There are plenty of other nice artistic techniques as well, including a recurring "fuzzy" image that is the result of Woody breaking his glasses:

And that tendency to place large panels on the page to cause a sort of pause that demonstrates the character's loneliness continues in the main story, showing Woody as lost in the newsroom where he works as his protagonist is on Mars:

Ware keeps this sort of rhythm going for most of the book, with a large panel taking up about one fourth of the space on each page, to the point that it becomes noticeable whenever he eliminates it, usually to speed up the narrative during especially quick-moving sections.  It's such assured work that these choices don't even seem to be choices; they're just the natural flow of the story.

It's amazing, all around.  As a chapter in the "Rusty Brown" serial, it does a great job of filling in the background of one of the characters, but it works so well as a stand-alone story that it doesn't need any other material to prop it up.  I can't wait to see how it will factor into the rest of Rusty's story; will he make the same mistakes his dad did? Having seen some glimpses of Rusty's future in the big Acme Novelty Library book from a few years ago, the outlook is not positive.  But I'll still be there to watch as Ware breaks hearts and blows minds.  


  1. Great review of a volume that really felt like a long-in-coming breakthrough for Ware. I've admired his ability to resonate with human experience for a long time, but Woody's experiences in heartbreak seem to reach new levels of obscenely genuine emotion.

  2. Awesome, awesome review. I think you're *really* finding your voice as a reviewer.

    On a personal note, I don't care what arguments people make for Ware, my problem remains the same: because everything in his work is existentially sad and heartbreaking the result is self-parody. It's all one note, and it might be the best note ever played, but it gets tiring after a while.