The Acme Novelty Library, Chris Ware

Pantheon, 2005, 110 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-375-42295-1

This may have been one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read.

Anyone who’s seriously interested in comic books has known that the medium isn’t limited to happy happy stories. Many of the acknowledged classics of the genre, from Maus to Watchmen, have been grim and uncompromising. But few people can be as hilariously dark as Chris Ware and his ACME Novelty Library, and this collection shows why.

There are, simply put, no heroes in Ware’s work. Every character is revealed to be weak, doomed, deluded or pathetic. Much like Robert Crumb’s work at its most unflinching, Ware has made it his mission to unbolt the little lies that we tell about ourselves. The effect for readers can be a lot like Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex, and just as shattering. Everyone sucks, and that’s life.

In its blandest form, The Acme Novelty Library is a repackaged collection of Ware’s work. (Actually, its full title is The Acme Novelty Library Final Report to Shareholders and Rainy Day Saturday Afternoon Fun Book) Since the artist’s material appears in a variety of formats and venues, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the book will feel like a collection of already-seen pieces: if you don’t faithfully buy every issue of the “Acme Novelty Library” periodical (not necessarily available at your neighbourhood comic book shop), chances are that most of the material will be original to most readers. Better yet: Ware has adapted the material in the book, making it feel like a more unified creation.

Not enough good things can be said about the design of the book. Produced as an oversized “poster-book” hardcover, The Acme Novelty Library is beautifully packaged, leaving little detail to chance. Every aspect of the physical object has been pored over: It features a gilded cover, a comic strip on the edge of the book, another one on the back of the (glued) bandoleer, full colour pages, a glow-in-the-dark astronomical chart as well as cut-and-paste paper-craft projects. Every single page has been filled with material, requiring some deft physical manipulation to twist one’s way through reading all of the content. Ware is a perfectionist’s perfectionist, and the care with which he has designed the book is obvious throughout. Much like McSweeney’s 13, also designed by Ware, The Acme Novelty Library is sure to become a standout piece of show-and-tell whenever guests come over to take a look at your library.

Whether you’ll let them read the book is another matter. People undergoing depressions, comic fansboys and fragile natures may want to stay well away from The Acme Novelty Library until they feel better about life, the universe and everything else. Every single character in the book’s numerous strips is repelled, deluded or fated to a lonely death. (Loneliness is a big theme for Ware; so is death. Lonely deaths inevitably follow.) Despite the awe-inspiring layout of some pages (just have a look at the “Big Tex” strips on page 33 and 40), there’s a profound sense of misery here. Characters do nasty things to each other, are fated to repeat their failures, and can’t communicate effectively with each other. It’s easy to pinpoint unmarried obsessive comic-book collector “Chester Brown” as the saddest character of the lot, but being married and mature is not much better in Ware’s view of the world: The “Chalky White” strip on page 97 is heart-breaking in how it shows how even the best-natured characters can be misunderstood by the ones they love. Even moronic “Big Tex” is doomed to an inglorious end, surrounded by hostile family members and fated to a vegetative state. And that’s if you do have family members: most of Ware’s characters are stuck alone in joyless surroundings, often self-exiled away from the rest of the world. It doesn’t take much to identify with them. I may not be a comic-book collector, but am I necessarily more aware of my place in the world than Chester Brown’s deluded obsessiveness with useless trinkets? Don’t answer that.

Ironically, some of the funniest material in the book appears in written format, as satirical advertisement tearing down consumerism, American foreign policy or just plain obsessive collecting. There’s a vivid, chameleon-like quality to Ware’s writing. It’s no exaggeration that he packs more funny text in one oversize page than other writers manage to cram in entire prose chapters. My advice: Read the text whenever the comics get too depressing.

And yet, The Acme Novelty Library isn’t a dreary piece of work. Wickedly funny, strongly heartfelt despite what initially looks like a mechanical drawing style, it pushes back the limits of what we expect comics to do, and packs an emotional wallop. I’ll gladly lend you my copy… and provide my phone number in case you need to talk to someone.

[August 2007: As improbable as it may seem, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Boy on Earth is even more depressing than The Acme Novelty Library. Far less amusing, it’s a 300+ pages exploration of loneliness and despair, set against four generations of losers. It’s enough to make you consider suicide, if only for the characters of the book. In some ways, Jimmy Corrigan is pure genius: it tackles issues seldom confronted and nails them with sharp accuracy. In other ways, it’s like being stuck in someone else’s nightmare for a few hours. The few sympathetic characters are shunted away, and even the two glimmers of hope at the end of the book are carefully hidden under uncut pages. Even the flow of the art seems deliberately clunky, which I blame on either the original publication constraints of the story, or a willingness to deliberately trip the reader. At least the typical design touches so characteristic of Ware’s work are everywhere to be found, and add a bit of interest to a profoundly unpleasant experience. It’s a piece of art all right; but it certainly won’t please everyone.]

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