Chris Ware

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.]

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, Ed. Chris Ware

McSweeney’s, 2003, 316 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 1-932416-08-0

I took years, but I finally snagged a copy of the quasi-legendary “McSweeney’s 13”, the “comics issue” of the relentlessly innovative fiction periodical from the fine folks at McSweeney’s. Whoever says “periodical”, after all, suggests a limited availability, followed by endless trips to used-bookstores in the hope of finding a copy.

But McSweeney’s isn’t a disposable sort of periodical, and so you may still have some luck, years later, finding latter printings shelved in the “literature” section of your neighbourhood monster bookstore. Don’t look for a brightly-coloured onion-paged digest: Look for a massive saran-wrapped hardcover with a strange cover featuring muted iconic drawings. If you know Chris Ware’s work, just look for his signature style: Not only has he edited the content of the issue, he also designed it –including the beautiful wrap-around cover.

It’s impossible to review McSweeney’s 13 without spending some time discussing its design. It’s no accident if it costs more than the average hardcover novel: not only is the book solidly bound in a slightly bigger format than most hardcovers, it sports full-color pages and a dust jacket that is much more than a dust jacket. Unwrap it and you will find not only two bonus comic-books hidden within the folds, but also a full-colour, two-sided, newspaper-sized (gilded!) comic by Chris Ware.

The biting, cynical, nihilist, self-referential, vaguely historical nature of Ware’s work sets the tone for what’s inside McSweeney’s 13: In assembling a special comics issue for one of the foremost literary periodical of our times, Ware has decided to play on two themes. First, that comics are good and literary and worthy of respect –a familiar tune for long-time fans. Second, that the type of comics showcased here would be almost absurdly literary in an autobiographical vein. If you’re looking for good superhero comics, or even accessible genre adventures in a graphical format, well, look elsewhere: McSweeney’s 13 won’t allow such populist riff-raff to sully its pages. Peanuts gets a pass on account of being old and respectable, but otherwise the only time you ‘ll hear about superheroes is through the nostalgic prose essays scattered throughout the periodical.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I’m coming to McSweeney’s 13 through the comic-sized door, but an equal if not superior number of readers must be picking it up because it’s the newest McSweeney’s and it happens to talk about comics. This is the audience that has to be convinced, not the existing comic fans.

On the other hand, it leads straight to a theme anthology where you get your pick between a sad autobiographical tales of everyday life, and another dozen so-called edgy pieces whose meaning lurks out of context. Your choices: Be baffled or depressed.

If you’re not happy with the newer material, you can always gawk at the perfect reproductions of historical pieces, from the first American comic book, to an early Mutt and Jeff, to sketches seemingly stolen from Charles Schultz’s trashcan, to other pieces of American comicana. Also; a handful of essays from such notables as Michael Chabon, Chip Kidd or John Updike. (I suppose that I won’t be the only one surprised to learn that Updike can sketch relatively well.) All of this material accumulates to leave the impression of an affectionate tribute to the art form, of a memento of interest to comic book enthusiasts with long memories.

Alas, despite the tremendous labour of love that this edition represents, many (most?) of the pieces are not original to McSweeney’s 13 and can’t even stand on their own. Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers is quoted here, as is Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, to cite only two work with which I’m immediately familiar. Some other pieces leave us hanging, deprived of both context and resolution. McSweeney’s 13 is least satisfying when it’s acting as a sampler than an homage or a polemic.

But it’s hard to truly being critical of this book. I have mentioned the design a couple of time, but McSweeney’s 13 is truly that rarest of literary object: One that feels as if no effort was spared in order to make it as realized at possible. Time and time again, small touches remind us that several people have agonized over this as an object, not a disposable pop culture artifact. The sampler approach can work at driving newer readers to other works, introducing new and little-known artists to the McSweeney’s readership. One can quibble with part of it, but the whole is much greater than the sum of its part. As a entity, McSweeney’s 13 is close to its own kind of perfection.

It’s not an accident if I can see myself pulling this book from my shelves the next time some one visits and say “You have to take a look at this…”