A Few Words on Form and Story

Acme Novelty Library #16

Ah, nothing like applying the standard pamphlet-format ‘issue #’ label to a $15.95 hardcover book. It’s all writer/artist Chris Ware’s fault, since he already devised an inscrutable system for breaking Acme Novelty Library down into the more fitting ‘volumes’ as based on the contents’ positioning in his career, and I’m not about to look the damn thing up since Ware himself has largely abandoned it. I guess I’ll just call this issue #16 and be done with it.

This is the ‘first’ chapter of the extended Rusty Brown narrative, in case you weren’t aware, although some of the main characters have appeared as adults in other Ware works, most recently Pantheon’s Acme Novelty Library hardcover, which itself collected material from earlier issues of the Acme pamphlet series (back when the series could, with squinting, actually be construed as a series of pamphlets). It’s all a bit of a crapshoot anyway, since Ware loves recontextualizing earlier works of his into specific components of new narratives - one can only imagine how the earlier Rusty material might be incorporated into the inevitable future Rusty Brown graphic novel, whenever it’s actually completed (by Ware’s own estimation, that’ll be around when his infant daughter is being assigned long division). It’s probably best that we just take this book as what it is, and indeed what its packaging strives so heroically to make it seem like under even the slightest glance: a single book.

But that’s where the problem is, isn’t it? Just a few days ago Image founder Erik Larsen handed down some criticisms of the book, peppered with genuine admiration of Ware’s skill as a draftsman and concessions as to how the material might work for some readers, which actually leads him into some odd rhetorical troubles. “As an interesting character study it may succeed in high form but as a story-- it fails.” This is Larsen apparently referring to Ware’s output in general, since he hasn’t started into any specific examination of any particular work. It directly follows the eye-catching declaration “A lot of people aren't really writing stories,” which does rather suggest that Larsen is referring to Ware in that sentence as well, since Ware’s the only artist he talks about thereafter in a negative sense. However, he also qualifies his statements elsewhere in the piece with lines in relation to Ware like “...the stories don't often add up to a whole lot (which is not to say they aren't worthwhile).” Upon a close reading, it’s kind of unclear as to what precisely Larsen thinks about Ware’s storytelling acumen (it’s maybe not really stories at all, except Larsen keeps calling them stories, and even admits that they’re worthwhile stories, though they’re apparently also failures), though it is clear he respects Ware’s technical skill. He also quite clearly thinks this book in particular doesn’t work as a story, which naturally leads into a plug for Image’s own Fell, which offers standalone stories for a scant $1.99. Staying on message.

I can't agree with Larsen’s analysis of the book, however. As he puts it:

As a read, however, it's a decent start that goes nowhere and simply stops. There aren't character arcs, there's no closure of any kind. It simply starts a thread, meanders about and ends. It's as though he was making a movie and ran out of film and decided to end it mid-scene.”

Frankly, I think Ware is one of the most attentive creators out there in relation to how stories work in differing forms - serialized, collected, whatever. And Acme Novelty Library #16 does indeed provide a satisfying single experience, as a panorama of human concerns and consternation. Maybe this fits into Larsen’s definition of what a ‘character study’ is (as opposed to those stories that don’t add up to much yet are still worthwhile, which has to be a different thing since, let’s remember, this work fails as a story). All I know is that Ware employs a damned effective (and utterly simple) double-tiered storytelling structure, simultaneously following the journeys of Rusty and his dad (and the characters they encounter) on the top tier, and the experiences of eventually-to-be pal Chalky White and his sister on the bottom, the two paths occasionally crossing to provide multiple viewpoints of the same events. Which is both the point, and what makes this thing work as a single unit.

It’s climbing through the minds of these characters, guided by Ware's hand, that provides much of the interest: Chalky’s sister Alice often thinks in fragmented, excited interior utterances, while Rusty’s thought bubble-powered stylized musings (“Golly...”) belie his melodramatic, comics-fueled soul. Even more notable is 'Mr. Ware,' an art teacher avatar for the author himself, whose interior dishonesty is revealed through his rambling, jargon-laden narration, far more formal and reader-targeted than Alice’s purely personal use of the same narrative device; Ware the character is here to convince us, but Ware the creator reveals his dishonesty by contrasting his words with damning images. Rusty’s dad, meanwhile, uses a wide variety of devices, all of them actually, which ultimately is what draws the story together.

Indeed, there’s even a nice bookend provided. We have the technical, if slightly sugared narration of that snowy television at the beginning (beautiful flakes instantly zapped away into electronic 'snow'), and at the end we have Rusty’s dad, 'drawing' his own surprisingly eloquent interior musings on the board, restating the television’s opening narration from a more humanist (and more pleading) standpoint, human life and snowflakes alike dissected into their components, all unique. This is a both statement of the story’s theme, as well as its very structure, its reason for being. We follow a wide variety of characters (using a narrative design that allows for maximum visibility) and all of them reveal their thoughts and trajectories though a multitude of comics-specific narrative devices, many of them quite smoothly deployed through Ware’s command of the form. Rusty’s dad employs all of them, from thought bubbles to snap-cut intrusions of fantasy, finally adopting the use of familiar cursive-font narration to tie things together, and his role as final ‘speaker’ matches his role of most studied character, given many ways of expressing himself (ironic, since as a person he’s arguably the most sheltered among all of them).

And that’s the story, right down to its own stated intent. It wraps up quite nicely, with a reiteration of its introduction, the objective having been completed, and a matching view of the snowy city to compliment the introductory view of stylized snowflakes - we can now see the inhabitants who have the snow fall upon them, and things aren't rendered artificial and televised anymore. I will concede that there’s little in the way of an arc for these characters, but claiming that the story simply stops ‘mid-scene’ with no closure doesn’t seem accurate to me at all, as the book is quite straightforward as to what it wants to do, and it does it with panache.

There more as well, for after your original reading. You can go over Ware’s use of superhero tropes, contrasting the relative innocence (if youthfully charged with half-understood sex) of nerdy Rusty with the arguably self-deluding over-analysis of Ware the character, Quixotically hand-working on his own questioning superhero work. Then you can compare the families of Rusty and Chalky, the father and son united through nervousness and neurosis, and the Whites, strained yet dependant. You can appreciate the great moments of humor, from the dialogue “Are y’drunk? Drunk in the morning? Huh?!?” to the sound effects (Alice’s rebellious ‘undo’ was great). You can also read over the enclosed bonus strips from Building, though I’d already seen them in that Chris Ware book from a while back.

But there’s a lot of value in here. A lot for your money. And a story, that while plainly capable of supporting future chapters (which we know it will), works quite nicely on its own terms as a single unit, a satisfyingly complimentary and coherant slice of Ware’s characterizations, worldview, and mastery of form. That's plenty for one issue.