Once per year, jetting forward and back.

The ACME Novelty Library #19

I can hardly imagine comics without Chris Ware. He's just too tightly bound to my development as a reader; it'd be like trying to envision a novel without having learned half the alphabet.

Sure, I read a lot of comics before The ACME Novelty Library (est. 1991), but it was Ware's early work -- most crucially the oversized issue #4, the second half of Quimby the Mouse -- that kept a toe or two held in the lake of mid-to-late-'90s comics, grime so caked on its surface the water burned. Those mournful, achingly romantic cat 'n mouse diagram funnies and animation approximations forced me to rethink how 'comics' could work, at exactly the time I needed to consider qualites other than plot progression or in-panel detailing. And as a special bonus: diagrams became mournful and achingly romantic! Ware forced the argument of form, and, in that, he became inseparable from comics itself. For me.

And, oddly enough, my appreciation for the artist's much-vaunted technical mastery hasn't dimmed, though my tastes have changed. Ware's style is utterly individual, and very surface-pretty, but it's rich; those layouts and colors and letters may be formidably handsome, yes, but you can also notice how he holds the eye on repeating images in his unshakable little boxes, bouncing you from still scene to still scene, popping impact out of large panels then contracting, composing itself, refusing to become undone in the way that manga panels may tilt, but pulsing with an undeniable rhythmic force.

The artist himself has compared this approach to the composition of music. Some find it merely clinical, or chilly; I often think it lends Ware's world an impossibly tense feeling of barely-controlled emotion -- be it anger or sadness or (yes!) mirth -- like an ache coiling up in the guts of his characters and his society, gradually receding just when they can't take any more, fading behind the beauty of Ware's natural scenes or crisp urban visions, mounted like curios of serenity in a cabinet. He does love his Joseph Cornell.

But the feeling always returns, with needling inevitability.

Not that I expect that to be pleasant or attractive for every reader either, but Ware's edge-of-composure-but-still-so-so-very-composed aesthetic seems so utterly vital to his stories that it can't go without my due identification. Plus, it's adaptable - from the newspaper funnies iconography of Quimby the Mouse to the 'gag strip as emotional abuse' conceit of Big Tex, all the way down to the recent, sprawling mind-as-architecture schemata of Building Stories -- perhaps Ware-the-architect's quintessential vision of the human experience! -- there seems no limit to the ways in which reality can appear, in any form, of any form, as a metaphorical volcano perpetually on the verge of eruption, be it of humor or fantasy or (sure, most often) despair, but never... quite... spilling... over.

It goes deep, and Ware's way with adaptation doesn't even end there. Probably the least discussed of the artist's skills -- since it necessarily requires access to multiple versions of the same stuff -- is his way with breaking apart and recomposing preexisting pieces into new, entirely cohesive works, with not a line out of place or a movement jarred.

All the material in this particular issue (for example) initially appeared as weekly comics in The Chicago Reader from 2002 to 2004. Now they're part of a book, The ACME Novelty Library #19, which is actually chapter three of a much longer work titled Rusty Brown. That'll be its own book one day, and everything will come together at that time, but for right now Ware's aptitude for arrangement assures that this latest number of his continuing one-man anthology will nevertheless offer a full and self-sufficient experience - it'd damn well better, being a $15.95 hardcover comic of 72 pages and only coming out once a year and all!

In other words, some artists keep one eye on the bookshelf when setting up their serials, but Ware's vision demands every format be ready and able to perform on its own; it seems a natural extension of his fascination with construction, yet it doubles as a perfect virtue for today's slowed pace of serialization.

Hence: ACME #19. Have I mentioned it's a big sci-fi special? Sci-fi/horror, even?

That's not a new thing for Ware either, mind you; his 1987 professional debut, Floyd Farland, Citizen of the Future, was a full-blown Eclipse Graphic Novel of droll future paranoia, later supplanted in dystopian theme by the consumerist happy hell of Tales of Tomorrow. More pertinently, his Rocket Sam strips presented the classic motifs of interstellar settling and human-robot relations as blunt metaphors for the futility of interpersonal communication; he continues with same ideas here, albeit as a full-blown story rather than an accumulation of mean gags.

But don't go thinking that's all it is. The fantasy only takes up half of this issue; we soon discover that the story we've just gone through was written (as prose) by in-serial protagonist William K. "Woody" Brown (father of the titular Rusty), and holds a special place in his heart as an artifact of a time when he was young and in love and on his own in late '50s Omaha, the saga of which takes up the second half of this issue.

It will surprise nobody familiar with Ware to reveal that the two halves compliment (and often mirror) one another, and that the total package will tell you all you need to know about how sad-looking Mr. Brown (oh that Schulz influence!) wrote his story and hardly wrote anything more, and indeed how he got into that room to stare sadly at his old work, and why he might be so nostalgic. You don't need to have read any prior installments of Rusty Brown to get a full experience, although there's obviously some treats tucked away for the devout.

I personally liked the 'sci-fi/horror' first half a good deal more than the 'longing and heartbreak in a period setting' second half. Granted, the first half draws added power from the second half, just as the second half becomes clarified by the first, so it's hard to really break them apart. It's not even all that accurate to call the first half a simple 'story,' as it soon becomes evident that we're not so much reading Brown's work in the form of a comic as reading it along with him from inside his head, as he subjectively experiences it, occasionally swapping out something from the text for something that the text causes him to remember - Ware wittily unveils this aspect in a bit where a narrative caption describes a color that seems improperly presented in the comic itself, as if Ware-the-artist has made a blatant coloring error (but... but everyone loves his coloring! and those letters!!). Do add to that the fact that the story's in-text narrator also happens to be classically unreliable, because this is a work of suspense and thrills!

So, in summary, we've got a (prose) story being told in flashback by a narrator that's not telling the whole truth, presented through the retrospective (comics) gaze of a reader who's not reading the stright text, which makes a bit of sense in that the reader is also the story's writer, and the narrator is his own self-insertion, although the narrator and the reader/writer don't necessarily have the same motives, and do not lie in the same way, and indeed sometimes undercut one another, unbeknownst to either of them. Got it?

Remember, this is all the product of an artist whose breakthrough short story, I Guess (aka: Thrilling Adventure Stories; first published in Raw Vol. 2 No. 3), took the form of a Golden Age-style superhero short with all of its words replaced by an ongoing monologue from a man reflecting on his youth. This new fantasy is like an evolution of that early work, though it also hearkens back to a very particular attitude of alternative comics artists of a certain age from the United States, a pointed discomfort with the (American) medium's childish origins and genre slant, and a continuing need to process the stuff of supposed juvenilia into 'mature' works, right in front of the reader.

More than once does Ware furrow his narrative brow at the chest-thumping nonsense of unadorned sci-fi genre pieces -- in such painful contrast to his sensitive-but-flawed sad sack hero's passion for expression!! -- and it's hard not to read it all as fist raised for those who struggled against the bullshit and hackwork of a certain other artform, ha ha, to arrive at damaged works of undeniable passion to be growled over but finally, secretly proud of, like... well, like Chris Ware comics! Wouldn't you know?!

Even then, however, Ware is careful to submerge his self-aggrandizing in the stuff of perspective:

"But the things I wanted weren't always what the other kids were interested in..."

That's Woody in the second half, foreshadowing both his abridged creative life and the isolation he'd always feel, and perhaps signaling the presence of Ware personal preferences over everything he might say. He's a bit like Warren Ellis, really - a very particular voice and a very specific set of concerns, stamping his fingerprints all over any genre or plot he and his not-dissimilar set of characters might come across, to the point where he raises criticisms that he's one-note, or tedious. Ware, of course, is even more steady on that path, in that he directly controls the visual aspects of his stories and needs not concern himself with continuing characters he won't always direct; I wonder if the conceptual contortions of this genre story of his aren't a way of admitting, on the page, that his 'voice' rarely dissolves into the tone of character. All of them, awkward and downcast, are so close to him: creator; reader; character.

Er, don't let any of that make this comic seem intimidating. Ware goes to great lengths to make the sci-fi half as readable and immediate as possible. It's about a colonizing mission to Mars that becomes troubled when needed supplies don't arrive, causing narrator Rusty (yep) to crack up into a mass of fear, violence and sexual obsession, coupled with some nice bits of vintage pseudo-science explanation; the visual style is very 'contemporary Ware' (save for a few panels of video transmissions done in Ware's outline-free Floyd Farland style; nice callback!), and all those little boxes work fine for building up a sense of confinement - the gnawing subsumed emotion of society as the specter of Martian death! Hell yeah! There's even some decent visceral jolts, including a bit with a guy eating his own fingertips; if you're a big animal lover, there's one part with a dog that's going to kill you.

I suspect Ware's working in a pastiche of various period writers' styles, although I'm not up on '50s prose sci-fi to comment; there's an undercurrent of misogyny to a lot of it that's played out more in the issue's second half, though I wonder if it's not saying something about the genre's period as well. Clearly Woody (and thus Rusty) is a man of troubled relations, as evidenced by the issue's '50s-set second half, seeing Our Man trying to hold down a job while fixating on his first real sexual relationship, an on-and-off extended fling with a woman who's obviously not set on monogamy.

It's another one of Ware's jazzlike takes on his beloved themes, and I daresay at this point you'll either like it or you'll not. He gets a bit cute with how the 'real' half informs the fantasy, although there's a great bit where Woody's broken glasses and subsequent half-clear vision recalls the slow frosting of Rusty's space helmet as he wanders the black depths of space on a mad chase. Woody has a chase of his own, a flight up a long set of stairs that prompts the issue's obligatory bravura explosion of time and space, with panels growing smaller and piling up into childhood moments, the horror of the issue's genre half transformed into the discomfort of personal recollection - there's no rest in the world of Ware!

As always with this artist, it's maybe best to take this comic as a grand blueprint of a character's tortured emotional path through life. Ware seems a builder at heart, and while he no longer provides cut-out projects for his readers to play with, he makes certain to bookend his new comic with the image of a mighty (and oh so phallic) rocket and the same machine in cross-section, so that we can be certain to know exactly how it works when we've finished with the comic.

Right before that, at the close of the story proper (until it's reconfigured as one portion of a larger story proper, of course), we see a second sci-fi story by Mr. Brown, this time presented in plain, objective text. It's a short, sad one, seeing a lonely man riding on a rocket into the future, at a speed where life passes him by much faster than he actually ages. He's far more macho than Woody Brown, and not nearly as maniacal as Rusty-the-sci-fi-character, but he shares their awful isolation, and their sense of time passing, out of control, leaving everything they wanted to do out of their hands. Nobody can exit the ride, and only some form of night awaits them at the end.

It's the Chris Ware way. He doesn't literally map life and the cosmos this time, but it's his stars you're under nonetheless.