Acme Novelty Library #18. Chris Ware. Drawn and Quarterly, 2007. $17.95, 56 action-packed pages.
Over the fifteen or so years that he’s been publishing Acme Novelty Library, Chris Ware has shown an impressive emotional range. He’s written depressive cowboy loners, depressive schoolboy loners, depressive superhero loners, depressive funny animal loners, depressive robot loners, depressive space explorer loners and that one issue about the little dancing potato guy.
Who was a depressive loner.
With this volume, #18, Ware branches out and writes a depressive young woman loner.
Now that’s what I call progress.
As with many of Ware’s characters, the protagonist’s emotional shortcomings are here embodied as a physical abnormality. Sparky the cat was a bodyless head. The Quimbies, Ware’s most gruesome jeu de corps, were conjoined twins, one of whom died and decayed while the other lived on. Jimmy Corrigan broke his leg and had to hobble around on crutches. The protagonist of #18 stands somewhere between Jimmy Corrigan and Sparky in the seriousness of her condition, which is permanent but at least humanly tolerable–she has a prosthetic leg.
OMG it’s teh symbolism coz shes emotionally criplled!!!!
In any case, the shock twist of this volume is not that Ware has turned his pen to female depressive loners. For he has, in fact, already created another female protagonist (or co-protagonist, at least) in previous volumes for the ensemble of Rusty Brown. No, the real surprise of this volume is that it lacks entirely any of Ware’s usual ironic distancing prose.
That’s right, there’s not a single sentence outside the comics themselves, not even in the indicia or on the bar code. These convoluted apologiae, at once conspiratorially self-mocking and bitterly funny, have been a crucial part of Ware’s design aesthetic since the very first issue of Acme Novelty Library. As far as I know, they’ve been prominent in every comic or collection he has produced since then, filling paragraph after paragraph with layers of protective irony. So it’s genuinely shocking to see a volume with them nowhere in sight. It’s like opening a Captain America comic to find Cap wiping his arse with the American flag. The mind boggles.
That’s not to say that this artistic departure is necessarily a bad thing. (As a non-American, I’d be more interested in Captain Arsewipe, too, for that matter). Personally, I enjoy the apologiae, but they have always seemed like the defence of a younger artist, unsure of his own talent. Maybe, by leaving them out this time around, Ware is signalling that he has come to terms with his status as a cartoonist. Or maybe it just means that the prozac is working.
But then again, probably not. The most striking composition in this volume appears on the inside front-cover, and it pretty clearly shows that Ware is still no stranger to the black dog. The composition in question is a loop of words and pictures which shows the protagonist pondering suicide, deciding against it (because she doesn’t want to bother anyone by leaving them a body) and generally lying around being depressed. There’s no privileged starting place for the reader on this loop, and no privileged direction for the eye to follow, either. While Ware has used these tricks before, of the democratic page, he’s never used them to such brutal effect, matching form to content perfectly. A loop that starts at any point, never ends, and goes anywhere except outside itself? That’s as fine a depiction of depression as you’re likely to find anywhere, in any medium—matched, for mine, only by the film Last Days.*
And that’s why Ware is still the king. In two pages–in the inside front cover, no less–he does more than most artists can manage in their whole careers.
Even if it’s still about a depressive loner.
* Although that Achewood strip which showed Roast Beef’s decision flowchart is pretty good, too.
Recommended? If you have to be told to buy anything Chris Ware releases, you’re probably not reading this blog in the first place.