Comic Genius

You’ve heard it said, even sung: Every picture tells a story. No where is that statement more true than in comics. And no comic illustrator tells deeper, more meaningful, more entertaining, more eye-pleasing stories than Chris Ware. Ware’s comics are so innovative, so artistic, clever and literate that they bridge the gap between pop and fine culture, even as they never pretend to be anything other than cartoons.

Memory serves Ware, coloring his panels with a sort of cartoon nostalgia. His work is out of the great comics tradition: Krazy Kat, Gasoline Alley, Little Nemo, a host of troubled superheroes, the 1960s and ‘70s underground comics of R. Crumb, Kim Deitch and others, even Mad magazine parodies and Japanese comic knock-offs. Editions of his long-running Acme Novelty Library are introduced with arcane and satiric advertisements straight out of marketing’s quaint past. It’s easy to picture Ware at his drawing desk behind a swirling pair of X-Ray Specs, those that offered suckers the chance to see through the clothing and the world at large. But there’s one big difference: Ware’s actually work. How else to explain his insight?

Since the success of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, Ware has been everywhere; in art galleries on the cover of The New Yorker and the pages of The New York Times, as editor in 2004 of the landmark, all-comics edition of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Number 13 and, more recently, The Best American Comics 2007.

Even as he connects with the comics of our youth, Ware always brings something new to his panels: new illustration styles, new ways of arranging panels, new depth of thought, experience and emotion. His amazing Jimmy Corrigan transcends time and space in a depressingly lonely epic of fathers and sons. His series Rusty Brown is a delayed coming-of-age saga of a man-child in love with collectibles. Quimby the Mouse—he’s no Mickey– avoids a real life as he indulges in the worst pop culture has to offer.

The latest edition of his The Acme Novelty Library, Number 18, pulled from Ware’s Building Stories series, is an Eleanor Rigby tale of a young lady with only a leg-and-a-half, a girl “too eager to be loved” who suffers insomnia, the ignorance of an indifferent society and nagging self-doubt of the sort that seems to surface often in Ware’s writing and sketch books. The story’s emotional depth and subject matter, ranging from abortion to xenophobia, make it Ware’s most literate work to date. That release, and the publication of a second volume of his sketchbooks, The Acme Novelty Datebook Volume Two, made good reason for a talk with the artist himself.

Ware doesn’t do many interviews. Notable exceptions include his participation in Todd Hignite’s 2006 study In the Studio: Visits With Contemporary Cartoonists from Yale University Press and a 2001 interview with The New York Times in which he asked its author, “This interview isn’t going to be printed in “question  & answer” format, is it? … Because a lot of my thoughts tend to come out muddled and ungrammatical and, if nothing else, inarticulate.” One of the publicists told us Ware doesn’t like interviews and we guessed it’s because of his work ethic. “Cartooning takes a really, really long time and is hard, lonely work,” he writes in the introduction to The Best American Comics 2007. ”Pages upon hundreds of pages are drawn and thrown away before any writer or artist eventually finds him or her-self. The reader may even reliably calculate that the time it takes to read a comic strip story to the time it took to draw it is roughly 1: 1,000.” Or, as he states in one of the ads from Acme Novelty Library Number 16: “Ruin Your life: Draw Cartoons! And Doom Yourself to Decades of Grinding Isolation Solipsism and Utter Social Disregard.”

So, after frequent and pitiful pleading to Ware’s publishers and publicists, a reply came back saying Ware would agree to an interview–not by phone but by e-mail–limited to five questions. When the answers didn’t come back in the allotted two weeks we became dismal. But, like Rusty Brown in pursuit of a 1970s-era Pillsbury Funny Face Drink Mix figurine of Looney Lemon, we persisted. Unlike Rusty Brown, our patience was rewarded. “Here are my constipated and over-thought answers,“ he wrote. “My apologies for the delay in getting these back to you, but our household was struck by a rather unforgiving bout of bronchitis (due, I think, my daughter’s just starting to attend preschool) so I was “held back” a bit.”

We found the answers to our questions considered and anything but constipated. Self-doubt is an artistic affliction and a number of the entries in the new Datebook are self-critical. How difficult is it for him to maintain confidence in what he’s creating?

Well, all I’ve ever wanted to do with my “art” (whatever that is) is to see as clearly and truthfully as I possibly can — which is, of course an impossibility, — but at least it’s something of a modest goal. I know there are certain artists or writers who try to trick, fool or make fun of their readers or viewers, but that attitude, to me, is almost a sort of intellectual homicide. I also think it’s entirely up to the artist to be his or her own harshest critic; one shouldn’t expect the benefit of the doubt from generations of readers who haven’t been born yet (which I’ve also always thought should be an artist’s “target audience,” if I can employ a ridiculous contemporary cliché.) None of this changes the fact that I’m always dissatisfied with what I do; maybe it’s just a personality quirk, or something.

There’s a line in Ware’s latest Datebook that says, “I couldn’t shake the sensation that I am still a teenager watching it all happen before me—probably due to America’s perpetration of adolescence as ‘culture’…” Rusty Brown and Jimmy Corrigan seem to travel easily between their youth and adult years. We asked Ware to discuss this notion of the child/adult existing simultaneously and where it might have come from.

I guess some of this originates with listening to my grandmother tell me stories about her own childhood and early life; she was such a wonderfully gifted storyteller that the real world would seem to disappear when she was talking and the images she’d create would take over, so vividly in some cases that I remember them now almost as if they happened to me. She inspired me to try and get this same evocative sense into my own stuff, and in doing so I realized that everyone stores away and keeps similar memories and details alive within them, whether they’re readily accessible or not. Our consciousnesses are as fluid as water in a bathtub; we can go anywhere, anytime we want in our minds, and do, all the time.

Also, I guess I’ve realized as I’ve become older that our perceptions aren’t always the most reliable reporters of reality. This fact was really highlighted for me at the last high school reunion I attended: my forty-year old friends and I were sitting looking at an old yearbook from our fifth grade year and we all agreed that not only did the pictures of the eighth graders still look imposing and frightening to us, but that when we looked at each other, we couldn’t even see our forty year old faces, only those of the children we once were. I realized that something very strange was happening there — as adults, I’m convinced that not only our memories but also our mental generalizations of experience (i.e. words and concepts) affect and even distort our perceptions. Comics are a sort of in-between tightrope walk of all of these things.

Architecture, often of the unique or classic sort, serves an important role in Ware’s work. The narrative from the new book opens “Once upon a time, there was a building…” and closes with the same building. Why has Ware made architecture such an integral part of his work?

Again, it probably comes back to memories of the house I grew up in and memories of my grandmother’s house; I navigate those places almost daily in my mind, and the three-dimensional “maps” I’ve internalized are all also filled with stories, so for better or for worse I frequently try to work that way when I’m writing and drawing fiction. In the case of the New York Times strip, it was very specifically designed to be about one day in the life of a building itself, and so began and ended with images of it (as well as changed orientation in relation to the sun as it passed overheard, as pretentious as that is to admit.)

One of Ware’s most attractive features is the design of his pages: various sized panels, small panels clustered in larger panels as if to point out detail, full pages with arrows leading from scene/text to the next scene. Where did these design elements come from?

Well, again, not to flog this notion to death, but it really all comes from trying to work in a way that most closely resembles the way I seem to remember things and relate them to each other, as well as to reflect the texture of the world as I’ve come to know it; I want there to be a certain sense of detail and intricate level of resolution of information that’s analogous to my experience of the natural world. I think this idea of “the natural world influencing art” esthetic was sort of wiped out in the 20th century by modernism (or “art influencing the natural world”) and I guess I just feel more of a sympathy with the former, that’s all. I am not, however, trying to confuse anyone, but simply to recreate the same sense of contradictory certainty and uncertainty I have in my own experiences. Since I’m working visually, sometimes that looks unnecessarily complicated, though I’d hope by the content and presentation that it’s at least somewhat obvious that I’m not making fun of the reader. I work entirely by feeling, however, and so I trust what feels right as I’m working.

Ware says he’s looking ahead to Acme Novelty Library Number 19 and will continue work on both the Building Stories and Rusty Brown series. His response to a question on his editing comics anthologies reflects his view on the current state of the art.

I don’t think I’ll be editing any more anthologies again very soon after the last Best American Comics; I was afraid after the McSweeney’s issue I’d edited that my foisting my taste and love of all of those artists’ recent work twice in such a relatively short time would be something of an overload. It seems that my interest in experimental cartoonists who write about more or less real-life experiences isn’t necessarily reflective of the general comics readership, which is of course fine; I just genuinely believe I presented some of the best work published in 2006, and I was actually surprised by the varied quality of most of it once it was all gathered together. John Updike very eloquently articulated the difference between genre writing versus non-genre writing in a recent New Yorker book review, which bears repeating: “Thrillers, as we shall call them, offer the reader a firm contract: there will be violent events, we will go places our parents didn’t take us, the protagonist will conquer and survive, and social order will, however temporarily, be restored. The reader’s essential safety … will not be breached. The world around him and the world he reads about remain distinct; the partition between them is not undermined by any connection to depths within himself.” It’s curious to me that the traditional genre content of the comic books which I grew up loving has now become an established part of mainstream culture, though I don’t think cartoonists trying to write human-scale stories in any way threatens that extremely widely-read establishment. I’m simply pleased that comics have started to show that they can plumb those sorts of depths, too.

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