When did cartoonist Chris Ware lose his sense of humor and turn all Eleanor Rigby on us? Ware has always veered towards the lonely, pathetic, side of life. The Acme Novelty Library, Number 20: Lint follows in the footsteps of Rusty Brown, Jimmy Corrigan and the half-legged woman from Acme Novelty Library, Number 18. But unlike earlier editions of Acme (excluding the all-serious, all the time 18) there’s no comedic breaks, no comic parody, no political levity to break the narrative. The mood in Lint ranges from somber to dismal
Jordan Lint is a plainly pathetic character, deviant in his normalcy with a psyche littered with the usual psychic traumas of childhood (think potty training). He comes from that most normal of dull places, Nebraska (Full disclosure: Ware himself is from Nebraska. Me, too). Ware doesn’t give the story too many fantastic touches to make his point. God makes an appearance but, like many a father, disappears when Jordan grows up.
Fathers play the role of heavies in Ware’s books, especially Jimmy Corrigan, and the latest takes the father-son role further as the son become father and an offspring claims fatherly harm in a much more dramatic, public way. This betrayal seems to revisit Lint’s own exaggeration of his father’s faults.
Ware has a way of capsulizing our lives into its most common, most poignant moments (see the illustration at the front of the diary that shows stages of Lint’s daughter). There are hints of Piaget and Erickson as Jordan develops from clueless infant to concept-grasping toddler to self-absorbed adolescent. The story starts on the molecular level with read and black pixels gathering into recognizable geometric features. We follow the young Lint as fuzzy perception becomes focus and his intellect develops.
Early on, Jordan mirrors his father’s outbursts and his mother’s tenderness and this opposition becomes part of Ware’s design. His mother’s funeral and his father remarrying are depicted on opposite pages. The young boy’s conception of both events are mirrored in dark colors, tears, scab-picking and thumb-sucking. As he struggles for identity and sexual understanding, he changes his name. Alienation of the kind many teens feel sets in. He grasps at that most mighty of teen cliches: he wants to be a rock’n’ roll star.
Ware follows Lint’s adult life through marriages, financial success and child-rearing. He seems to be unaware of his own feelings and desires, following them blindly where they lead. Guilt, arriving late, plays a leading role and deliverance never lives up to promise. His past visits at unseemly moments. He is happiest at his most indulgent, a characteristic represented by his drunken enthusiasm over football (a source of happiness that as all Nebraska football fans know can dissolve in a single play).
Ware’s drawing, the art and craft of it, continues to be visually searing. That’s not to mean it’s psychedelic in it spontaneity and hallucinatory images (although their starkness and geometry can be hallucinatory at times). But his tireless style burns into our brains. Each page is a mosaic of variously-sized and sequenced panels that speed and slow the story at its creator’s whim. The illustration sporting the least technique is by Lint himself, a sheet of lined-notebook paper with a crude Frankenstein portrait drawn by the kid “so sick of everything.” Reoccurring images haunt the pages. The story ends as it begins, the drawings deconstructing into colored molecules, Lint’s life-long preoccupations bubbling to the surface of his dissipating consciousness until only a word is left: “am.”
Lint is normal in that he does much to generate his own guilt. There’s a moral to this story but it’s distorted. Like many of us, Lint — a product of his past as well as his own self-indulgence — is not a perfect man. There are excuses and there are no excuses. Ultimately, his unhappiness seems anchored in his inability to face the realities of his life. What can we learn?