Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Story Telling A Story: Acme Novelty Library #19

Rob reviews the 19th issue of Chris Ware's ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY.

One cartoonist I've written little about is Chris Ware, in part because so much has been written about him. However, the 19th issue of his ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY series may be his single most stunning achievement in terms of structure and emotional resonance. The comic is in three separate chapters, with the reader's understanding of each constantly shifting and changing throughout the issue. Visual information contrary to text is resolved in shattering ways as the comic bends between genres. Even though this is just a part of Ware's larger RUSTY BROWN serial, this stand-alone issue requires no knowledge of the serial, and is an obvious book of the year candidate. While some critics accuse Ware of a certain sameness in theme and presentation, he's only become more sophisticated, more humane and more mature in his ongoing examination of the desperate search for human connection.

RUSTY BROWN will prove to be the most complex narrative of Ware's career, given the large number of characters and the ways in which they will interact with each other. Issues 16 and 17 of Acme were the introductory pieces of the story; as such, they were fairly straight-ahead and Ware didn't really show us much technically that we hadn't seen before. We've seen the Rusty Brown character in various short pieces and "jokes" from Ware before; he's the sort of pasty-but-vicious collector who is incapable of experiencing any kind of joy outside of the temporary narcotic (and neurotic) release of acquisition. The story is set in the late 1970s in Nebraska (Ware's original stomping grounds) as nerdy abuse magnet Rusty meets the new kid, Chalky White--an even more pathetic version of himself. We are also introduced to Chalky's older sister Alice, loutish classmate Jason Lint, Rusty's teacher Joanne Cole, art teacher "Chris Ware" (a sort of "what if?" version of the author) and Rusty's father, Woody Brown, the subject of Acme #19.

Woody is also a teacher at the school and hates his life. He has contempt for his doting wife, he resents his bizarre son's existence and wonders aloud in Acmes 16 and 17 what had happened to the last twenty years of his life. Something about seeing Alice White shakes him up, and this issue reveals what that is. The volume is an absolutely stunning character piece divided up into three chapters, all of which obliquely reveal what led Woody to his life of "quiet desperation". The structure of the issue is brilliant: it starts off with a science-fiction story (which the table of contents reveals was written by "W.K. Brown") that features an interesting tension between text and image. The second story features Rusty in his upstairs study (notably avoiding his wife and son) where he's trying to write (to no avail) and instead reminisces about a relationship from twenty years earlier that devastated and mystified him.

The girl in question uncannily resembled Alice White, accounting for his being so flustered. An afternoon tryst with this girl from the newspaper they worked at together took on enormous meaning to him; it meant becoming not just an adult, but a man (as Woody himself alludes to). Like many of Ware's characters, Woody may be hypercritical of himself to the point of self-loathing, but he lacks self-awareness and empathy. The girl's behavior indicated that she was deeply disturbed for any number of reasons that Ware only hints at, but it's clear that she despises herself. It's implied that she took money from a newspaper bigwig in exchange for sex and in general felt powerless over her own life. That's what likely triggered her frequent visits to Woody's tiny apartment for sex--the feeling of power and control over another. It's no accident that she was on top every time sex was depicted in this issue. In the end, when a desperate Woody proposed marriage to her (via letter), it was no surprise to see her tear up the letter in his face, laughing.

Throughout his life, Woody dealt with his own punishing awkwardness with his peers by pouring his emotional energy into reading science fiction. It became his own narcotic to numb the dull pain he constantly felt, a substitute for actual relationships or feelings. When the pain of his relationship became too much to bear, he sublimated it into writing a science-fiction story of his own. When we read the story in this issue, we're not reading the story per se. What we are seeing/reading is what Woody experiences when he rereads the story (and the original draft in particular) that came out of that experience. This singular act of creation is clearly the one thing in his life that he's ever been proud of.

One of the central themes of the sci-fi story, Woody's own reverie and even the short prose story at the end of the issue is the way emotional trauma muddies memories, and by association, muddies identity. In each story, there are key passages where the narrator tells us that their memories of a particular period are fuzzy. Art imitates Woody's life here as he was never fully able to come to terms with his grief but was also unable to see how his own behavior led to this trauma. As a result, his own characters either commit monstrous acts and/or remove themselves entirely from humanity, and can never quite remember how or why things got to be so bad.

It's not an accident that Woody's characters are always in the process of trying to assert their dominance over their environments and lovers, most often clumsily and viciously. Emotional abuse tends to run in that sort of cycle, where the abused/dominated person seeks a victim of their own to compensate for their feelings of worthlessness. In Woody's case, he was taken in by a secretary whom he had ignored at the newspaper who had an obvious crush on him. He quickly moved to dominate her (and it was no accident that when they finally had sex, he was on top) physically and emotionally. It didn't take long for him to resent his wife for her submission, though the empathy-challenged Woody couldn't connect his new behavior to that of the woman who broke his heart.

In the sci-fi story, the text notes that the protagonist's lover had red hair that matched his, but what we "see" is a brunette. Woody notes that when the story was published, it was with revisions. The main revision was to change the lover to a redhead, ostensibly to match his wife's appearance. This was done less as a token of affection than as a means of declaring his newfound dominance. At that time, he was relishing the (short-lived) rush of excitement he felt over being able to control another person in reality, as opposed to acting out a revenge fantasy in his story. At the time Woody was rereading his manuscript, the original emotional truth of what he wrote rose to the forefront of his mind. It wasn't just in the way his lover appeared--it was her cold behavior in dialogue he imagined that wasn't part of the story (this was revealed at the end when we see a final snippet of prose), her desperation to get away from him. No matter what he wrote, the story wasn't an affirmation of his dominance, it was a vicious revenge fantasy about a character who was as blind to his own shortcomings as the author was.

I've written a bit about comics-as-diagrams. Diagrams in themselves are a kind of comic in that they visually depict information in a clear, almost abstract manner. They are meant to be interpreted as much as they are read and are immersive in a manner different from standard comics narratives. Dash Shaw, John Pham, Dan Zettwoch and others often work in this style, but Ware is its greatest exemplar. While some have suggested that his abstracted style is cold and mopey, I would argue that it captures raw emotion in a way that few comics can. He does this primarily through the way he composes his page, altering its rhythm to either speed up or slow down time. His rich but simple use of colors fits into that diagramatic scheme as he rigidly adheres to a visual scheme that is flat in nature. Ware loves to break down his characters and their surroundings into circles and squares. The circle winds up being a repeating visual motif when Ware zooms in on a circle framing an environment or a person. When Ware wants the reader to get the sense of events happening quickly or in a confused manner, he shrinks his panels and crams them together. When he wants to impart a frozen, crucial moment, he'll have a single panel dominate the rest of the page. I don't think it's a coincidence that the impetus for Woody writing his story came from him drawing a diagram of a rocket ship.

Ware has a pitch-black sense of humor, especially when he mines humor from pathos. There's an astounding page in the book where Woody has just been rejected by his lover, who gives him the $100 dollars she had received to go away (and perhaps attempt to expunge her own guilt at prostituting herself). On the next page, we open with a panel with a stack of sci-fi pulp magazines, then we see a panel with some packs of cigarettes and candy, and then a panel with a half-eaten candy bar and wads of bills. Later, he masturbates to a magazine that has her smell on it, a desperate act of loneliness that Ware simultaneously manges to play for laughs and pathos. The fact that Woody tries to anesthesize himself by plotting to spend it on older science-fiction magazines is the first step to entering the pathology of collection. On a later page, Ware crams 176 panels onto a single page to show the insanity and blurriness of memory when he broke his glasses (making him unable to perform his job properly), had sex on and off with his lover (who kept rejecting him) and finally proposed to her. At the same time, he loses his job and his life completely disintegrates. The way that Woody mistook manipulation for real affection pointed not only to how starved for affection he was, but that he was no longer able to truly reciprocate it once it was received.

The connections between the three stories are intricate. The sci-fi story opens with a character (facing away from us) shaving. This is both a fake-out for the audience (it's not here on earth, it's on Mars!) but also a way that the character reasserts his humanity--a cleansing ritual designed to make one look presentable in public. There was no public for the protagonist, other than his former wife whom he dominates simply by having her in his vicinity, but this was a way for him to feel urbane and normal. The protagonist and the lover in both of Woody's stories are nameless, a fairly naked way for Woody to project his fantasies. In both cases, it's clear that he views both protagonists as rugged, capable loners--his fantasy version of himself that reads Proust and drinks scotch. (Of course, his characters turn out to be psychopaths, but that may not be the way he sees them now). Woody shaves off his moustache at the end of the book in an attempt to imitate the ritual his own character found so comforting and realized that it brought him no solace.

The final story, written in Woody's present (the late 70s) once again features a rugged loner literally launching himself on a mission where he will never see earth again while his ex-lover's alive, due to the way she hurt him. It was amusing to see a footnote saying that the story didn't succeed because of an obscure astronomical metaphor that Woody employed--he was punished for his own ambition. The story reflects the whole "where did my life go" lament of Woody, even as the melodramatic reaction of his character obscures his own lack of self-actualization. It's telling that the only relationship Woody ever had where affection was freely given and received was with his dog, whose senseless death destroyed any last bit of empathy he possessed and fueled the most disturbing portions of his story.

If each subsequent issue of the Rusty Brown serial focuses on a different character as vividly as this issue, Ware will have truly created an all-time classic. Ware created a character who simultaneously earned the pity, sympathy, disgust and laughter of his audience. Ware's approach becomes more and more intricate with each issue, yet has also become more accessible and universal. While all fiction may be autobiographical, Ware is taking a number of new avenues of exploration of human ethics and interaction. I'm guessing that each character that he explores in detail will represent a different aspect of the search for connection and the awful choices we can make in that endeavor. It's gratifying as a reader to see one of the world's greatest
cartoonists take on such an ambitious, consuming project, but it's one worthy of his talent.

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