Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Chris Ware delivers more body-blows of depression

I read Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth a couple years ago, having seen excerpts in various cities' alternative weeklies. It was a thing of beauty, very well done, dense and deep, but also profoundly sad, being full of parental abandonment and alienation and so on. Somehow I soldiered through. Later I read Quimby The Mouse. What the fuck was going on with the cat's head the mouse wheeled around in the little wagon?

After that I just couldn't bear to read anything by Ware, because it was all so very, very sad. I had also encountered some of his 'doing this is miserable work, I hate it' material in a comic compilation (McSweeney's Issue 13) which put me off. It was not exactly Vince Neil griping about groupies and sub-par craft services table spreads, but still...you don't have to mentally re-live the placing of every slab by slaves to appreciate the pyramids ('they didn't have Alleve then...'). You don't have to almost die from heroin addiction and come back to enjoy the work of Iggy Pop. You don't have to personally get shot to pieces and then drown on Omaha Beach to enjoy a bar-b-q on Memorial Day. It's clear Ware has immense talent, and he's not laying about resting on his laurels, but forgive me for wanting more art and less artist in this case.

Later I encountered an essay he'd written about Frank King (Gasoline Alley) in a Drawn & Quarterly comp, which introduced a collection of King's strips that completely changed my view of what Gasoline Alley was all about (what it had been about was it was one of the old people strips I always skipped on the comics pages). It turns out Grampaw's comics were beautifully illustrated (these were Sunday strips, with the color) aimless celebrations of the world around us as it underwent great changes (the characters also underwent changes, as King allowed them to age, unlike the Family Circle kids who will keep on adorably fucking up the English language until Bil Keane gives up the ghost). Some of the strips were quite inventive and even experimental, as in a strip where the world is inverted and Skeezix lives below the surface of the lake. So, again, if you fall victim to assuming the old comics were all knuckle-dragging Bazooka Joe efforts, well, aren't you ignorant?

I felt I was ready to take on The ACME Novelty Library 'Report To Shareholders' a couple weeks ago, and I picked it up at the Monroe County Public Library, which has a really great graphic novel section. It sat on the table with the pile of books I'm currently not reading. Eventually I dove in.

Some have complained that it's very difficult to read, and it kind of is, as it's full of old style kid comic-book type ads with very small print, featuring headers like 'YOU CAN NOW MAKE MORE MONEY', 'Break into SURGERY', and 'Other Men have Read and Profited from this FREE Book About LUST'. Some pages have 10x the number of words you'd find on the page of a novel, PLUS all of the painstakingly drawn panels (and Ware doesn't miss the opportunity to point out that the comic book artist has to do 10x the work of a novelist, who can describe a scene with a few choice phrases). The thing is, nobody ever read those ads in the old comic books, so nothing's stopping the reader from plowing ahead, picking the eye-catching title here and there. Further, the densest page doesn't come close to some of the printing mayhem to be found in the novel 'House Of Leaves' (or, for that matter, the no-one has read this book, not even the author: 'Only Revolutions').

Jimmy Corrigan is in this book, as is a hapless wage-slave from the future, and Quimby, and the slow-witted and not-at-all-loved-by-Dad 'Big Tex', but the most engaging story line follows toy (mostly action figures) collectors Rusty Brown, his pushover friend Chalky White, who Rusty takes advantage of throughout the book, and the more minor character Putty Grey. Alert readers will spot Ware's 'COLLECTORS: A Guide', which describes general principles and the six basic types of collectors (among them: 'the Reparationist, who is in search of those items long ago thrown away, either by an irate parent or, sometimes, even oneself, in a regretted brusque urge toward speedy maturation').

Such collectors are, too be generous, not so well understood, and to not be generous, are despised as pathological examples of wildly misdirected obsessiveness. It would have been easy to have been repulsed by the characters, but I found myself very much drawn into their story. When Rusty, a middle-aged man living with his mother who mistreats what's probably his only friend discovers his mother threw away his collection of antique cereal boxes, I was surprised to find myself genuinely feeling sad, commiserating with him as he sat on his bed clutching his toy Kermit the Frog (reminding me of my childhood love of the Muppets, and of Jim Henson's death ).

Chalky gravitates toward church and family normalcy, and could easily have become a 2d caricature of the weird fear-driven herd patriotism following 9-11, but then there's his profound love for his daughter, Brittany (Oh my God, they named her Brittany), who's deep in teen angst, and drifting away. A particularly inspired strip shows Chalky writing one of those contemptible Christmas Family Update Letters while, in parallel, Brittany tearfully recounts the year's major developments in her diary. Sad, so very, very sad! (But also kind of funny.)

After reading the ACME Novelty Library, I read 'Pizzeria Kamikaze' by Israeli artists Etgar Keret and Asaf Hanuka. It's about an afterlife for suicides. It felt like light reading somehow, even though it was all black-and-white and about people running around with holes in their heads or, in the case of the suicide bomber bartender, parts of their faces missing. There's even a bit of an upbeat ending. Joy!

I am not sure what graphic novel I will take on next, but it might be a while before I can recover and go back to Ware's work (which I nonetheless recommend and hope he continues to put out, as painful as it is for him).

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