To read Chris Ware is to be struck by the joyous forms storytelling can take while being devastated by his characters’ personal tragedies. Ware’s vibrant experiments in layout and design—he often packages his graphic novels with oddities like flipbooks—are anchored by men and women hounded by loneliness, isolation, and a desire to escape their worlds, which are both cruel and mundane.
Such is the case with Rusty Brown, Ware’s latest work, nearly two decades in the making. The graphic novel follows the action-figure-obsessed titular character and his uncomfortable existence in the suburban Midwest, as well as two other characters: Rusty’s father, Woody; and Joanne Cole, a black language teacher.
Though Ware began Rusty Brown nearly two decades ago, it’s still only halfway done; Pantheon published the first part in September. Already acclaimed for his seminal graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan when he started Rusty Brown, Ware has since written and illustrated Acme Novelty Library, Building Stories, his autobiography Monograph, and multiple New Yorker covers.
“I knew [Rusty Brown] was something I’d be working on for a long, embarrassing while—which is part of the ‘idea,’ insofar as there is one,” Ware says. “I know the book is exactly halfway done because it’s about six and a half people, and I’ve done three of them. Pretty straightforward, even if the book itself is a sprawling mess. But again, so is life.”
Emotionally and visually, Ware’s books are often sprawling and messy, but they are never unclear. His panels, small and detailed, are often part of meticulously designed pages, some of which unfold into larger configurations. And yet, there’s a spontaneity to Ware’s work. The narrative complexity of Rusty Brown, for instance, isn’t the product of a rigid outline.
“Like life, though I might have some sort of plan, I’m still essentially figuring it out as I go along,” Ware says. “I write with pictures, not words. And even if I did just sit staring at the wall thinking up a script that I’d later tediously illustrate, I’d still just be figuring it out as I went along, but I wouldn’t be doing it with images, and thus I’d be foregoing the peculiar aesthetic advantage that writing in comics uniquely affords.”
To work through a Chris Ware graphic novel is, in a way, to work through life—its joys, disappointments, exhilarations, and uncertainties. “I’m simply trying to get at that undercurrent of feeling that we call ‘life’ and that we do everything we can as adults to suppress—and don’t really sense except in moments of profound vulnerability and sadness,” Ware says, adding that he used to feel that way constantly as a child but now does only rarely. And he misses it. “I’ve long had the indescribable sense,” he says, “that my childhood and everything that’s ever happened to me is all still somewhere ‘right there’ but just slightly out of reach.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Texas Book Fair.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
I have read only a very few graphic novels, but the ones I have read all seem to tread the same emotional ground. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and now I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. Their stories center on a sort of teenage emptiness that inspires a combination of pity and fascination in me. Visually, however, the three are quite distinct with Brown’s artwork being far more spare than the other two. Brown’s jagged panels placed asymmetrically on the page are surrounded by black, drawing the eye to his simple lines. (Unfortunately, later editions of the book have replaced the black pages with white.) His panels are devoid of details and instead focusing of the setting, the reader dwells on the characters, primarily young Chester himself. Brown’s picture of himself is both funny and sad, and while the book touches on his mother’s death, the focus is on his interaction with girls. He tells his friend Sky that he loves her but doesn’t know what to do next. His neighbor Carrie has a crush on him and they engage in this strange wrestling ritual as a stand in for actual communication. Girls are drawn to the odd, artistic boy but they are also repulsed by him. In the end, the book is about Brown’s inability to engage emotionally – with these girls, with his mother, with the rest of his family. It’s a poignant and quick read (it took me about an hour), but Brown’s dreamy artwork will stay with you.
Patrick Brown, one of my old bookstore compatriots, is now living in Iowa, a circumstance that affords him a lot of reading time. Here are his favorite reads of the year:Non-Fiction (and Best overall for the year): Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 2 by Robert Caro. This biography, which is one part Western, one part Shakespearean political tragedy ala Richard III, is among the best books I’ve ever read. In 1948 Lyndon Johnson ran a do-or-die campaign for the US Senate against the most popular man in Texas political history — former governor and all-around-bad-ass Coke Stevenson. It really must be read to be believed.Rounding out the top five non-fiction books are (in order): Master of the Senate (part 3 of the LBJ series), Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan (a dreamy, meandering ode to horse culture and fatherhood), The Path to Power (part 1 of the LBJ series), and Vermeer in Bosnia by Lawrence Weschler.Best Fiction I’ve read this year: Morte D’Urban by JF Powers. While not as off-beat or quite as funny as Powers’s other novel Wheat That Springeth Green, Morte D’Urban succeeds in being an entertaining and tender novel about a priest who’s ambition to take over his dying religious order’s leadership lands him in rural Minnesota. Like Wheat That Springeth Green, the book is a conversion tale of sorts. Don’t let the subject matter scare you away.The rest of the top fiction 5: Any Human Heart by William Boyd, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, and You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon. I haven’t been reading enough new fiction. Shame on me.I’ve embarked upon my annual holiday excursion to the East Coast. Sporadic posting is likely but all possible effort will be made to keep The Millions rolling along.
A little more than 10 years ago a couple of Wall Street Journal reporters got together to write about the calamitous rise and fall of RJR Nabisco, an episode that would epitomize the back room shenanigans of a decade of junk bonds and hostile takeovers. They ended up with fantastic book called Barbarians at the Gate, which was later made into a decent HBO movie of the same title. The book is a thrilling account of cutthroat billion dollar deals, and gross misappropriation of funds, like when the CEO has the company plane pick up his dog to keep him company at a golf tournament. Now, after barely a pause it seems, there are again dozens of stories of greed to be told, starting of course with the biggest one of all, Enron. Once again two Wall Street Journal reporters have used their singular knowledge and access to tell the story of the bust that has come to define the boom that preceded it. Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller are the reporters who originally broke the story, and their book 24 Days, is as much about the collapse of Enron as it is about the investigative journalism that uncovered this massive fraud.On the way to work I caught the tail end of an interview with Richard Polsky. He was talking about how tremendously juvenile the world of high end modern art collectors, gallery owners, and artists can be. He was illustrating the point with a story about how a food fight erupted at a gallery, and an extremely expensive Ed Ruscha painting was marred by a grease stain from a thrown chicken wing. He describes this and the many other antics he encountered on his quest to purchase his first piece of modern art in his book I Bought Andy Warhol, which is, from everything I’ve heard, a tremendously funny jab at the inner circle of modern art.I read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware about two months ago, and it continues to infect my brain as few other books have. Reading the book felt like a view into the psyche of writer and artist and character, a comic more real than a dream yet somehow just slightly less real than life. I was delighted to see that Chronicle Books that will allow me to further delve into the world of Jimmy Corrigan. Acme Novelty Datebook is the collected sketches of Ware from when he was writing Jimmy Corrigan. There are many things packed onto the pages: sketches for Jimmy Corrigan, great little sight gags and five or six panel comics that lead into a pleasant oblivion, and a lot of stuff that seemingly comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere, but is fascinating to look at. The book is beautiful. I can’t wait to spend more time with it.Three Pt. 2 (Advice for Those Abroad)My buddy Cem is trying to figure out what to do next. He’s currently in northwestern Thailand near the border with Burma. Help me help him decide what to do. Here are his three options:1. Stay in town and teach English to Burmese Refugees. Commitment: 2 months2. Move to the border town of Mae Sot and work with 10 young guys who live in a shack in the woods and produce an anti government magazine that they circulate in the refugee camps, internationally, and in Burma. Also teach english to Shan and Wa and Karen exile youth part time. Commitment: 3 months3. Pack up and head into Burma itself for 3 weeks doing major research for a big article, also purchasegood to sell at home (laquerware, etc). Record everything in Arabic script. Work on article and get published via NY contacts. Leave for Cairo or the beach when I get back.(I’m leaning towards option three by the way)