Excerpted from an essay, by Douglas Wolk, entitled "Comics Raw and Cooked" on The Barnes & Noble Review.
Way over on the other side
of the stylistic scale is Chris Ware, whose artwork is cooked to the point of
falling off the bone: perfectly geometrical shapes, micro-calibrated line
weight, flawlessly composed images that strip everything down to iconic
simplicity. The Acme Novelty Library 20 is the official title of his new book (the creator is identified only as "F. C. Ware" in the book itself), and it's the
twentieth in a series that he's been publishing since 1993 (first as individual
stapled comics, more recently as hardcover books). The only word that appears
on its front cover, though, is "LINT": this is the life story of one
Jordan "Jason" Wellington Lint, from birth to death. It's apparently
a chapter of Ware's work-in-progress "Rusty Brown," but it's also a
standalone volume, formally complete in itself.
Jordan Lint, like most of
Ware's protagonists, is a genuinely pathetic person, although of a different
ilk than the nebbishy Jimmy Corrigan or geeky Rusty Brown. Lint's world is one
of privilege and instant gratification: he obeys every impulse he has, no
matter who it hurts. That, of course, means that he's a moral failure every
step of the way. Acme 20 runs through
the crucial moments of his life as he experiences their importance -- and they're
not necessarily the moments that are most important to other people, as we find
when off-panel events surge up from his past.
Ware, a master formalist,
has actually worked up a new set of storytelling tools for this particular
volume. Lint's world is dominated by language, and oversized words (that stick
out in his experience) are graphic elements on almost every page. So are arrays
of tiny dots, another kind of lint. At the beginning of the book, a set of
Ben-Day dots form the face of baby Jordan as his consciousness coalesces and he
speaks his first "mama." And at the end, as elderly Jordan is dying,
his world disintegrates into dots again, as he thinks "am I... am...
am..." Which, of course, bleeds through the back cover to appear, in
almost imperceptible white type, as "ma... ma...."
this precision pays off emotionally. There's a phenomenal page where
we see that teenage Lint has gotten into a car accident -- which we later
understand has killed his friend in the passenger seat -- while getting high
behind the wheel. Every single graphic element on the page is significant: the
huge red stop sign has been foreshadowed on the previous page (and echoes a
series of little red bursts throughout the book); the spatter of dots
representing the moment of impact recapitulate Jordan's birth-of-consciousness
image (and are echoed in miniature by the glow of his one-hitter); the
"dude" and "whoah" that erupt into the page's white space
are his verbal memories of the incident; the images of Jordan lifting his head
out of his hands in the hospital waiting room are as tiny as it's physically
possible to get away with.
Near the end of the book,
there's a section where we briefly move away from Lint's perspective and see a
crucial scene from the point of view of his son. All of a sudden, the artwork
isn't in Ware's standard style any more, shifting to an all-red palette as it
assumes a scraggly, deliberately awkward technique partly borrowed from the
super-raw cartoonist Gary Panter for five pages. It's a visual shock, it looks
like nothing Ware has ever drawn before, and it drives home one of the story's
points -- that Lint's carefully conditioned perception of his life is entirely his
own, because he's utterly oblivious to the devastation he's caused. It's also
not exactly Ware being "self-expressive" -- there's nothing
unpremeditated about it -- but he proves his mastery of his "cooked"
style by simulating rawness.
For all its relentless
darkness, Acme 20 is at heart a
satire. There's a brutally funny gag imagining what a big-box media store will
look like a decade or so from now, for instance. And the artist saves some of
his choicest barbs for himself, and the limits of the mastery to which he has
aspired. On the inside front cover, there's a complicated diagram that's this
book's closest thing to an "about the author" paragraph: a schematic
illustration of Ware, at his drawing board, producing this volume of The Acme Novelty Library, a labor that
he puts in the context of his entire life-span, the amount of time it takes
someone to read it -- and the size of the entire Milky Way galaxy.