Saturday, January 01, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 332 (1/1) -- The ACME Novelty Library, No. 20 by Chris Ware

If you're looking for bleakness and misery in your comics, for lives that lead only to sadness and despair, for broken hearts and thrown-away lives and the bone-deep pointlessness of life in an uncaring universe, then Chris Ware is the creator you need. For more than two decades, he's been chronicling -- in surgically precise drawings collected into devastating stories -- the lives of people who can never and will never find any kind of happiness; his most famous (and largest) work is Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, which sweeps across three generations of horrible and miserable men to show that the world is nothing but a backdrop to stories of woe and despondency.

Ware has been working on two long stories for most of the past decade -- "Rusty Brown," the story of a stereotypical middle-aged comics fan, which has been precisely what one would expect from a story of that description from Ware -- and "Building Stories," an equally depressing but slightly less typical tale, so far about a crippled young woman with no friends or lovers, a dead-end job and self-esteem issues. He tends to present new sections of whatever stories he's working on currently in annual book-sized issues of "The ACME Novelty Library" -- one of the few vestiges of the once-burgeoning serialized alt-comics scene of the '80s and '90 -- before collecting them, in their final form, as full graphic novels. (And so I've reviewed the issues from the past three years -- 17, 18, and 19 -- here and elsewhere.)

This year's entry is Number 20, which tells what seems to be a self-contained story -- the life of Jordan Wellington Lint, from his birth in 1958 to his death in 2023, with mostly each page showing one moment, or scene, from a separate year. But Lint meets Brown very briefly, midway through his story, implying that "Lint" will somehow be subsumed into "Rusty Brown" in the fullness of time.

But "Lint" doesn't need to be part of any larger story: it already tells one very Warean life from beginning to end. A boy is born, has an unhappy youth (potty training, dead mother, remarried father, trouble in school, kills best friend in car crash as teen, failed career as a musician), returns home to take over the (unnamed) family business and toil through what bits of happiness he can find (first wife and two sons, sobriety, an affair that ends the marriage and the sobriety, eventually a second marriage with a stepdaughter and another son), and then loses everything before finally dying alone and hallucinating.

What's more, most of that story is outlined on the inside front cover, where a family tree explains exactly when Lint's mother dies, his sons are born, and so forth -- Ware gives us the roadmap, and then takes us on a trip, pointing out the sights already marked on our itinerary. And, for connoisseurs of Warean stories, "Lint" has a slightly different flavor: Jordan does find happiness, at various points in his life, but can't hold onto it. (Because of both his own bad choices and the inevitability of death.) Still, a major Ware story with moments of happiness is a huge leap forward -- his previous works were unrelieved bleakness from beginning to end, whose heroes were emotionally stunted man-children who could never have a functional marriage (or any strong interpersonal relationship). He's still fond of that Midwestern staple, the overbearing father and his subservient son, but "Lint" sees that dynamic move into a more realistic mode.

So we learn in this volume that Ware characters can feel happiness -- that had previously been only a theory, unsupported by any evidence. Who knows? Perhaps in another ten or dozen years, there might even be a Ware story with an ambiguous ending -- one that's only potentially bleak? We can only speculate, and wait.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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