Acme Novelty Library #20: Lint

by on Nov.30, 2010, under Comics

One strain of the critical reaction to George W. Bush’s Decision Points is perhaps best summed up by Andrew Sullivan:

What has struck me about the book so far—only from its reviews, some excerpts and the TV interview—is how utterly unchanged Bush is, how unreflective, defensive, and shut down he is to the core challenges of his presidency. How do you launch a war on false grounds that leads to the deaths of 150,000 civilians, destroys America’s moral standing, and empowers America’s enemy, Iran, and say you’d do it all again? How do you find Kanye West more disgusting than Abu Ghraib?

How do you become a human being so isolated from your own reality?

What kind of human being was running our nation for eight years? Bush himself apparently lacks the self-reflectiveness to help us figure him out, so it falls to other writers to do the job instead. Sullivan and others have posed rhetorical questions; in Lint, the 20th book of his long-running comic The Acme Novelty Library, Chris Ware has made a serious attempt to answer them.

Now, while it’s possible that Ware didn’t have George W. Bush in mind when he created Jordan Wellington Lint, the book’s central figure, there are suggestive hints that he did. Their names sound similar when said aloud. Jordan Lint leads a dissipated youth of heavy drinking and cocaine use, during which his father props him up in a failing career. Then he sobers up, finds God, and goes into the family business.

Ware has always mixed formal experimentation with his character studies. In the past he’s incorporated 1940s-style print advertisements; cut-out, fold-and-paste models that actually work; and complicated spreads full of causation-indicating arrows that read something like a cross between Rube Goldberg and an Ikea catalog. Here his main formal device is to make each page a single scene representing a full year of Jordan Lint’s life. Most are mosaics that combine what is happening in the moment with snatches of Lint’s visual memory and jumbled word and phrase associations. Imagine A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man done as a comic book, with the spatial arrangement of images and words doing the work for which James Joyce could only use tortured syntax.

This device gives Lint an inexorable momentum through Jordan Lint’s life and allows us to comprehend far more of the man than he can himself. We take in not only what he experiences, but also what he ignores or forgets.

See, Jordan Lint is a lousy human being. He is a bully in high school who wrecks his car while stoned and kills his best friend. He hits and cheats on women, breaks his son’s collarbone, and embezzles from his father’s company.

In many writers’ hands, such a man would have come across as a pure villain—writers are often attracted to extreme monsters, sociopaths and serial killers. Ware is doing something far more difficult and far more important. While Jordan Lint may be a lousy human being, he is still a human being, even one striving to be a good person through therapy, self-help books, religion. What Ware is able to show by giving us such a long view of Jordan Lint’s life is how a person can inflict pain on others without truly being aware of it, simply by having many other concerns to occupy his mind. He doesn’t ask us to forgive Jordan Lint, but he does want us to commiserate with him a little.

On the page for his 25th year, for example, we see him hit his girlfriend; that action takes place in a tiny, light-blue panel on a page mostly devoted to Jordan begging his father not to cut him off financially. When his children are young and he’s still at home with his first wife, his thoughts are full of inspirational quotes from Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, religious clichés, and images of women he’s attracted to. Only much, much later, when his son is an adult, do we learn through the young man’s memoir that he felt terrorized as a child by his parent’s religiosity and that Jordan physically abused him. When he is in his fifties, Jordan Lint casually decides to evict a family renting a home from him and his girlfriend. His attention in that moment is primarily on old glamor shots of his first wife.

Jordan Lint believes he’s a good person, and his reaction when people force him to look at his misdeeds is unsurprisingly defensive and resentful. They don’t understand that on the inside, he never meant it. He even sues his son over the publication of his memoir. This is the kind of man who can look back at the colossal clusterfuck of Katrina and find time to call what Kanye West said about it “one of the most disgusting moments in my presidency.”

By allowing us to feel, understand, even sympathize with Jordan W. Lint’s inner monologue Chris Ware lets us grasp how this sort of reaction is possible. In so doing he provides perhaps the best glimpse we are ever likely to get of what it’s like to inhabit the mind of a man something like George W. Bush.

Assorted single-page previews below the fold.

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3 Comments for this entry

  • Hank

    I just finished this one yesterday and was frankly puzzled by it until your illuminating comparison and analysis. Still, I wish I were more impressed by the work, as I was with Jimmy C. and that potato-head guy. There was simply less there on the page to attract and hold my attention longer than it took to read it. I can point to dozens of his other works where each page rewards long and lingering examination. Nevertheless, I feel I probably will recall details from Lint unexpected for several weeks, an indication that the book has gotten under my skin more than I am aware. It’s happened before.

  • Joshua Malbin

    I’m glad you liked it. It’s worth remembering that a lot of those early pages were in Newcity and the Chicago Reader, where they had to stand on their own, and that they weren’t originally conceived as part of a complete work. The Jimmy Corrigan book is probably one of the most successful example ever of a writer pulling together a serialized work after the fact. Even though Lint was serialized in the Virginia Quarterly Review, I think he had the complete story in mind from the beginning.

    Frankly, I like this a lot more than the last couple of Rusty Brown books, which packed a ton into each page but were almost unreadable.

  • Yakov

    WOW. Now that you said it it’s obvious but i hadn’t realized that the book moves at the rate of one page per year. Corroborating evidence includes Jordan’s father’s birthday cakes and the emails dated 2008 that appear 7 pages after the 9/11 page. So each page can be dated to a specific year. Incredible!

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