Tag: Chris Ware
Sorry about the slight audio hum at the beginning. It goes away after a couple of minutes, and I couldn’t get rid of it without messing up the audio worse, so I left it.
In this episode we discuss:
Chris Ware’s new opus Building Stories
The Comics Journal essays about Building Stories
Diana Thung’s August Moon
Chris Wright’s Blacklung
Michel Fiffe’s Zegas
Let’s say we think of Chris Ware as the comic book medium’s James Joyce. Like Ulysses, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth used a pathetic Everyman as a focal point for wildly disparate formal pastiches drawn from its medium’s whole history. Joyce reenacted the history of Western prose; Ware combined elements of old magazines and comics—everything from Little Nemo in Dreamland to the ads in Silver Age comic books—to reflect his middle-aged hero, stuck in the present day but fantasizing imaginary pasts and futures. Jimmy Corrigan even delves into many of the same themes as Ulysses: fatherhood and the lack thereof, alienation, the disconnect between desire and reality…
That makes modern-day Chicago the equivalent of Joyce’s Ireland, and Anders Nilsen comics’ Samuel Beckett. A writer who joined a literary scene that already had a reigning Joyce and ran full-tilt in the opposite direction.
Like Jimmy Corrigan, Nilsen’s long-running series Big Questions had a small, independent origin. The first Jimmy Corrigan pages were published in Newcity, the Chicago alternative weekly, and Nilsen self-published early issues of Big Questions cheaply, using grant funds from the City of Chicago and the Illinois Arts Council. He switched to Drawn & Quarterly with issue #7 and his popularity has slowly grown, but it’s been limited by the fact that you couldn’t read the first part of the story unless you could somehow get your hands on those early issues. (I have most of them, but I’ve never even seen #1 and #2.)
At last, though, Nilsen has wrapped things up, more than a decade after he started. The final issue just came out and a full collection will be published in July, giving readers who aren’t obsessive collectors the chance to appreciate the whole sweep of the thing.
And like I said, what we get to see is his bid to be comics’ Beckett. Where Ware elaborated, Nilsen strips away: Big Questions is drawn in black and white, with scarcely any shading. Its backgrounds consist of a few trees, or some debris, or a blast crater. Quite often, especially in later issues, he does away with panel borders, leaving his figures afloat in a sea of white. He likes to show long sequences of repeated motion broken down to simple snapshots, which can have the same comedic effect as, say, the sucking-stones sequence in Molloy.
He follows Beckett, too, in reducing characters from Joyce/Ware’s full people in a complex world to simplified, stunted beings in a world of limited possibilities. Think of the distance from Stephen Dedalus and Leo Bloom to Didi and Gogo, or Hamm. The main characters in Big Questions are mostly finches, living in a forest that could be anywhere and trying to come to terms with inexplicable disruptions in their lives. An airplane drops a bomb that fails to explode. The birds gather around it and some believe it’s a magical egg. They stand guard over it and it explodes, killing many of them. The same airplane crashes into a farmhouse and the pilot emerges. Now there’s a schism among the finches; some worship the giant bird and its mysterious human chick, while others, a minority, follow the idiot boy who used to live in that farmhouse.
The themes are, indeed, the Big Questions: the nature of existence as apprehended by beings of limited knowledge. Just as the finches struggle to make sense of the giant bird and its lethal egg, so, by implication, do humans struggle to make sense of their world and its creator, if it has one. One of the birds even conceives a finchly version of Plato’s Cave to drive home the parallel. God could be an idiot, wandering the forest eating bugs. He could be as unhinged as the pilot, who can’t tell reality from his dreams. Or He could be a pair of swans who appear in the dreams of all creatures and welcome them to death. Some react to these possibilities with false certainty and rigid faith, others with skepticism, or with bewilderment and guilt, or with simple hedonism, or with a search for ecstatic transcendence.
Think Beckett meets Beatrix Potter, adorable little creatures on a bleak, featureless plain, staring into the abyss—but hopeful nonetheless, in its own way. “We can’t ever really know the outcome of our actions,” one of them concludes, “but if we act earnestly, and do our best, everything will turn out right in the end.” Of course the bird saying that happens to be responsible for the deaths of many others. And dead herself.
The complete Big Questions will be available in July from Drawn & Quarterly. Download a PDF preview here.
UPDATE: The collected Big Questions is here. Buy it.
Not new in 2010 and therefore not eligible, but back in print for the first time in 10 years and worth buying: Cages.
#6: Brian Wood, DMZ Volume 8, Hearts and Minds
After years in the war zone that was once Manhattan, journalist Matty Roth’s bad decisions finally catch up to him in this volume. He makes one wrong step too many and loses his soul. Along with Northlanders Volume 4, The Plague Widow, this book cements Brian Wood as one of the best writing any kind of comic today. Also good from Brian Wood this year: the reissue of Local.
#5: Brian Michael Bendis, Scarlet
Brian Michael Bendis has given us the origin story of a revolutionary and promised us a revolution. We’re only a few issues in, but so far he hasn’t pulled back from that extreme commitment. I hope he never does.(I also wrote about issue #2.)
#4: David B. and Pierre Mac Orlan, The Littlest Pirate King
This late entry from Fantagraphics elbowed its way on here after I’d published the initial list. A children’s tale with a deeply messed up, traumatic ending and beautiful art.
#3: Chris Ware, Acme Novelty Library #20: Lint
I hadn’t loved what Chris Ware had been doing over the last couple of volumes of Acme Novelty Library. Frankly, not many of his fans did. Read the self-deprecating product descriptions on his Drawn and Quarterly page sometime (“flat,” “slow,” “always dreary”). With Lint, though, he’s done something not only affecting but politically relevant by taking us inside the mind of a man something like George W. Bush.
#2: Joe Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza
Joe Sacco wove together descriptions of present-day Gaza with accounts of two smallish war crimes from fifty years ago to create arguably the most important comic of 2010. Ten years after the Holocaust, young Jews act out a version of the same dark drama.
#1: Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura, I Kill Giants
Childhood escapes from troubled home lives into fantasy are hardly unexplored territory, but Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura executed this one perfectly. I called it the Bridge to Terabithia of comics and I meant it. (Also very good by Kelly this year: Four Eyes.)
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.