Words & Pictures
by Martin Wagner

The comics of Chris Ware should be familiar to many Austinites. His eye-popping full-page tableaux in the defunct Daily Texan weekly entertainment supplement Images, featuring Quimby the Mouse and Sparky the Cat, set standards few working comics professionals could hope to attain... and in those days Ware was still a University of Texas student in his early 20s.

Stalwart alternative comics publisher Fantagraphics Books has now signed Ware, and is releasing both these early comics and newer material in the unique series Acme Novelty Library. Four issues have appeared so far, each in a different format, in what seems a delightfully seditious attempt to stir-fry the undercooked minds that run what might kindly be called the Average Comic Shop.

Issue 1 more or less resembles a standard comic, except for the fact it features three different paper stocks and black-and-white, two-color, and four-color printing. It is my least favorite of the series, though, as it features Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth" strips from Chicago's weekly New City. These tales mix fanciful, Tom Swiftian fantasy plots with bleak and profoundly saddening stories of emptiness, rejection, despair, hopelessness, and you-can't-go-home-again-ever Oedipal fantasies. The juxtaposition is, you might say, unnerving. Things improve tenfold with issue 2, a tabloid-sized art director's wet dream featuring most of Images' "Quimby the Mouse" episodes; the recently released fourth issue is also tabloid-sized, reprinting the "Sparky the Cat" pages. The third issue is a charming little digest edition reprinting the strips starring that odd potato-shaped fellow whose eyeballs keep falling out for no reason.

Ware's work is informed by a devotion to early 20th century animation and newspaper publication. Each issue of Acme opens with some uproarious contents and "editorial" page. Ware strikingly captures an antiquarian look and at the same time gives us several passages of truly funny text, capturing the stilted, highbrow speech of a bygone age and putting it to brilliant satirical use in the service of spurious ads, "helpful hints," and other ephemera. The comic strips themselves are visual smorgasbords, breathtaking little masterpieces of layout and design; Ware's most powerful influences here are the Sunday strips of George Herriman's classic Krazy Kat. Ware sees a comics page as a whole, not just a series of individual panels; each Quimby and Sparky strip seeks not only to tell a story, but to look good on the wall from thirty feet away. And though that may be simplifying Ware's intentions just a tad, the fact remains that the strips do look good on your wall from 30 feet away.

Ware's comics have taken some heavy critical body blows for being rather cold exercises in style over substance, but the way in which his critics are divided on this issue speaks volumes. When one of Ware's strips appeared in Raw a couple of years back, The Comics Journal trampled it for being the weakest thing therein, while Entertainment Weekly was telling its readers Ware's strip alone was worth the price of the magazine. Also, Ware's combination of whimsical cartoon art in the service of an often depressing narrative has turned more than one reader on his ear (even me). Still, there's no one in comics like him, and his drawings will open the eyes of anyone seeking a little novelty in their libraries. - Martin Wagner (Acme Novelty Library should be for sale anywhere that alternative comics are sold. Try Austin Books, Blast Comics, and Dragon's Lair. You may request a free catalog from Fantagraphics by calling 800/657-1100. It's very cool.)