The Past Has Never Been Better for Chris Ware
A few facts about Chris Ware: He's 33 years old. He lives in Chicago. He attended the University of Texas at Austin in the mid-Eighties and the School of Art at the Institute of Chicago after that. He's a cartoonist by design, or maybe a designer of cartoons, and his first hardcover collection -- Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth -- has just been published by Pantheon. A stout, vertically challenged edition with a wealth of droll, sometimes glum humor, the book collects a decade or so worth of strips that originally ran as part of his self-published Acme Novelty Library and in Chicago's New City paper (and locally in the Statesman).
Stylistically speaking (and it's tough not to get into the politics of style when speaking of Ware), the Jimmy Corrigan series -- featuring a title character whose predilection for calamitous misadventure falls just shy of the explosive action set-pieces found in Beckett's Waiting for Godot -- is a triumph of the sublime. Not much happens, really, until you complete the book and realize that you've just experienced one of the only pure, 100% unique comic books out there these days. The tale of this kid named Jimmy plays out in Ware's distinctly nonlinear style. On one page it's the 1900s and little Jimmy, all pinched face and round, blank, Orphan Annie eyes, is at his dying grandmother's side, and on the next he's a 36-year-old man, nervously sharing a Coke with his estranged father in a Chicago greasy spoon.
Much of Ware's work -- from the early adventures of Quimby the Mouse (occasionally two-headed, sometimes dead, relentlessly beaten down) to Jimmy Corrigan (wandering through an indifferent world with a perpetually perplexed, even hurt, expression) -- is infused with the sort of existential dread usually reserved for upper-division English Lit courses. There's a palpable sense of things out of sight spinning just out of control that both unsettles the reader and feels pointedly, alarmingly realistic. It's as though all of his characters were somehow forever suspended in those perilous, surreal, cobwebby moments between the moment the dream ends and reality impinges.
What sets Ware apart from the legions of other so-called "underground" or alternative cartoonists is his breathtaking sense of design. His Acme Novelty Library has varied over the years in size and appearance depending on the whim of the artist; one issue will be reminiscent of a pamphlet, complete with faux interior advertisements for dubious products ("Brine Shrimp! Little arthropods! Don't act like people at all!"), and the next will be a tabloid-sized monster with artwork that can be seen half a room away.
The Jimmy Corrigan book, then, is the apex of Ware's design-happy career so far, complete with a gatefold dust jacket that expands into even more Corrigan cartoons, a raft of frontispiece copy that sorely tests the vision due to the teeny-tiny fonts, and inspired layout and coloring throughout.
Ware has always been notoriously shy about discussing his work and when I approached him via e-mail about an interview on his recent success, he hedged a bit. "I'm a terribly inarticulate speaker and frequently say stupid things," he said before agreeing to proceed only via e-mail. Fair enough.
A self-described antiquarian, Ware infuses his work with an inescapable sense that the past was, indeed, a better time. The Art Deco embellishments and cool, muted colors decry the current comic book trend of brighter is better (though Mike Allred's Madman, a personal favorite, is a wonderful whirlwind of primary punch-outs) and add to the sense that you're entering a world viewed through rose-tinted glasses, shattered though they may be. "I think there's an implicit respect for the reader/viewer in this 'earlier culture' that isn't obvious today," says Ware, "in the overt sexuality and 'coolness' of everything from architecture to music to graphic design. I feel like so much of today's world is simply mocking its inhabitants -- it preserves and extends adolescence as long as possible, regardless of its unsightliness."
But isn't being a cartoonist by its very nature a similar act?
"I guess I'm part of all that, too, since cartoons are considered an 'adolescent' medium, though I don't necessarily view them that way, that's just the position they occupy. Strangely, though, I don't think it's anything but embarrassing to admit that one still reads comics at age 30, while many 40-year-old businessmen drive fast red cars and listen to rock music. I don't know."
All of this makes you wonder if Ware himself isn't a little uncomfortable living alongside pentium chips and mass transit, when he could have been, with better luck, born a century ago cobbling together Sunday funnies alongside his hero Windsor MacKay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) or George Herriman and his Krazy Kat.
Apart from its panel/dialogue/action format, Ware's work bears little resemblance to the mass of current comic book and cartoon work out there these days, which begs a question: Does Ware choose to saddle himself with the "cartoonist" appellation, or does the very term itself chafe?
"I proudly consider myself a cartoonist," he says, "and all that that implies. I don't think that there's anything wrong with the name. What bugs me is trying to slap a more self-consciously dignified title on the vocation, like 'sequential artist.' Such re-christening arrogantly turns one's back on those who've come before, and magnifies the power of the 'bad word' -- there's no better way to empower something than to bury it. Besides, bad cartooning is always going to be bad. If, someday, there's more good cartooning than bad cartooning, then the title might not have so many unpleasant connotations."