The Comics Journal reviews ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY 20


The Comics Journal    |    Gutter Geek    |    December 16, 2010

It is funny but perhaps not surprising that after five years with guttergeek, we have not reviewed a single thing by Chris Ware. Not surprising in part because when we first started we had this whole hot-headed manifesto that suggested the seemingly sacriligeous proposition that not everything Ware did was necessarily or automatically “brilliant” or “art.” Well, it seemed a bold, sacriligious thing to say in 2005: after all, Yale University Press had just published the first academic press single-creator monograph devoted to a comics artist and Jimmy Corrigan was fast on track to rival Maus in the college classroom. Of course, the notion that Chris Ware was the comics genius of his generation was far from universal, and in the intervening years our friends at Hooded Utilitarian have offered some blistering salvos against that mystique while we have remains silent on the subject of Ware’s ongoing work after initially invoking his name in vain.
Of course, the other reason for the silence on the subject is that much of Ware’s work in the last five years remains in many ways incomplete. Even as Ware helped launch the new hardcover comic book fad that is sweeping the nation with his transformation of ACME Novelty Library from an irregular floppy to an irregular, pricey and often quite stunning hardbound volume, ACME largely remains as it always was a grab-bag: installments of longer serial works whose larger proportions are not yet visible and one-shot comics whose nature as one-shots won’t be fully visible until the longer works are collected in a Jimmy Corrigan-like volume. Making things even tougher for the would-be critic, since 2005 the number of venues in which Ware’s work has appeared–one-shots and serial installments alike–has grown considerably, making tracking down and reassembling the pieces of his increasingly interconnected narratives challenging if not maddening. For example, portions of the story of the protagonist of the latest edition of ACME Novelty Library, Jordan Lint, have appeared in The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith and in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Making life more complicated for the completist in us all, Lint’s story is part of (or a spin-off from) the larger ongoing narrative of Rusty Brown, whose stories have been told for more than a decade now in ACME, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.

Of course, frustrating completists is part of the point in a larger narrative that focuses on a compulsive collector of the pop culture ephemera of his youth. Lint, who Ware’s regular readers have come to know as the thuggish classmate of Rusty’s sister Alice in their Omaha school, is in many ways Rusty’s opposite, but no more likable (to put it mildly). And Lint’s story is different from what we might expect from Ware, as well. Told as a self-contained and uncharacteristically linear narrative, this is the life—from birth through death—of a “minor character,” the bully in Rusty’s megalomaniacal drama. Of course, in the end, as it turns out, Lint is a minor character in his own life as well, and that is both the tragedy and the comedy of this book, the portrait of a man who has responded with unquestioning obedience to every appetite and desire he has ever experienced while studiously erasing the consequences of his actions from his own memories. Whether it is a treasured memory of a day with his late mother which turns out to have been spent in truth with his long-suffering stepmother, or the completely eradicated memory of his brutal assault on his young son, or the crimes by which he defrauded his shareholders, this is a life of self-delusion and erasure. The reader is gulled early in the book into thinking that this person we knew only as the high school thug in Rusty Brown might actually have depths or at least scars that would make him more than he at first appears. By the end of the book we must face the fact first impressions are not always deceiving, and if anything Lint is actually less than we could have imagined.
Did I mention that, in addition to being bleak and at times emotionally jarring (especially when Ware breaks from his signature engineered style into a frenetic expressive style of Lint’s son as he recounts the day his father broke his collarbone) this book is also quite funny?Alright, the fact that I couldn’t get through the previous sentence without mentioning child abuse suggests that it is indeed a peculiar, queasy kind of humor. And it doesn’t really get better than that, does it? (Thank you. God!)

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