CHRIS WARE in the New York Press

“WARE AND THE FRAUDS” / New York Press / Tim Marchman / January 12, 2006

For a reader, even one devoted to comics as a form, to admit that the best book of the season is a collection of comic strips is to admit that there is something missing on the bookshop shelves.

The new fiction most worth reading recently has been by dead people—new translations of Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings and of Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos. Neither counts, really. Plenty of fiction reads as if it was written by dead people—Paul Auster and Zadie Smith’s whimsical accounts of the small joys and small sorrows of the more self-consciously quaint corners of the Northeast come to mind—but none of it really matters, either. Benjamin Kunkel, in making every ambitious young man gnash his teeth with envious rage, proved himself more talented and serious than anyone so young and well-promoted ought to be, but he’s not good enough—yet—to make one forget how talented and serious he is.

Lamenting the absence of qualities in contemporary novelists basically amounts to lamenting the lack of ideas, and, more importantly, the lack of ideas expressed as emotions. These are just what you find in Chris Ware’s Acme Library of Novelty, an anthology of comic strips that was the best fiction of the season. His ideas are all about the way technology is alienating us not only from our own potential but from our ability to imagine it—the major subject of our time. While the emotional range of his work is in some ways limited, mainly playing variations on a few themes of aching emptiness, regret, shame, cruelty and remorse, that’s fitting given his themes and the contours of his medium. (It also exceeds the range of most novelists working in prose, who display little beyond a smug, preening vanity.)

Ware is probably best regarded for his meticulousness and formal mastery, but these are not really so important. His virtuosity is astonishing—there is nothing quite like Ware seizing on comic-book advertisement pages, the Sears catalogue, architectural pamphlets and children’s glow-in-the-dark maps with all the cleverness and disdain of Lennie Tristano attacking a Tin Pan Alley number—but is there to create a context, not for its own sake.

As a stylistic device, Ware’s maniacally detailed parodies of the detritus of commercial culture are the rough equivalent of the showy passages in which David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen write in the language of pharmaceutical or advertising bureaucracies, but they and their imitators fail to distinguish between deadening language and the way it deadens the people who use it, mistaking meaning for purpose. They also fail to mark that in satirizing this language, they deaden their readers, who are, even if they are being subjected to clever simulacra of mindless language, being subjected to it nonetheless.

Ware avoids doing this largely because of the form in which he’s working. One is expected to read a long, parodic Wallace passage in a way one is not expected to read Ware’s parodies, which in their unrelieved regularity function as visual noise. The age demands a special kind of commercial parody, and the comic is suited for it in a way the novel isn’t. The point to note, though, is that Ware is taking advantage of the specific possibilities offered by his form, and doing something that would be unimaginable in another one. This isn’t really true of his novel-writing peers.

Equally important is that, rather than rendering an observed present, Ware renders an imagined past. If there is a disease among young, contemporary novelists, it’s their mania for trivial detail. This is understandable—one wants to show what it is like to live in a world where rather than sharing small, unique experiences with family, friends and neighbors, one has broad experiences in common with tens of millions of strangers, and so one goes to some trouble to reproduce those experiences with fidelity. Reproducing the alienating effect of modern mass culture as phenomena rather than probing its effects on the human character abuses the purpose of fiction, though, which is to imagine deeply and evoke; the very inhumanity of it strains against the localized and individual experiences upon which first-rate fiction is built.

Ware does not share this mania. Perhaps his best recurring joke is in the strip “Tales of Tomorrow,” in which an old man, recognizable from any coffee shop or bus station, is seen wearing an absurd futuristic outfit and attempting to take advantage of technology’s promise that it can replace human intimacy. In one such strip, he looks out from his window in one of the linked skyscrapers of tomorrow, linked by roads hundreds of feet over the sidewalks, sees a brick wall and slumps his shoulders. He sits beneath a giant bladder that puffs air as part of the process that allows him to call in to an audio message mailbox system; he is sad as he realizes there are no messages for him. He listens to an old record on a gramophone; he falls asleep in his chair as night falls. Later, he hurriedly races to the phone under the bladder and calls again; there is still no message. The bright colors out of a Sunday comics supplement, the rigidity of the panels and the note-perfect retro design of the strip’s title are all sleight-of-hand; the joke works because beneath the charmingly old-fashioned world of the future is an imaginary past where old men were deceived by the promises of Victrolas and rotary telephones and Louis Sullivan buildings, all of which form the visual points of reference.

Any fashionable novelist seeking to express a similar idea would doubtless have used as analogous points of reference a sleek glass skyscraper and an iPod plugged into an expensive computer. The music and the computer and the city would have been specific, so as to situate the character socially. In focusing the picture too tightly on the particulars, though, most novelists would have lost the iconographic comedy and missed both the absurdity and the despair that Ware creates.

Beneath Ware’s technique is a simple ability to feel for people caught up in rapidly changing social circumstances they can’t really understand; he’s rare in that.

Ware’s ideas and techniques are attuned to the anxieties we all feel, and that’s enough to mark him as worthy of special regard, but most important, and basic, of all is that he works with the primary building blocks of fiction—characters particular enough to be universal, and logical action. Quimby Mouse calling a girl he had a crush on in third grade after having a dream about her; Rusty Brown, whom we come to know as a grotesquely imposing and seemingly insensate man, seen as a child curled up on a bed clutching a teddy bear and sobbing about how much he hates his best friend, or falling to the ground as bullies pelt him with snowballs; these work not because of the schematism of the page layout, or the color choices, or because of the references made to classic cartoon icons, but for the same reasons that any effective fiction is moving.

Fiction and graphic fiction shouldn’t be in competition, as there are things that only Ware can give us and others that he can never give us, that only the novelist could offer. The danger is that comics, with their new and hard-won prestige, will begin to force novelistic ideas into panels and word bubbles too cramped for such usage—and that novels, already anxious about their worth, will try to transport the comic’s rendering onto pages that ought to have inward, not outward depth. We’ll never see the effusive, dithering pronouncements of the mind given the depth in a comic that they can be afforded in a book, which is good—to attempt it would ruin the comic. Some ideas and emotions can only be told in stories through indirectness and aside, ruminations and the illusion of time unique to the printed page. The novel is still the only way to assay everything too vast and equivocal to be reduced to pure symbol and formulation. It ought to be groping with those mysteries that can’t be handled elsewhere.

That Ware’s accomplishments are, in part, due to a recognition of his form’s limitations doesn’t diminish them, but it also doesn’t erase those limitations. If moments as precisely detailed and perfectly wrought as Ware’s could be expressed by more people working exclusively in words we’d gain something that we are now missing. That they aren’t is no less credit to him or his form.

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