REVIEWS

Monograph

It's page 5 of Monograph, and Chris Ware is fretting!

"To make a book of things that one likely already has would be a useless waste of paper, and a bummer. So I had to try to figure out a way to make a book that was (hopefully) still worth having by someone who (my sympathies) might have a few of my books already. I could've only printed stuff such as notes, sketches and flotsam that I'd otherwise have thrown away or not shown anyone, but then I'd be risking producing the world's largest liner note. If I went the other way and only included the 'best' of what I've already printed, then I would've made a discount 'greatest hits' record and disappointed everyone just like I, as a teenager, was disappointed by whatever I'd brought back from Musicland with my lawnmowing dollars." (Pg. 5, par. 4.)

Ware then suggests that he has sought to "balance the two" in the ensuing text, though I would suggest a third route, in keeping with the popular music analogy: Monograph is like a deluxe boxed set, of the type a very popular band releases in commemoration of their legacy of success, consisting mainly of preparatory takes and demo tracks, studio business and all, along with a few notable album cuts and -- of course! -- a lengthy text accompaniment laboring to put it all in perspective. Mind you, this is not literally a boxed set; Ware just did that with his last major book project, the monumental Building Stories (Pantheon, 2012). Instead, Monograph is a very large, 13" x 18" hardcover, in which a great number of images relating to Ware's career are reproduced at a generous size, while a physically tiny but very extensive running text wriggles its way into available crevices of white space, forming a (basically) chronological account of Chris Ware's life and career. Some of the images depict familiar published works in pre-publication form, blue pencils and white gouache caught in lurid cohabitation with ink, while others present personal photographs, notes, sketchbook pages, or works otherwise not widely accessible in publication. Roughly half a dozen times throughout, a smaller multi-page printed work is pasted into the larger book for in-depth perusal: the long-out-of-print 'Jimmy on an island' story as seen in The ACME Novelty Library #10 (Fantagraphics, 1998); a minicomic of dashed-out impressions from a nursing home; selections from an uncolored 'paste up manuscript' for the ongoing Rusty Brown (the author, Drawn and Quarterly, Pantheon Books, 2005-present); a photo album depicting a short span of days in September, 2000; the sheet music to an original composition by the artist. Ware is the author of the text, as well as the book's designer and producer - we can thus presume that the selection and arrangement of the images, as well as their proximity to the text, are his work.

This is crucial to remember. Ware is frequently praised for the exactitude of his architectural drawings, or the musicality of his page layouts, but less discussed is the talent I've personally found most affecting - the way he composes books. The first comic of Ware's I'd ever read was The ACME Novelty Library #4 (Fantagraphics, 1994), which I'd elected to receive as a bonus prize after buying trade paperback compilations of Jeff Smith's Bone from a mail-order service. I was in high school, so this was the late 1990s, maybe '97. ACME #4 was the second assortment of work later compiled as Quimby the Mouse (Fantagraphics, 2003), and while the comics themselves rightly rewired a complacent brain -- I had read enough edgy and aggressive comics at that point that I was aware comics were capable of adopting impolite themes, but the idea of diagrammatic works that coaxed immense pain from the systems of life were completely foreign -- I was even more stunned by the presentation of that vast pamphlet. The method by which Ware applied a fancy and outmoded language of gaiety to bitter scenarios went beyond direct parody; there was a great deal of contextual work done to set the artifice of Ware's make-believe ACME Novelty Company (the organization ostensibly 'behind' his comics) against what I readily understood to be wildly uncommercial and very personal comics. This was not simple irony to me. This was a comic book that seemed to evoke the very history of printed entertainment, to reveal it, systemically, as first a means of forestalling the signal of human pain, and then as a means of enunciating that pain. A hellish memory palace.

When I read it, comics were in shambles. Distribution had mostly collapsed and many stores had gone out of business; I wasn't even paying attention to comics very much, they had grown so embarrassing to me as a profoundly insecure teen, but I still knew things had gone to shit. ACME read like one last song before the apocalypse, a testament to grand labor and ruined ambition as the flood waters rose to drown the stage.

To Ware, today, this smacks of the juvenile:

"In most of the issues of ACME I deployed this editorial copy and advertising not only to point out the origins of the economic culture which forms us as Americans, but also to blend the serious with the stupid, the adult with the child, and especially our urge to seek solace within as well as to be diverted by art - literature mashed up with MAD magazine, I guess. It's probably fair to say that I didn't feel confident enough to simply do both within the same story and imagery back then, but as time went on the need to keep them separate crumbled away, and along with that, the impulse to write such goofiness. Some of the stories and advertisements let me say things that I'd otherwise probably not have had the ability or the place to write at that age, and to try experiments, both visual and written, that countered what I distrusted most about modern culture." (Pg. 95, par. 3.)

Yet Monograph is not so different in physical setup from those old comics - it's just more cozy. Ware, of course, is one quarter of a century older, and significantly more prominent, and his book has the feel of a fireside chat; in earlier times, the flames would have leaped up to consume Ware, the room, the house, and you, but Monograph speaks from the secure position of humble authority. One gets the impression that this book is mindful of Ware's broader popularity among people interested in literature and high-toned 'graphic novels' who aren't ride-or-die for the comics form, and those readers will be well-served by Ware's very clean and direct descriptions of his artistic point of view, the text leavened with 'making-of' anecdotes and biographical reflections, rolling intuitively into musings on the comics form as an "imagined playhouse" for evoking life itself in drawn characters, and even the nature of human consciousness:

(Pg. 77, par. 2.)

The first 1/3 of the book I found to be most interesting, as it adopts a very deliberate pace in walking us through Ware's evolution as an artist and thinker during his childhood and student days. Once we hit the 1993 debut of The ACME Novelty Library as a comic book series, and -- especially -- the arrival of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 2000) as a collected book, the narrative becomes more diffuse, jumping from project to project without much connecting fiber save for the observable passage of years. This, admittedly, is how time feels when you're constantly working and in-demand as a professional, but while it's nice to hear that an expanded reprint of The Rag-Time Ephemeralist is forthcoming, or that Ware recommends reading only the third edition or later of the hardcover Jimmy Corrigan due to inaccurate color reproduction (the paperbacks are all good), or that Ware's webcomic for the Guardian, The Last Saturday, was built from ideas created for an unproduced HBO television show titled The ACME Novelty Network, or that since 2002 Ware has maintained a daily sketchbook diary comic that will not be published until after his death, if ever, I think a lot of the interest for longtime readers will come from the earlier account of Ware's coming-of-age, as this is not nearly so well-documented.

We are warned at the outset that this will be a selective presentation: "...I've gone out of my way to include work which I consider, however trepidatiously, 'art.' Though I spent a fair share of my time in the 1980s and 1990s doing commercial work such as CD covers or drawings for magazines to simply pay the bills while I waited to be recompensed for whatever actual work I was putting my thought, effort and heart into, none of that material appears here." (Pg. 5, par. 5.) Such prohibitions also apparently extend to embarrassment, as Ware's first book, poor old Floyd Farland, Citizen of the Future (Eclipse, 1987), remains excommunicated from the chronology, alluded to only once in passing; instead, Ware's undergraduate years at the University of Texas at Austin and his later studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago are accompanied by his varied efforts at ascertaining the nature of comics, at times literally framing his work in a gallery-ready context. If you have read a lot of interviews with 'alternative' cartoonists of Ware's generation and older, you've doubtlessly heard tales of condescending arts professors sneering at comics as the debris of commerce. Ware has a tale or two like that in store, but what's most effective is how the text is dwarfed by pictorial testaments to the struggle: Cornell-inspired framed dioramas of cartoon panels; paintings adorned with clay figures; a model house onto which a loop of animation was projected, "an early attempt to get at the ephemeral, sculptural shape of human activity and how buildings and homes take on life and memory once inhabited and/or abandoned." (Pg. 37, par. 2.) These are ideas he would ultimately collapsed into comics itself, via an improvisatory approach that favored 'writing' in pictures as much as words - "I take this same approach to cartooning with every page I draw and write to this day." (Pg. 31, par. 1.) This is also what he is doing in Monograph.

But we must be mindful of the building of the story. Here, for example, is the first of Ware's comics we are shown after the text has reached his undergrad days:

All of the comics on this page are Ware's, and the intelligence of the pastiche -- from line to color to cadence -- is extraordinary. Was this the type of work he had started making as soon as he entered school? No, he was serializing Floyd Farland beforehand in the same venue, the Daily Texan, but the outline of this is only discernible when you compare the image's caption to the ongoing text, and you notice that the image comes from 1987, while Ware began college in 1985 - and even then, you need a little outside study to know that an evolutionary gap is present, rather than a total pause. To be clear, I am not suggesting Ware is pulling the wool over anyone's eyes - I suspect he just doesn't feel this earlier work is good enough to show to people, and that's his prerogative. Yet, there's a tendency in readers to trust in the wholeness of a determined mechanism such as this, though we are better served by eyeing the gaps.

I'm being a critic, obviously. "There's little to be gained by giving one's sense of worth over to someone else, whether that opinion is bad or good, and especially since, to paraphrase Chekhov, if critics had figured out what was so wrong with literature in the first place, why isn't it all fixed by now?" (Pg. 168, par. 3.) This sidebar is held in regards to the damnable outlet you are reading right now, particularly the "malicious and malignant" atmosphere promoted by its vanished and unlamented message board. Judging criticism on the basis of the Comics Journal message board seems a bit like judging comics on the basis of erotic Harley x Joker fanfiction, but on closer examination it's clear that Ware doesn't actually dislike criticism all that much. He writes with grace and humility about being criticized by his college's Black Student Alliance over cartoon images that replicated elements of racist caricature. He credits the writer-on-comics Daniel Raeburn with dignifying his work and bolstering its reception through his writing. Granted, Raeburn possesses "a particular humanist flair and a wry enthusiasm rare for criticism," (pg. 125, fn. 1), not unlike how the radio personality Ira Glass possesses a "'let's see how we can make it more human and interesting' approach" that has transformed broadcasting and journalism, (pg. 176, par. 1), and how historian Tim Samuelson "is one of the rare few who tries to always get at the human factor in any story..." (pg. 178, par. 1).

The Glass and Samuelson comments come from my favorite of the book's later passages, concerning Ware's work on the 2003-04 Lost Buildings slideshow/book/dvd project with the Glass-hosted This American Life, concerning in prominent part the architecture of Louis Sullivan; Ware and Samuelson later collaborated on an exhibition of Sullivan's art. Here, Ware's enthusiasm is lit by the blaze of kinship, as Sullivan's flowering structures "harness in sculptural form the energy, shape and flow of life" in a manner that speaks to art as "allowed to form its own shape" within just the parameters of its medium. (Pg. 178, par. 2.) Ware analogizes this to comics, which are too often constructed as a container for information: script dictating art, text ruling all, which mistakes prescriptions for the medium itself; in pictures, intuitively, pictures as writing, image as language, can "generate the essence of life." (Ibid.)

"The art of the tree -- not the tree-cutter -- needs to return. Lopped-off branches leaving nothing but a trunk is the legacy of 'modernism.' And who wants to live under the shade of that?" (Pg. 178, par. 3.)

I did not find all of Monograph intuitive, though, and I wonder if some of that isn't ideological. I'm not especially young, but it still raises an eyebrow when he declares himself adverse to topical or political images in the midst of over a dozen scattered pages on his covers for the New Yorker: work about which he is manifestly proud. I look at his 2016 cover depicting two police officers -- one white, one black -- seated uncomfortably next to each other in a patrol car, and I suppose he's looking for the human element, the empathy in the situation, but I wonder how he doesn't think of this bow toward collective humanity as a political image in the face of anger at systemic abuses. Ware does not merely abhor the negativity of criticism, but also the "accusative and adolescent" nature of so many of his predecessors in 1980s alternative comics. (Pg 253, par. 3.) So too does he reject the arch-masculine power fantasies of the superhero comics he read when he was young - my mind races now through the doors of Ware's house, to one of his greatest works, The ACME Novelty Library #20 (Drawn and Quarterly, 2010), which in the course of tracking the life of its protagonist, one Jordan Wellington Lint of Omaga, Nebraska, hones in for one panel on a scene of Lint and his sons taking in a booming action movie, one of the boys shrinking in terror at the sight of the screen. A few panels later he is seen staring at a teddy bear, as if in shame, his failure one of acclimation to the modes of narration favored and lucrative in our shared cinematic universe.

This too speaks of an identity for alternative comics: as a vote of zero confidence in popular culture. Ware quotes the artist Chris Lanier on this topic: "I got into comics because in the '80s and '90s everything sucked. Movies sucked. TV sucked. Music sucked. The only thing that didn't suck quite as much were alternative and underground comics, which had a direct and unpretentious connection to something human and real that everything else didn't." (Pg. 103, par. 3.) Ware allows that mass culture has gotten a little better since then, but he still stands a great distance apart from a comics in fluid exchange with greater media strategies, as remains dominant today. The exchange is dominant; comics are not. And still, Chris Ware insists upon this art as capable of raising life within life, as you ride the elevator down the center of this high and well-appointed tower and exit to face the streets.

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One Response to Monograph

  1. Alex says:

    Yay! New Joe McCulloch!

    (oh, and new Chris Ware! That, too, is welcome!)

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