Chris Ware goes digital? Judas!
Yes, I’ll cop to a moment of Dylan Goes Electric shock when I first heard about an iPad-only comic from the cartoonist more responsible than any other for making the physical comic book an integral part of the comics it contains, rather than just a box they’re stuffed into. Instead of some magnificently ornate, diabolically hard-to-shelve hardcover, I’d be reading the new Chris Ware comic through the free McSweeney’s app, on the same device I use to play Angry Birds.
In some ways, the container doesn’t turn out to matter that much. Held in two hands and horizontally aligned (the comic insists upon this before it allows itself to be read), “Touch Sensitive” is, after all, a Chris Ware comic, and thus a melancholy delight almost by definition. This is true even though the content doesn’t share the container’s nominal innovation. After the last two self-contained chapters of the Rusty Brown saga from ACME Novelty Library #19 and #20, I think it’s inarguable that the long form is where you’ll find Ware’s best work. Moreover, our sad-sack young woman protagonist is not a world away from that of Ware’s Building Stories material; swap a presently failing relationship for previous failed ones and weight gain for limb loss and you’ve basically got it. But so much of Ware’s power lies in capturing the sensory details of intense human interiority that even a relatively modest and familiar-feeling short story like this one can pack a wallop. In “Touch Sensitive”‘s case, that means delineating with aching accuracy the slow disappearance of meaningful touches from a relationship, and with them the intimacy and security required to thrive in a life that revolves around a single other person. Our heroine fools herself into believing that her boyfriend falling asleep with his hand on her shoulder after an exhausting move into their new apartment is a sign of good things to come, and (in a memorably, mildly animated bit) both her face and crotch flush when her unnamed office crush’s leg brushes against hers during a meeting. Ware’s pointillist panels and diagramatically simple figure work are uniquely situated to convey the importance of one set of lines intersecting with another.
But like a diagram, they’re best consumed at one’s own pace, and that’s where the iPad format falters. The first time I passed the Jimmy Corrigan issues of ACME Novelty Library along to a friend, I literally drew a guide to the correct reading order for his panel layouts. Since then he’s only gotten more ambitious in using unorthodox and complex layouts to guide your eyes around his meticulously constructed pages. Then as now, the storytelling makes perfect sense once you’ve cottoned to his rules. But a goodly portion of the pleasure always comes in those moments when you’re first taking in a page or a spread, allowing your eyes to glide around from panel to panel or design element to design element, getting a taste of where you’ll be headed and how you’ll get there. It’s as crucial to the experience as gazing at the cool, sparkling water of a swimming pool before you dive in.
The iPad-customized comic (co-developed by Spaces of Play) denies you this autonomy. Panels from a single page are only available to be read a few at a time; a swipe of your fingers or (more rarely) tap of the screen will reveal the next set, but this frequently means obscuring or outright deleting the previous sequence. I can think of a few points in the comic where this actually has some additive impact to the story — a pair of surprisingly sprawling cityscapes, that flushing bit I mentioned above, a final-page transition that ties into the technology of the story’s sardonic science-fictional framing device — but only those few. Mostly it just gets in the way of being a Chris Ware comic.
It’s almost like Ware anticipated the problem, though: In that SF twist toward the end, we’re presented with a world of unbelievably obtrusive personal information technology, where people’s personal viewscreens can be used to tap into “[an] area’s consciousness cloud” to experience the emotions of long-dead strangers, and are constantly bombarded with the crude, spam-like sexual solicitations of passers-by. (This being Ware, lonely “happy bday mom” messages languish in the unsent-messages folder all the while.) You can’t let the supposed Magic Of The Touchscreen obscure the stuff that really matters.