Chris Ware and the Unassuming Power of the Graphic Novel Form

I wonder if we could say, when speaking of graphic novels, that there are two main traditions, out of which the preponderance of work has come. One would be the underground and more alternative tradition, represented by Weirdo and R. Crumb, out of which the work of artists like Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell spring forth. The other would be the more “literary”—for the underground tradition, in its best forms, is extraordinarily literary, but oftentimes more covert about it—represented by Raw and Art Spiegelman, and the work of artists like Ben Katchor and Liana Finck. But these are not distinctions writ in stone. Chris Ware’s work partakes in both, drawing from the underground tradition a kind of horror with the mundane burned coffee pot nature of the world, and drawing from the conspicuously literary a more intellectual stance, while also invoking something mischievous that harks back to the origin of graphic novels, the comic strip and comic book, and therefore, I think, to George Herriman’s work in Krazy Kat.

Krazy Kat is the origin because it is so sui generis. It borrows from sources, like Shakespeare, and it makes them into something completely George Herriman’s own, a kind of unassuming art whose very eccentricity can speak to people from any walk of life. In the characters of Krazy and Ignatz, we are given outlines, templates, blueprints, through the very lines in which they are drawn, of the kind of DNA of graphic novels that emerged from Herriman’s pen, including the work of Charles Schulz, and other artists of that stature who anticipated the graphic novel form. I think what Herriman did was make violence into something we could laugh at, like a Charlie Chaplin of the visual. He’s nimble; there is a certain angularity to his style which is neither sublime nor mundane, but a sideways glance, a blinking madcap hilarity. His characters move across the world on a plain like a drop of water released from a pin; inside the drop of water is the essence of every relationship ever, boiled down to two animals - a foolish cat, and a wise mouse. Everyone, of course, is Krazy Kat, just as everyone is Ignatz, and every relationship is a ratio of the two. Herriman’s greatness, I think, lies in his unassumingness. Like a tiny ant building an entire world, he burrows into our hearts, and he stays there, and so we can’t forget him, the sweetness of the work, the pleasure, and, beneath it, a form of outlandish pain.

I think from Herriman, as I said, come the two branches of Weirdo and Raw. What makes both traditions interesting is their covert fascination with literature, and their simultaneous wrestling with what to make of this inheritance. The underground tradition, for example, likes to present itself as completely not “highbrow.” This makes sense - R. Crumb forged a path that, like all great artists know, is excruciating. Art has to fight pretension and banality at all costs. But sometimes I tend to be a bit suspicious of facades of anti-intellectualism when artists like Crumb and Harvey Pekar are enormously powerful thinkers.

I wonder if this implicit claim—that graphic novels should be anti-intellectual, which probably comes itself out of a misunderstanding of the nature of satire as a blunt rather than sharp instrument for calling attention to human vanity in all its guises—is made because of the relationship between graphic novels and comic books. Comic books can also be literary, I think, but in a more young adult vein. There’s a difference between reading Chris Ware and Spider-Man, regardless of the beauty and power of the drawings and writing in Spider-Man, or even the inspiration, motivation and solace one can find in reading about Peter Parker and his travails. Peter Parker is, in a sense, the comic book version of Charlie Brown in the comic strip. They are both anti-heroes, and they both fight (and fail) in their own respective ways. But the Peanuts cartoons are more literary than Spider-Man comics, because the pathos they invoke is deeper. Peter Parker appeals to the boy in us, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Charlie Brown speaks to the child and adult in us, and I think that’s an achievement of a different order.

“Literary” means an ability to think in original ways through metaphor. It means someone who is good with language, has their own distinctive voice, and is good with polysemy—meaning ambiguity, the ability to sense the connotations behind words at very deep levels—and, in doing so, to play with symbols, motifs, themes, images, the kind of rituals and practices that lie behind the surface of our mundane world. Graphic novels might resist the term “literary” because literary describes novels, poems, plays, short stories, but it does not describe the visual, since literary is a reference to language, and the visual is a wordless language. Therefore, I wonder if the resistance to literary in the graphic novel community—which is understandable, for there is something in the spirit of comics and comic strips that is fundamentally rambunctious and rebellious, like the whole zeitgeist of Mad magazine bottled in the heart of a kid—also comes from the feeling that the term pigeonholes unfairly, or that it is reductive, or too totalizing.

That’s a fair critique. For that reason, I think we should come up with a term that captures the best virtues and pleasure of the Weirdo and Raw traditions to describe what I perceive is happening in the works of artists like Gabrielle Bell, Liana Finck, and Chris Ware. For this I suggest the term “story drawings”, a variation on Katchor’s “picture-stories”, and Eisner’s “sequential art”, but which I think captures a ironic willed colorful naïveté on the part of Bell, or Finck, or Ware, as well as other trends going on in the visual art world - the work of Rose Wylie, for example, or Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. Drawings are not pictures, but sketches, and therefore experimental. Pictures suggest something finished; drawings suggest something that comes into being as one discovers what one is trying to say as one tries to say it. “Story”, to me, similarly, suggests something childlike, since both the cartoon and comic book form speak to the inner kid in us in a different way than reading Cervantes, Whitman, Kafka, or Anne Carson. There is always the sense in Chris Ware’s work of a search for heroes, even if the hero is a fat kid being bullied for holding tenaciously onto a blonde doll, or a woman with a prosthetic leg working at a humdrum job at a flower store. And Chris Ware’s heroes are enormously complicated, polysemous, ambiguous, meaning we can interpret them in drastically different ways depending on many different factors. In Rusty Brown, for example, how do we read the character of Joanne, the Black elementary school teacher? Does her piety get in the way of her experiencing the world, or does it allow her consolation in the endless dragging currents of the racist Midwest? How would we describe her? How do we reconcile the fact that she does not protect Rusty Brown from being bullied—she seems oblivious of this—while she herself is relentlessly bullied by the administration of the school and her neighbors in viscerally subtle ways? Do we identify with her? Why, or why not? How, or how not?

Ware’s work forces us to think about these things. It is also enormously formally inventive, through experiments with the structure of narrative represented both visually and textually. He does things that are not possible in other mediums. For example, in Rusty Brown, after we are introduced to and get to know one of the main protagonists, a high school teacher and the father of Rusty—the book is a weaving of essentially three main characters, and the stories and people that congregate around these characters, though the relationship between them is like an accordion, sometimes moving them closer together, sometimes asking us to find connections in the juxtaposition between a major and minor chord, or dissonance, or unexpected harmony, or silence—Ware begins an entirely new section, of a man living on a different planet, with a 1950s science fiction feel, though the conventions of the representation of this man and his terrifying experiences are rooted in literary realism. And the jolt between Mr. Brown and this man is abrupt and shocking, because Ware knows when and how to provide transitions and when and how not to. When we are launched into this world, right from the parking lot of Mr. Brown's misery, it feels like a kind of derangement of the senses, and we find ourselves, like reading Proust, doing our best to catch up and trying to find our sea legs in this new world. What Ware does is shift the ground of genre beneath our feet; and when we become immersed in it, we feel that the worlds he creates are representationally more real than anyone else working now in the graphic novel medium. Ware is similar to how Isaac Babel described Tolstoy: “if the world could write by itself,” though we’d have to add “draw” after “write”, to capture something of Ware’s astounding ability to give us characters and rooms and moods and situations that, through voice, story, and image, represent the sense of life itself, the fullness, suchness, robustness, vividness of it, through art.

Ware’s main contributions to the graphic novel are his representational power and his formal innovation. He is an experimental artist who manages, in works like Rusty Brown or Building Stories or Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, to not seem experimental, because of his power for representation. When we read Bell, or Finck, there is a more lyric subjectivity, a quality of dreamingness, and therefore something more poetic, even if both Bell and Finck are able to think with the lasersharpness of a Wittgenstein. Ware is like Picasso. He does not seem to have any limits, and yet this does not lead to formless chaos, but the severest and most moving aesthetic experiences, like a more mature Charlie Brown drawn by Mondrian. He has the depth of a storyteller, the voice of a great novelist, and the line control of a master draughtsman. It is a rare combination. For this reason, Ware is undoubtedly one of the most important graphic novelists working in the medium today.

Ware’s formal contributions are of equal weight to his representational power, and two that we can focus on are his structuring of the page and his ability to capture character through line. Through these innovations, he shows us more of the world. For an example of this, look at this page from Rusty Brown. The man in the car is Mr. Brown, who works in a school in the Midwest.

The feelings stirred up in him—for we can see a look of consternation, even something slightly terrified, or worried, or absent, or sad, or painful, or all of the above, in the arrangement of his eyebrows behind his glasses, the tilt of his head and the slouched, vigilant hunch of his shoulders—are based on the woman in the horizontal panel below, walking into the school in which he teaches with her younger brother (more on the girl and her brother in a second). His hair would seem preposterous on the head of a different character, but it is Ware’s genius that this is a man whom we empathize with, and who I do not think is intended as an easy satirical target, unlike the character of Jordan, whose life and fall later in the book is an example of a kind of vicious dissection of a person who never learns how to take responsibility for his life (perhaps that story’s very viciousness is why it is also the most experimental, for the rage that fuels that part of the book would become desiccated without something different, a departure, to bolster it, meaning we would ourselves turn into Jordan, rather than readers of Jordan’s life - representors of history, rather than casualties of history).

The arrangement of the panels are a mastery of a sort of detectiveness, of an artist choosing what feels like the perfect details in color, angle, perspective, mood, in wordlessness, sound, words, and silence, to give us something jarring and coherent through juxtaposition and patterning. Ware’s pages are patchworks with such freshness that they are like textures without textures - we feel them, and touch the pages, merely by running our eyes across the page. They feel like actual memories imagined anew, or actual experiences, better put, experienced in the present, although they are invented. Their power of representation lies in their feeling true to the experience of the actual world - the way in which time passes, the nature of human character, the multitude of perspectives - and the manner in which it is transmuted or reimagined.

The girl mentioned above, Alison, who we first saw in the horizontal panel, is a student whom this teacher, Mr. Brown, has just seen minutes earlier speaking in a kind motherly tone to her younger brother, Chalky. And the effect of her everything—her kind, modest, hopeful face; her body as she bends to adjust her brother’s winter hat; the very sense within the diction and tone of her phrasing (“You dork... fix your hat,” or “C’mere,” or “You’re not still nervous are you?”), and the way in which the color of her blue coat matches both her brother’s hat and Mr. Brown’s collared shirt—all remind Mr. Brown of being a younger man, and everything passional, romantic, sexual, all of it that goes along with that, compounded by his unhappy marriage, career, and family life.

What Ware manages to do, in what would seem like the tiniest of moments, feels unprecedented in works of mimesis because of his powers of representation and his formal innovation. Look at the positioning of the two pages (the second page here comes before the first). On the page nearest above this paragraph, we see one moment from five different angles in “one space” and “one moment in time”: Ware’s, the reader’s, Mr. Brown’s, Alison’s, and Chalky’s. The angles are like Ingmar Bergman’s positioning of his two main characters in Persona, or Alexander positioning his puppets at the beginning of Fanny and Alexander. Each character, we are given to think, is a different world, along the lines of Nelson Goodman’s work, and each positioning gives off different lusters of these different worlds, which suggests that every human being, and every moment, is a kind of fictional world in and of itself, a flowing and resting thing—what William James called “flights and perching”—and that therefore every character and every moment is itself is a book. In this moment, we hear the same dialogue from these different perspectives, and it feels as close to omniscience as we can get, akin to a Henry James, let’s say, though Tolstoy would be a better comparison. Ware captures what Gary Saul Morson, a literary critic, writing of Tolstoy in Anna Karenina in Our Time: Seeing More Wisely, calls “tiny alterations in consciousness.” He does this through image, voice, and narration. When we move from the dialogue heard from these different angles into the aftermath of the moment, we hear only the sound of a car door opening, muffled even more by the depressing meaninglessness-seeming of the winter landscape on the grounds of the high school, and watch Mr. Brown processing—how does Ware represent an actual-feeling human being processing something?—while Alison and Chalky walk into school on the first day.

It is Tolstoyan in effect, because Ware can sweep down into the tiniest of details—the particular shade of green of Mr. Brown’s car, the onomatopoeia of the car door opening, the facial expressions, body language, dialogue—to a kind of grand narrative, the war of being a child in the world and the peace of seeing a woman fix a winter hat on a child’s head; but I think it is the nature of the graphic novel that it feels so unassuming Like someone reading a comic strip in the morning in a quiet kitchen, then moving out into the blare and glare of the traffic of the world, Ware moves from tone to tone on a very wide canvas. He can be enormously funny and silly and enormously profound and somber, sometimes not only on one page but in one panel or between panels. Samuel Johnson talked about this in regards to Shakespeare, who he said could capture joy and sorrow and their changing nature more than any other artist. Ware achieves this as well.

We could say, then, that Ware’s achievement is finding a new form, a new order, for violence. Violence comes from anger, which comes from sadness, which comes from feeling misunderstood, or bullied. Without a form for it, it devolves into chaos, or madness, but with a form it can be turned into great art. Ware pulls this off in Rusty Brown, as well as Building Stories and Jimmy Corrigan. In one of the sweeter and sadder scenes in the first section of Rusty Brown, we watch the simplest of moments - kids walking back into a classroom. It happens every single day in a way that seems almost invisible, and I think it’s fair to say that, in showing us more of the world, Ware makes the invisible more visible. Behind the unseen made seen, we sense what feels like the actual feeling of time beneath it, rushing forward, pausing, a kind of silent flowing beneath every encounter, in the rooms of memory, feeling, and imagination. Ware is a master of this, page after page. It is his very unassumingness, and the unassumingness of the graphic novel, that gives the work such power.