Comics College: Chris Ware
Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
This month we’re examining looking at the career of one Chris Ware, who’s name you may have seen bandied about in certain circles here and there. He’s certainly become one of the more divisive figures in comics — those who love him proclaim him to be one of the finest and most important cartoonists working in the field today, while those who dislike him describe his work as cold, overly precise, depressing and overly pretentious.
I don’t believe any of those descriptors are true (at least not to the extent that his critics seem to think they are) but I can see where those who have for one reason or another avoided his work thus far may have difficulty finding an entry point. So let’s see if we can alleviate that problem somewhat …
Why he’s important
Simply put, he’s the most influential contemporary cartoonist to come out of the indie scene of the ’80s and ’90s, perhaps even the most influential cartoonist alive today. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Ware changed the way people think about comics, both on the shallow “wait, you mean these funnybooks are real literature” level and on the “wow, he’s completely made me rethink what comics are capable of” level. He brought a sense of graphic design to the medium, forcing readers to think about the entire page as a unit, and think about how their eye traveled across the page. He’s been able to deal with tricky themes like social isolation, racism, urban decay, how our family relationships mold and affect us, and the general passage of time with aplomb.
Plus, he’s been a huge champion of the medium and has helped bring neglected comic strip artists like Gasoline Alley’s Frank King to the forefront once more, which in itself is worthy of merit.
Where to start
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth would seem to be a logical starting point, as it was the book that broke Ware out to the larger reading public and influenced so many other cartoonists (not to mention winning a whole bunch of awards) but I’m nothing if not a contrarian. More to the point, I’m honestly not entirely sure it’s the best place for newcomers. I think for some its length, knotty narrative (it frequently skips around in time), and incredibly passive title character could make for too foreboding an entranceway.
So instead, I’m going to suggest the 18th issue of Acme Novelty Library, a self-contained (though it’s part of his larger “Building Stories” series) and slim tale involving a physically handicapped and rather despondent young woman looking back on her relatively short life and trying to figure out how she managed to become so alone.
So yes, it’s an up-front and unflinching examination of depression and misery, but it’s not a depressing or miserable book. Far from it, in fact, as Ware’s artistry at conveying the woman’s inner thoughts and emotions until she feels as fully rounded and realized as any character you’ve ever read in comics is nothing short of breathtaking. I honestly think is one of his best works to date, combining his literary sensibilities with his exemplary sense of design and control to create a seamless work, and it’s the best place in my opinion for a neophyte to begin. You’ll know by the time you get to the end if you want to continue on the Yellow Ware Road or not.
From there you should read
Assuming you do, the afore-mentioned Jimmy Corrigan would be the next stop on your list, for all the reasons mentioned above and then some. Despite my misgivings about it being the first point of entry into Ware-world, there’s no question in my mind it deserves all of the accolades it has received. It’s one of the most influential comics of the past ten years and should really be read if for no other reason than to try to understand why.
From there I’d move on to Quimby the Mouse, an often heartbreaking collection of “gag” strips involving the title character — a cartoon rodent drawn in a variety of old-timey styles — and his convoluted relationships with a) his terminally ill Siamese twin; b) a frequently abused and generally ill-treated (and sentient) cat head. These strips tend to be more experimental in nature and highlight Ware’s formalist side, but aren’t any less involving or emotional because of it.
What’s more this book contains “Thrilling Adventure Stories,” an amazing narrative experiment exploring the relationship between image and text, originally serialized in Raw, that gobsmacked everyone who originally read it back in 198whatever.
Acme Novelty Library’s No. 16, 17 and 19 contain his currently ongoing “Rusty Brown” series, about, yes, another group of socially maladjusted and painfully awkward kids. You can see Ware attempting to stretch himself out here though, as Rusty features a much larger cast of characters that he seems to be attempting to give equal time to. He also mixes things up very nicely in Vol. 19 with a bit of a sci-fi tale that suggests he could have a career in horror should the whole indie/art comix scene not work out.
Acme Novelty Library 18.5, meanwhile, is almost more of a portfolio than a comic, collecting as it does a series of four interconnected prints Ware originally did for the Thanksgiving issue of the New Yorker magazine. Lovely work too.
Not to be confused with the yearly series, the Acme Novelty Library hardcover from Pantheon collects even more one-page gag material from the early days of the series, mainly starring the dunder-headed but well-meaning Big Tex, the forthright and ever-plagued with bad luck Rocket Sam, and the futuristic, Corriganesque schlub from Tales of Tomorrow. Plus there’s lots of newer material done in that big circle, jokey style that he seems to really like these days, as well as a glow in the dark star chart.
Believe it or not, not every issue of Acme Novelty Library has been collected in book form yet. Issues #1, 3 and #10 have yet to be compiled in any sort of trade paperback or hardcover. One and ten, which feature more Jimmy Corrigan antics (ten is a particularly harrowing affair and arguably the darkest story Ware has ever done), are a bit hard to track down, but three, which features early work starring a potato-shaped character who keeps inadvertently gouging his eyes out, is easily available.
If you really want to immerse yourself in Ware, however, you should definitely check out Vols. 1 and 2 of the Acme Novelty Date Book, which collects the best of his sketchbook material from 1986 onward. Ware adopts an almost entirely different, looser and rougher style here than in his “regular comics,” which may be a revelation for those who find his usual style too controlled and stiff. Unlike a lot of other cartoonists sketchbook work, the Date Book material is nearly equal to his other published comics, something you can only say aobut one or two other artists.
If you come across Ware’s first published work, Floyd Farland, Citizen of the Future, keep it far away from the author. Or don’t as the case may be, since he will reportedly pay you for the opportunity to get it back so he can destroy it. Apparently he’s that embarrassed by it. Certainly it’s not emblematic of his best work, though the few pages I’ve seen here and there suggest it’s far from the travesty he seems to think it is. (You can see samples from the comic here).