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Acme Novelty Library Vol. 20
by Chris Ware
Drawn & Quarterly, 72 pages $23.95
(Note: I shall endeavor to be as spoiler-free as possible, but obviously if you’re the sort who would rather dive into a book like this knowing as little as possible then you may not want to click on that “continue reading” link.)
Acme Novelty Library #20 is about an asshole. The book’s main character, one Jordan W. Lint, is a bully, a coward, an adulterer, a drunkard, is frequently callous and cruel to friends and family, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In some regards he is an outright monster.
And yet, Ware manages to make us not only care, rather deeply, about this unlikeable figure but also sympathize and, to a surprising degree, understand his plight. Without condoning or excusing his behavior, Ware manages to offer a portrait that is nuanced enough to make us reflect upon our own foibles and fears. If that’s not the mark of a great artist, I’m not sure what is.
The book follows Lint’s entire life, from birth to death, in chronological order, with each page (more or less) focusing on a significant event from each successive year (again, more or less). And so we begin with a collection of small black and red circles (the only colors babies can recognize) that coalesce into a face. As the pages move on, abstract forms and images slowly become more concrete, and we watch as Jordan grows up with a rather large chip on his shoulder due to his mother’s untimely death and his father’s distant demeanor and constant disapproval. But we also see how that chip hardens and affects his life decisions as he moves into adolescence, adulthood and old age. By the end of the book, we feel we have a complete picture of Lint, despite only getting such brief encounters with him.
Or perhaps not. Ware reminds us several times throughout the book how memory and perception can alter our knowledge of any particular event. An early, significant childhood memory is thrown asunder at one point, and a horrific buried memory comes to the surface towards the end and throws (or perhaps in a sad way confirms) everything we have assumed about Lint up till that point. Ware deconstructs Lint’s life as much as he builds it up, reminding us that there may be issues and that we are not privy to (much is hinted but little seen about his father’s alcoholism for instance).
This type of story arc is a direction that Ware has been moving toward ever since Jimmy Corrigan first took shape. He’s always been an artist concerned with showing you the “big picture,” how things connect and how characters’ past experiences inform their present behavior. The old saw that you can’t really know a person, any person, until you’ve seen his or her whole life laid out before you is one that Ware seems to take great stock in. So in Jimmy Corrigan we not only see Jimmy’s childhood past, but learn learn about his grandfather’s as well, and even get to see his genealogy spread out over several pages. In Building Stories we follow the unnamed one-legged woman over several years as she moves past depression, gets married, had children and starts to build a life for herself. In the previous chapter of Rusty Brown (which Lint is actually a part of) we went back in time to learn about Rusty’s father, thereby shedding light on Rusty’s present and future. And now Jordan, one of Rusty’s various school tormentors, has his life laid open before us.
Ware brings a variety of visual motifs, both old and new, to the fore here. In addition to the afore-mentioned early childhood abstractions, reoccurring visual metaphors — a red smudge that serves at various times as blood, ink and illness; little black ants that creep along the page — abound. Jumbled words and images clutter the outside of various panel borders to signify Lint’s random thoughts and emotional state.
And then there’s the penultimate, go-for broke section, a stunning five-page sequence where Ware completely alters his style completely, adopting a Gary Panter-esque, surreal primitivism in order to fully convey the stark emotional and physical horror of the scene in question (which I wouldn’t dream of giving away).
If any complaints towards the book could be made it might be that it’s perhaps a little too psychologically pat. Ware seems to draw easy lines between Lint’s ugly, guilty behavior and the death of his mother, his father’s indifference and an early adolescent tragedy.I think there’s the chance that some readers will think Ware is being a bit too simplistic in laying out the case for how Lint ends up where he does.
But is that really the case here? Again, Ware constantly drops hints that Jordan’s memory is selective and thus not to be trusted as gospel. To put it another way, just because Lint feels emotionally wounded doesn’t mean he actually was. As Sean Collins noted in his review, the notion of how we attempt to narrate our lives, and how that narration ultimately fails to cohere properly or provide any sense of truth or solace seems to be one of the central themes of the book.
But even if Ware is asking readers to connect the dots in a rather simplistic fashion, there’s still no question that Acme Novelty Library #20 remains a stylistic tour de force and one of the most striking and emotionally devastating books of the year. It’s become very easy to dismiss Ware lately with a wave of the hand and a “Yeah, he’s great. Seminal influence. Move on.” We label him as a cold or indifferent artist, or one who is so immersed in solipsism, nostalgia and aspirations of high (i.e. pretentious) art that he’s incapable of achieving the goals he so grandly sets out for himself as an artist. I think Lint will finally quiet a lot of those criticisms. At least I hope it does.