Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
ACME Novelty Library #1 (1993), page 28. Chris Ware.
Chris Ware is one of a very few artists working in comics — honestly, a very few ever to have worked in comics — to have developed a completely unique visual style. We can look at anything Ware draws and know it’s him by the precision of his meticulous, even lines, the muted but expressive color palette, the simplification of forms that manages to seem both naturalistic and artificial. Any single Ware drawing codes for an entire way of making comics, a language the artist has created for himself from the raw material of panels and balloons.
Which makes it all the more interesting to see work by Ware done in different styles. The experience of reading a comic hammers the style the artist uses into our heads so relentlessly — the goal, after all, is that you fully believe their particular system of shapes and colors represents objective reality — and it can be easy to forget anyone can draw in a different style than we’ve seen on their most recent pages. With Ware especially, the world drawn is so rich, so much more varied in what it presents than almost anywhere else in comics, that seeing him do something outside his usual mode is almost a visceral shock.
Still, early issues of Ware’s ACME Novelty Library series are full of work that operates outside the bounds of Ware’s established style. It takes a long time to build great things, after all, and Ware’s world, unique though it is, stands on the shoulders of as many great cartoonists past as any style does. Here the big influence is Robert Crumb: Ware’s usual thick, certain lines are replaced by thin, wavery marks that cluster together in harmony to describe forms. The page itself, showing the same scene at during each of the four seasons, is a riff on a famous Crumb page (though Crumb himself was undoubtedly riffing on the work of the Impressionists, who would paint the same subject in slightly different qualities of light ad nauseam).
These panels also spotlight an aspect of Ware’s work that is often overlooked: the man is a fantastic environmental artist. Even at their most boldly cartoonish and simplified, Ware drawings always describe a specific, tangible place — not just somewhere, but here, and now. On this page, with no other subject to focus on, Ware throws all his effort into evoking a specific tenor of the cluster of trees and buildings, and the results are stunning. From the loose, scuffled marks on the ground, to the long and stretching ones describing the wooden surfaces of the fence and telephone poles, to the clean white space of the snow, everything we see communicates not just the objective information of what it is, but the sense impression of how it feels. These are highly engaged drawings, by an artist whose full attention is focused on even the smallest details of his work.
But Ware never loses sight of the page as a unified, single work of art, either. The color changes are carefully orchestrated and utterly beautiful: green gives way to purple and yellow, which is swallowed up by a dusky gray-orange before bursting into primary red and blue. It feels so right, so rich and well-considered as a progression, that it takes a few looks to realize that the seasons haven’t been placed in continuous order, as one might expect. Ware calculates this page — which, after all, is a plotless, purely visual piece of comics — not as the continuous narrative we’ve come to expect from everything with panels, but as a simple collection of images placed in close proximity to one another. The effect being chased is nothing more or less than immersion in the subject Ware has chosen, and a sense of the beautiful. And of course, the page hits its mark.