Review: Chris Ware’s ‘ACME Novelty Library, Vol. 18’
ACME Novelty Library, Vol. 18
By Chris Ware
Drawn & Quarterly, 2007, $18.95
My friend and former colleague James Nicoll once said “Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts.” For me, Chris Ware fills the same function – Ware’s work is almost terminally depressing, but executed with such craft and skill that it’s impossible to look away.
This edition of [[[ACME Novelty Library]]] continues Ware’s current graphic novel, “Building Stories” – at least, that’s what this has been called before; there’s no page with that or any other title in this book – with a series of interconnected short stories about an unnamed woman who lives on the top floor of that apartment building. (Parts of this volume also appeared in The New York Times Magazine in 2007 as part of their cruelly-misnamed “Funny Papers” feature – Ware might have been the most bleak thing in that comics space so far, but all of it has been serious, most of it has been dour and none of it has been funny.)
“Building Stories” is possibly not quite as depressing as such previous Ware downers as “Jimmy Corrigan,” but it’s still pretty wrist-slashing: the main character of these stories is a woman who lives alone, has no friends or family nearby, lost the bottom half of one leg in a childhood accident, and has had only one, long-ago, painful sexual relationship. The various short stories in this volume all feature her internal monologue, which is drenched in misery and sadness.
Ware’s stories curl inward instead of exploding outward, like genre comics do — his people are introverts, hiding from the world and even from themselves. This woman is no exception; nearly all of the stories in this volume take part entirely in her head or her past — the only moments of human warmth and emotion are remembered, and tainted by the memories of what came afterward. And to call what she had “warmth and emotion” is to overstate the case quite a bit, anyway.
As usual with Ware, life is pain, and nothing good ever happens. The protagonist’s one relationship — with a decade-older artist’s model/actor who she met and started dating almost immediately while studying art in college — was clearly one-sided. (And that boyfriend didn’t even have the guts to end it well.) Their relationship wasn’t particularly strong even when it was going: what we see is mostly fights and sulks and pregnancy scares, all of which drove them apart rather than together. She left him at one point, but came back quickly. For the one “love affair” of her life, it’s a desperately slender reed to cling to.
And her study of art also went nowhere — she’s now working in a flower shop, another dead-end Ware character in a dead-end job, living in a dead-end apartment in a dead-end life. There is no cheer in Wareville; everyone has struck out, long ago. She decided she had no talent, and gave up what we have to assume once gave her pleasure — not that we ever see her having any pleasure, in art or in anything, since this is a Chris Ware book. No one in a Chris Ware book can ever be happy, or even conceive of happiness existing in the world.
Each individual story in this volume is short, no more than four pages, and most of them are just one or two pages long. (The pages, though, are quite large, and Ware’s careful, heavily designed style crams a lot of art and text onto those pages.) They generally don’t have anything like titles, and the stories don’t form any real chronological sequence. The woman gets up, goes to work, goes shopping for food, goes home, takes a shower — they’re all pieces of her life, but not organized in any particular way. Ware is making them all feel as draining and pointless and sad as he can.
Each of those stories is excellent: a little gem of bleak cheerlessness. And Vol. 18 as a whole forms a larger work of art, a chilly, depressing collection of painfully sharp points. But Ware has been hitting this very same emotional note for close to twenty years now, with [[[Jimmy Corrigan]]] and “[[[Quimby the Mouse]]],” and the possibly-abandoned [[[Rusty Brown]]]. Ware’s tricks are dazzling and breathtaking, but we’ve been watching the same tricks all this time.
Ware’s obsession with bleakness is beginning to look not like a deep understanding of the human condition, but instead a fundamental lack of emotional depth. If all of his people have the same emotions — the same few emotions — all the time, and never feel anything differently, the fact that he can depict sadness and despair so well becomes less and less impressive.
[[[The ACME Novelty Library Vol. 18]]] is Chris Ware doing what he does best, yet again: that’s what’s so impressive about it, and what’s so worrying about it. It wouldn’t be worrying if it weren’t so impressive. I don’t want to say that Ware needs to lighten up, but he does need, desperately, to add a different emotion to his repertoire. Existential despair can only take one so far, and Ware has been coasting on it for a very long time now.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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