The ACME Novelty Library #18
Chris Ware, writer/artist
ACME Novelty Library/Drawn & Quarterly, December 2007
56 pages, hardcover
Cruelly overlooked by many year-end best-of lists (my own included) due to its late-in-the-game arrival (now a perennial occurrence) and, perhaps, a level of quality we’ve come to take for granted, the latest installment of The ACME Novelty Library is a tough book to review by virtue of the fact that it belongs at or near the top of any such list worth a damn. In trying to express what is so compelling to me about Ware’s work in general or this book in particularly I am, to quote Stephen King on Clive Barker, almost literally tongue-tied. Instead I’m rambling on about year-end best-of lists, and eventually I’ll be enthusing vapidly. (Hey, it could be worse–I could be complaining about the people who find his work cold, emotionless, and boring. Specifically I could be calling those people morons. How lucky for you, then!)
In this particular case I’m kind of floored by how Ware assembles a panoply of snippets of a lonely young woman’s life–some are lengthy flashbacks, others are day-in-the-life moments, still others are seen from the perspective of the old building she lives in–into this sort of long seamless tapestry of ache. Like the tiny diagrammatic panels Ware foisted on an unsuspecting comics world, these narrative building blocks give the material an engaging ebb and flow, and simultaneously ape the way the protagonist’s own life flows without pause one dreary day into the next, occasionally enlivened by reverie or some small humiliation. Now that I think of it, she herself looks back on her life’s more exciting or rewarding times as dreams–temporary and illusory. And in a real way this book could go on forever, or at least as long as our heroine remains stuck in this (seemingly lifelong) rut, this cycle going on and on the same way some of Ware’s pages (the knockout front endpapers, for example) are all but cyclical. This chapter itself doesn’t really end, it just stops, which is perfect.
I don’t know, what should I say? He’s the best colorist, the best letterer? Those things are both true. His line is superhuman, like a machine made it, which is why people think it’s cold, but they’re wrong because he’s using that precision to nail specific and devastating emotions and sense-memories–my god, that moment where the heartbroken heroine sinks into her dormroom bed! “I lay there, facing the fake wood wall shelf…but it might as well have been the blackness of space…” The image has the pull of a black hole. And as it turns out Ware is also quite good at cartooning sex, particularly that delirious brand of first-flush collegiate sex, daily coupling and mutual masturbation and the raw, almost manic hunger to have and give and demonstrate pleasure. Cold schmold! All with the best chops in terms of line and layout of anyone in comics. The funny thing is I don’t really think of comics when I read this, I think of my life and my wife’s life and my friends’ lives and complete strangers’ lives, which of course is what makes it the very best kind of comics there is.