Comics Time: ACME Novelty Library #19

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ACME Novelty Library #19

Chris Ware, writer/artist

The ACME Novelty Library/Drawn & Quarterly, October 2008

80 pages, hardcover

$15.95

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My ability to track who visits this blog for what reasons is beyond rudimentary, but I know that there are horror fans who aren’t interested in the comics material, and comics fans who aren’t interested in the horror material, and general genre fiction fans who aren’t particularly interested in either, and so on. I’d like you all to stay tuned because this book concerns all of you. But first let me throw the superhero fans a bone by talking about Nightwing for a second.

A while ago there was a storyline in one of the Bat-books where the ex-Robin named Jason Todd (he had been dead, but he got better) spent a year pretending to be Nightwing, the current crimefighting alter ego of fellow ex-Robin Dick Grayson, and no one knew the difference. In real life this would be totally ridiculous, because a domino mask isn’t enough to prevent you from telling the difference between two different people. But in comics, you can’t hear people’s voices, and character likenesses from artist to artist, and sometimes even panel to panel, are so inconsistent that any two characters with the same basic skin tone and hair color might as well be doppelgangers. In other words, this is a story could only be done in comics is because it takes advantage of comics’ unique weaknesses.

The reason Chris Ware’s stories can only be done in comics, the reason Chris Ware is the best cartoonist in the world, is because he takes advantage of comics’ unique strengths. His is the most naturally comics way of seeing the world I’ve ever come across. For example: With a few meticulous lines he reduces the descent of a rocket through the Martian atmosphere to a silver circle, a red dot, and an expanding cloud. Through tricks of scale and perspective he then uses that same basic visual vocabulary to depict a ball in mid-flight, a button on an instrument panel, a door, a window, a helmet, a planet, thumbtacks, faucet handles, a tiny illuminated patch in a sea of darkness, a shining flashlight blown up to gargantuan proportions, the entire universe shrunk down and crushed between the silhouetted of two colossal fingers. And far from empty formalism, it’s done in service of a vicious, thrilling science fiction*/horror story about a sociopath–in other words, someone innately incapable of properly ascertaining scale and perspective in his own emotional life and that of those whom he hurts. (Perhaps the ancestor of this story’s omnipresent circle imagery is HAL 9000, then? Certainly the closet comparison I can think of to ACME #19′s horror images–world-class stuff involving freezing, corpses, dismemberment, and isolation–is the cabin-fever coldness of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and The Shining, and that’s even before we get to more specific points of similarity.)

In essence, these circular pictograms–and now that I think about it, Ware’s unique, complex, trademark panel layout and sequencing, the very stuff of his comics–have no inherent meaning; we determine their meaning through context and assign it to them. But that means that if we falter or get it wrong or simply say “fuck it,” it’s all quite literally meaningless, as devoid of worth and value as the bogus maps and video communications are to the story’s Martian colonists–or as human life is to murderers, or as existence itself is to those who’ve given up trying to make it mean something.

But there’s more. Ware then applies the same shifting-scale trick he’s done with the visuals to the entire story itself. He pulls back to reveal the story behind the story, that of its in-fiction author. Now we learn the source of this story’s seething rage and deadpan but visceral horror, providing it with context (loved the reveal of why the sci-fi story’s description of its female lead didn’t match her visual depiction) even as it continues to dismantle the semantic underpinnings of the very notion of context. In much the same way that the sci-fi story’s protagonist becomes morally adrift following a dual crisis in confidence over his mission and his fellow missionaries, his author is pushed to the emotional brink by his futile attempts to understand and possess his mercurial “romantic” interest, by his own inability to place his relationship’s true emotional content in the proper scale and perspective. Throughout this meta-narrative he literalizes this failing of vision, both physically (our hero’s glasses are shattered, leaving him looking at the world in part or in full as an assemblage of Benday dots–those circles again) and psychologically (a flashback sequence in which our hero’s life is depicted as leading inexorably toward this ill-fated series of sexual liasons, here viewed as the connection of soul mates).

The business we see in the author’s life is small beer compared to the life and death struggles and cosmic forces at play in that of his fictional protagonist, but that’s exactly what makes it so devastating. If all it takes to untether us so completely from the notion that our lives have and tend toward meaning is a shitty relationship with an emotionally unavailable and damaged person, what hope do any of us have? By the time you reach the alarmingly proficient prose sci-fi pastiche that ends the collection (it’s about time travel’s dissolution of the meaning of time and therefore life), or the uncharacteristically blunt and brutal political swipe on the back cover (it’s about how the causes, goals, means, ends, and legal framework of torture are completely nonsensical), you’ve already gotten the point. Gotten it, in fact, the first time you failed to tell the difference between the surface of a world and the tip of a finger.

2 Responses to Comics Time: ACME Novelty Library #19

  1. Brilliant, Sean!

    Nineteen was certainly the most formally innovative Acme since the “World’s Fair” issue or so. Ware once again gave us a whole new way to see the world. And despite the usually facetious self-deprecation, I had started to believe he really was getting tired of his own style with seventeen. Then he blows us all away again with this one. It’s like he just discovered that sumptuous shade of red. I’m sure that exact tone has appeared in thousands of comics I’ve read, but when Ware finds something as simple as the perfect color for his purposes, I’m forced to re-evaluate how I see.

    I was going to scan in some of the pages with simple circles standing for pens or planets for my own comic creation class site with regards to style. I wanted to show how this move only works because of the “simplistic” (god, that’s the wrong word) cartooning style Ware chose from the get-go. The photo-realist doesn’t get to employ these world-shaking moves. Your discussion, however, makes me realize the limitation of my own approach to discussing comics. In burrowing so deeply into decisions of craft and intent, I had ignored the ramifications of these decisions on the overall story. I had, of course, realized that Ware wanted the viewer to note the similarities in these disparate objects, but I had not considered that these were POV shots revealing a huge flaw in the character: equating pens and planets and gauges and humans lit by flashlights and one’s own severed fingers as just things external to oneself DOES explain Brown’s isolating depression and the protagonist’s pathology. Well done! Tying in the printing dots to the circle leitmotif was revelatory as well! And opening with a Nightwing discussion! What, you thought the horrendous “Dog/James/Logan” Origin sucker punch was growing stale?

    Perhaps I’ll scan a few pages for visual reference, but then I’ll just link to this tremendous article. Well done, sir!

    P.S. Hey, looks like we finally have an answer to “Will nothing meet our exacting standards?”

  2. Carnival of souls

    * I’ve read a lot of depressing comics-industry economic news stories lately, but I don’t think any of them even come close to touching this one. * In much less depressing news, Michael Kupperman’s starting a blog, maybe? (Via Paul…