Waited for the Trade: ACME Novelty Library 19

by VM

Man, life must be a really depressing place for Chris Ware.

I’m not talking about his personal life of course, since I know nothing of that. And by all accounts, his professional career is going pretty well; Jimmy Corrigan won awards, and ACME Novelty Library is one of those things that gets touted about as worthy wherever I cast my eyes in the direction of serious critical acclaim. “Masterpiece” is a word bounded about in connection with his efforts.

But judging by what I understand of his work, I’m forced into the conclusion that Chris Ware finds the world an empty and heartless place that slowly wears you down before you die. And nothing else.

There’s something very nihilistic, or at least very first-year-philosophy nihilistic about what he does. Bleak, heartless and cold. Depressing. And you’d think that this would appeal to me. I’m usually a big fan of things that show the darker side of existence. I’m habitually cynical about happy endings and the foolishness of the main thrust of humanity is something I’m pretty much certain of.

And yet, I find it difficult indeed nigh-on impossible to enjoy what Ware brings to the page here.

Actually that’s not entirely true. Ware’s art is something else. It’s a truly stunning and innovative graphical form, for which he deserves all the praise I can muster to give him. It’s resolutely simplistic, stylised and minimist in its representation of characters, but is nothing but all the more powerful in its execution as a result. It’s remarkable how he’s able to convey years of difference to a character’s life by the varying of just a few lines, and nothing short of fantastic what powerful emotions he can convey from those very same few lines.

The layouts are similarly a work of art in and of themselves. The variety of panel choices, the use of repetition and movement about a central theme – such things are nothing short of a masterclass. To read this book is to revel in the skill of a master craftsman at work. To then compare with a conventional super-hero book is to remind yourself how truly stagnant even some of the best people working there can be. And that’s not a comment that should be taken as being elitist or snobbish, but rather a tribute to just how fresh his work is that it can achieve that.

The problem I have is with the story he tells.

There’s almost nothing positive here. Almost every page, every penstroke, ever panel is dedicated to chronicling the small disappointments of life, miserable existence by a thousand tiny cuts. And after a while, it stops being affecting and simply becomes annoying. Ware chronicles the story of his female protagonist with such a downbeat air, punctuating it with such frequent despair that it ceases to be engaging and becomes simply routine- any impact lost in familiarisation.

The story presented is one of deeply emotive events. Some are far bigger moments than others (the book deals with an abortion at one point) but all are given a deep and lasting emotional resonance. Quiet tragedy is generated from everywhere, even some place as innocuous as a meal out or washing a car. And that’s to its credit; the skill with which Ware draws out pathos is quite remarkable. But for all this it has a tendency to ring hollow. Ultimately, it begins to read as nothing more than a list of the depressive horrors of everyday existence. Whilst reading I found myself asking why I was reading it. What was its point, what was it saying about the human condition? For something that has been so widely praised, I was quite surprised to find that I didn’t take anything away from it. It failed to make me think (other than making me mildly depressed). And that's the problem - for all its critical acclaim, the treatment this material gets is quite superficial.

For something tragic to have an impact, it needs to be tempered with optimism, or the promise of better things. It’s the truth of that old saying about needing the lows to appreciate the highs; the downside of existence is nothing without contrast. Like that friend who complains endlessly but never tries to change anything this book eventually dissolves into a litany of bad things that leaves the reader numb, rather than affected.

But it’s probably worth owning for the art alone. And that’s quite something.

Rating: B (Brainy)


The General said...

My own limited experience reading Chris Ware's work mirrors your own, Mr. Minority. I own Jimmy Corrigan and have taken several stabs at reading it, but ultimately, I find myself ignoring the story, to just leaf through it and enjoy the art. I have the same problem with the films of Lars Van Tier... I just don't have much patiences for relentlessly depressing works.

Vocal Minority said...

But the art really is fantastic isn't it?

I suspect that's what has lead to such fawning in some circles. And I can even kinda agree / see it. But it's not a complete work for me until his story gets better.