The ACME Novelty Library #20, by Chris Ware. Drawn & Quarterly.
It's been five years, give or take, since Chris Ware moved his ACME Novelty Library series from pamphlets into the annual-book format that's so popular now. Five years, five "issues", and a good three inches of horizontal space on the bookshelf. When he made the move in late 2005, it mostly looked like one of the graphic novel format's most important practitioners fully embracing the comic book, letting go of the old stapled-paper warhorse to engage the real mainstream of American arts and letters via the bookstore market. And sure, that was a big part of it. But now we've got "Lint", in the unforgettable ACME #20, and it lends the format switch-up a clearer focus. In 2005, Ware left behind the influences he'd spent his career up to that point grappling with, processing, and eventually transcending. Literally: he upped stakes from the disposable mode of delivery everyone from McCay to Herriman to King to Crumb to Spiegelman to did their work in, and slapped hard covers on his comic. This was permanent art now. And it is still, but in his most recent book, Ware the fully-developed artist goes back into the toybox of influence, rummages around among the heroes he's left behind, and winds them up again to see if they can add anything more to what's probably the most unmistakably individual style of comics going in the current era.
But Ware's raking up his old ghosts is hardly the kind of mindless, inferior pastiching (or, shudder, "homage") that's so common to lesser comics. No, this is an artist who's undeniably created his own graphic language looking for new ways forward and deciding, to stretch a metaphor, on becoming multilingual. Seeing this kind of in-depth stylistic borrowing from an artist as uniquely virtuosic as Ware doesn't really have a parallel in comics -- the closest thing I can think of is the way Jimmy Page (himself a major fixture in "Lint") used to shift his Zeppelin riffing into licks from James Brown or Elvis or Scott McKenzie songs when he was feeling particularly epic in concert. The performance here is similarly riveting, and it has a similar bravado. The artist himself is buried surprisingly deep in his stylistic evocations, but it's never in doubt that the same hand is guiding this comic's every last page. Ware's been doing what he does perfectly for a long time; now he's turned his focus to encompassing multitudes.
The opening of "Lint" moves from a blank page to paring down the aesthetics of comics' most famous non-comic artist, Roy Lichtenstein, into something that actually works in sequential(ish) form, a loose, airy page full of perfectly round benday dots that actually build into something, the matrix of colors coalescing as the dot themselves get bigger and finally form a human face. This is birth in the story, the beginning of life for Jordan Lint, the character whose sum total of existence, from birth to death, is fit neatly between the book's hard covers. But it's more than that, it's Ware "birthing" vital, richly living comics out of the sterile, single-image pop that we all associate those red-circle-on-white-backgrounds with.
That intro attests to what Ware will do with the works of other artists over the rest of the book: repurpose them into facets of his own sprawling style, while finding a proper place for them in the continuum of life and comics art the story lays out. We begin with Lichtenstein, who never drew a comic, and the first moments of Jordan's being; we move into infancy and an elegant expansion of the rounded, vigourously bouncy aesthetic Richard McGuire (who's drawn like three comics) laid down in his "Ctrl" strip and PBS Kids animatics. From there we get childhood, drawn in the same simplified style Ware's used in previous kid stories. Much later in the book a scene of elementary school-aged terror is blasted onto the page with a terrific swing at the ratty lines and monumental images of Gary Panter (who, though he's changed the field as much as any Crumb you care to name, hasn't really drawn a whole hell of a lot of comics, and puts at least as much attention into his visual-arts career). By Jordan's early adolescence, Ware's quoting Jack Kirby, who drew more comics than Lichtenstein, McGuire, Ware, and Panter combined.
You see how this works? It's a slow move from formlessness into the Ware way, but there's so much more than that. "Lint" is a story about how we slide into focus as human beings, from the first moments of existence when we can be anything, anyone, to the end when we're pinned by death and have no time to be anything but the exact person we've spent every moment of our lives as. It's mirrored by the opening section's slide through increasingly "comics-native" artists' idioms, making us wonder if this is gonna be the Ware book where he ditches his usual, consummately comics mode of working for something closer to those other arts-and-culture things that the hardcover ACME was supposed to bring him more in line with. Will this be a book by Ware the visual artist? The "comics novelist" he gets ballyhooed as by the mainstream press? No, this book draws a line straight in, from a completely blank page at the beginning to this thing Ware does so well, panels stacked in order, richly drawn. From the page to the image to the sequence. To comics. The tour of influences takes on a self-reflective tone once Jordan's a grown man with a grown man's inflexibility and we've been set down securely in Ware's own style: this is how both character and artist got where they are, a blank slate collecting reflections of other things until it's itself.
Though Ware stays pretty much within his own style once Jordan's made it past the Kirby wish-fulfillment phase into his teenage years, no two pages of this book look the same. Slowly the rounded forms crag, slowly the thick, simple shapes sag, and the realist, thin-lined style Ware's explored in sketchbooks and his "Building Stories" strips finds a place in the continuum, popping up to mark the big moments of Jordan's developing maturity until he's old and fixed and it's the only thing left. There's even a significant Frank Quitely look to a lot of the panels during Jordan's decline -- coincidence or not, Ware's tour of the medium's best draws out the distinctly comics-native artist of the superhero mainstream's greatest-ever story about aging and death (namely All Star Superman) at just the right points.
The art states its case as pure visual craft so well that you can stray far into the book before noticing how well Ware bends it to the story, how much it becomes the story. A powerful shorthand gets constructed early on: benday codes for pure sensation, various lettering fonts indicate levels of maturity in the thoughts that run unboxed over the panels, two pink concentric circles form a bare, minimalist breast that indicates thoughts of sex, single red and blue dots are the beating pulse of rock music... there's a whole lexicon on these pages, one that fills them with as much pure information as any lines of text. "Lint" is, let's not forget, a collection of weekly strips originally published in Ware's stomping grounds/first-run test tube The Chicago Reader, and it reads with more of the info-heavy, slightly disconnected page-to-page flow of a Prince Valiant or Little Nemo storyline than the torrential outpouring of Jimmy Corrigan. There are no "sequential" page sequences in the comic; rather, each single page begins and ends its own fragment of Jordan's life before they're all put in order. Some of the memories squabble and ache with minutiae, drawing meticulous rows of nipples or mouse clicks across the white, others stopping the eye dead with a single image of a car crash or a forlorn reflection before spraying out the images' lead-ups below with a few disconnected framing shots. As a reading experience, it's richly comics: each page a meta-panel of its own, the gaps in time between them the blank gutters we're so used to jumping. What could have been an exhausting tour of an unexceptional life instead becomes a whip through all the best and the worst, showing everything that hits home and gets felt, passing by what merely passes by.
In that, this is deeply "literary" comics. Like the previous issue of ACME, "Lint" is a tour through the dashed hopes and accrued regrets of the American male, but where ACME #19 dealt with the subject matter largely through a vigorous EC Comics/Ray Bradbury homage, #20 drops the gloves and dives in defenseless, tracking a modern-day man's existence and thoughts from the moment of life to the moment of death. It's Updike, it's Dos Passos, and very much et cetera, subject matter that's bound to hit home with the reader cause hey, what straight white American everyman can't remember the first time he saw a girl with her clothes off (January 3rd 2006) -- but it's also nothing new, and Ware seems to understand that. Though there's certainly some empathy for Jordan as he flails his way through a life that works out okay but could have been a lot better too, we're never asked to sympathize with him, to live his life with him and feel what he feels. That's old hat, that's prose, that's twentieth century, and this is tomorrow. This is comics. The story ends in 2023, as it begins: with we the readers observing the planed-apart, gridded autopsy of Jordan's existence that the comics form gives us. In this medium we're outside and we watch, at best through the character's eyes, but we never really get into their body or their mind. There's no sentimental mythologizing of rote, boring lives here: it's a textbook's view of what being a man in this country is, presenting image after image, figure after figure, sensation after sensation, and letting us draw our own conclusions. It's the best treatment of the kind of middlebrow literary themes the wider market's so enamored of that comics have given us yet.
If this all sounds cold or bleak, well, there's some of that for sure. This is a Chris Ware comic, after all. But the relentlessly hopeless tone that's driven a good number of his previous works (the last two issues of ACME chief among them) is left out here. The bleakness is only in the narrative's total objectivity, and it's as easy to read warmth into Jordan's love for his kids as it is to feel the ice in his bitter old age. Where all Ware's past work has presented lives in media res, beginning after their beginnings and ending before their ends, in "Lint" it's all laid out. There's an notable lack of narrative focus: the book just sprawls, encompassing a full life and a full range of feeling. It's up to us which ones we want to feel. Which ones we're capable of. Just like in reality.
With all the referencing this comic invites -- and there's a lot of it, I haven't even gone into how Ware draws Jordan the toddler to look like a more solid version of Crayon Shinchan (nor will I) -- it's easy to lose sight of Ware the innovator on its pages. Make no mistake, he's there. The things Ware does with his put-on styles, from the blurred haze of benday over the Kirbyist drawing to the expressionist, architectural-vaudeville views into McGuire to the red-ink clarity (I'm sorry) he lends the Panter snippet, aren't failed attempts at authenticity, they're evolutions, ways forward from those idioms just like the one he's busy forging from his own. The shift to a vertically-oriented page format from a horizontal one for the Panter sequence isn't just a nod to the "scroller" format of webcomics and Dash Shaw's print version of BodyWorld, it's Ware getting inside the mechanism of his neat little hardcover and just turning it out, forcing it to express itself even when tipped on its side. The dot-matrix explosions of Jordan's birth and death are as boldly formalist and visually striking as Ware's ever gotten, which is saying something. The slow progression of the drawing from cartoon to realism is the formalist thread that holds the narrative together, easily as powerful as anything in Maus or Asterios Polyp.
Best of all, though, is the end, where Jordan's mind fades away and the last page fades back to white, the benday-dotted mantra of existence "I am" repeating and repeating until nothing is left but the white.
That white is the same formless void that gave Jordan birth on the first page, though.
And while there it comes speckled with intentional printing imperfections, here it's really blank, it's really the end, and the reader's left scouring it for some unplanned dot or blip of distortion, some glimpse of hope beyond the vacuum. This comic had a large print run. Some books will have it. Some books won't. Some people will find it. For others, there will be nothing. We'll all search, though. And then we'll all close the book and see the back cover: the blue paper strip forming a massive "I" and the two tiny, backward "am"s keeping the mantra going while reminding us that if we really want to see the life, read the "I am" properly we've got to flip the cover back open. Book design as narrative. This is new, this is virtuosic, this is utterly, utterly beautiful.
My favorite part?
For me, it's seeing Jordan on his deathbed at the end, all his stupid pointless teenage memories floating back in before condensing down to his first love and the first death that shortly followed it. Both are haunting memories, calling back to the existence of better days but never there to be accessed without dwelling on their end. But in the final moments, these are the things Jordan doesn't regret. "I didn't know she was here," the disconnecting mind flashes as his first girlfriend appears in the hospital bed next to him. "Good."
That's a promise I've wanted, a promise I've needed. Because I'm too young to have anything but stupid teenage memories yet, and the last five years of them -- the five years ACME's been coming out as a book, almost to the day -- have been made so poisoned with regret and hate and sadness that I bite my lips until they bleed when one of them pops into my head. I spend whole days wondering whether I'll ever be able to look back on the joy and the happiness and the existence of a love that was completely real without only feeling the loss of those things. And there is nothing, no imperfections or distortion or life that I can see on the blank white last page of the particular copy of "Lint" that I bought, but at the end of the life it chronicles there is a straight white American everyman who is happy memories of his first love stayed with him, happy to have lived and lost, even if it's only in his final moment. And even if I have to wait as long as Jordan does the memories are worth it. The life, whether it's in comic pages or in skin and veins and books read, is worth it.