There are a few gods in the comics world who have crossed the threshold of recognition only within their field, and are known to what may loosely be defined as “the mainstream.” They’ve done things other than comics, gotten involved in films, married Amanda Palmer. Or they’re just damned good.
I discovered Chris Ware‘s work in the early aughts, during one of my excursions to one of New York’s comics/graphic novel stores (it would have been either Midtown Comics or Forbidden Planet-I think the latter). I’m sure my brow furrowed as I paged through Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. What was I looking at?
It was immediately apparent that Ware loves to play. His books are all odd sizes and shapes, and some feature unusual bindings; his latest and most famous work takes the form of a series of booklets and pamphlets packaged in a box. The density of the drawings (and, often, the text, though it’s common to see less, rather than more, text in Ware’s work) can only be called profuse: stacked and layered together with an intricacy that hints ever so slightly at both genius and mental illness.
But for all this, I’m struck by the ways in which, despite all his innovations of form and format, Ware’s work is constrained, methodical, and even predictable. His themes most often revolve around Chicago, his chosen home (his roots are in Omaha, Nebraska), in various time periods. His visual sensibility, even when depicting times other than the early 20th Century, has a sort of ragtime feel to it.
And while Ware experiments beyond size and shape with printing techniques, inks, papers and so forth, his compositions read like engineering schematics, formal and rigid. His tendency to jam myriad small panels together has been described as an attempt to create a filmstrip-like effect, the movement from one panel to the next often being negligible or minute.
In tone and manner, I find Ware’s work to be very consistent also. As an obvious master of his chosen form, Ware doesn’t sweat the mechanics of how to bring the subtexts and emotional undercurrents of his stories across. In all his work, I find a sort of haunted melancholy, a furtiveness, that sort of crippling anxiety that comes from years of unrelenting (and often tormented) introspection. There is nothing garish about his characters nor is there anything obviously or identifiably heroic. He’s not deifying or celebrating anyone; he enshrines those lost moments in which we feel the ground shifting under our feet and are not sure of who we are, and cling desperately to silly illusions. He portrays these with a tender compassion that’s drawn out like a circuit diagram. If Eliot’s Prufrock ever needed an illustrator, it could only be Ware.
I haven’t read all of Ware’s work (yet), and I confess that I’m still forming a taste for it. I can’t deny, however, that his success and rising visibility are well deserved. Check out Jimmy Corrigan specifically for (what I think is) a great introduction to Ware’s approach, style and themes-his broader Acme Novelty Library can be intimidating, disorienting, sort of pretentious-seeming, and downright confusing, unless you’re one of those people who was bound to love him to start with.
Ware’s Building Stories was recognized by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of 2012, a funny thing considering that it’s not even a book per se, but take it as a sign that Ware’s work is well worth reading. His mainstream success keeps growing, with New Yorker covers and such. His words and images are anthems of the outsider, and there’s an outsider in all of us. No wonder he has such appeal.