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Graphic Novels Reviews

The Acme Novelty Library Final Report to Shareholders and Rainy Day Saturday Afternoon Fun Book

Writer/Artist: Chris Ware
Publisher: Pantheon/Jonathan Cape
[Four stars]

Satyajit Chetri Oct 09, 2008
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Chris Ware is a difficult person to talk about. On one hand, the man has cemented his reputation as a premier creator, one of those rare instances of an artist whose sensibilities bridge the underground and alternative presses and the mainstream ”˜comixscenti’ (for lack of a better word).  On the other hand, one can never get past the inherent pessimism in the man’s world-view ”“ you just cannot wade into a Ware comic without sinking into the depressive pits that litter the clear-cut, effervescent, downright-beautifully designed pages of his work. It’s like being asked to asked to listen to a Leonard Cohen album while watching a Disney cartoon.

Reviewing a Chris Ware book does not amount to much unless we place it in context. Much of Ware’s accomplishments stem from the periodical The Acme Novelty Library, published by Fantagraphics, one of the finest independent comic publishers in the USA.  To call Acme a comic would be an understatement, it is a stunning meld of artwork, storytelling and design, its presence on the shelves something quite unlike what you expect in the fanboy-pandering marketplace. Published very, very irregularly (somewhere around 18 issues over a decade), every issue of this anthology was sized differently, and the contents were a rag-tag mixture of one-shot strips and short serials grafted together. The series went on to sell exceedingly well in terms of the standards laid down by small press subculture and also won every award in cartooning ”“ the Harvey, the Reuben, the Eisner and the Ignatz. Pantheon books took the series to a world-wide audience by reprinting multiple issues and marketing them directly in bookstores, as opposed to the somewhat-exclusive comic-book store. This move paid off; the first such reprint, Jimmy Corrigan went on to win a Guardian First Book Award in 2002, assuring Ware mainstream recognition.

The Acme Novelty Library Shareholders’ Report is another such reprint, combining the original issues 7 and 15, with additional material from Ware’s newspaper work. The first thing you will notice about the volume is its uber-size ”“ at seventeen inches by nine inches, very few other graphic novels match up to its size. The black and red design is engraved with gold inlay work, and a paper ribbon wrapping the volume tells you, in miniscule lettering, about the book’s title and its contents and the fact that it is #143, 525 in a print run of 875,000 ( Ware’s rib at the collector mentality). The more curious among you will think of turning the ribbon around, and you will see the first strip of the book, and an introduction to the self-deprecating nature of the creator.  The book opens into a faux-advertisement that features acidic versions of the ads that littered comics of the silver age ”“ products like land-mine grabbers and post-consumer waste. Statutory warning ”“ the comics that follow will take up a lot of your time. It’s humanly impossible to take in the complete content of TANLSR at one sitting (yes, I am willing to bet on that); and it’s also not advisable to browse through the book, every page demands your whole-hearted attention, as Ware squeezes in mini-strips that take you through the history of the world and its art movements. Squiggly stick-figures jostle for space with the distinctively rounded figures that inhabit Ware’s world. Occasional bursts of Technicolor iconography interrupt the strips ”“ including a glow-in-the-dark chart of the months and the birth signs, a mini cut-out comic, a do-it-yourself projects page, among others ”“ and these force you to linger and immerse you into the warped mind of the designer. Certain pages will make you tilt the book sideways, and rotate it all the way to follow the minutiae. As a novelty, yes, this book is worth every bit of your money.

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What about the content, then? The strips are mostly single-page, and feature Ware’s regular characters – Rocket Sam, Quimby the Mouse, Jimmy Corrigan, Big Tex and Rusty Brown. As you flip through them, you realise that the characters are essentially the same being ensconced in different situations and levels of existence, and every one of them carrying the singular weight of his creator’s pessimism on his shoulders. Take my word for it; every single page of this work reeks of sadness, the loneliness of a suburban childhood, or the shallow underpinnings of a materialistic world. None of the strips follow the standard denouement-punchline format – “downbeat” is the word I would use. You don’t have to be American to “get” this work that’s so grounded in American culture. Does it hold up as a worthy literary work? Oh yes, but only if you take it in without being subverted by the pretentiousness that an effort like this inherently carries with it.

Ware’s primary inspiration was not to be subversive, but to create something that broke free from the arrested development of the comic-book marketplace, an insular self-serving industry that catered and pandered to sensationalism in the name of storylines, nostalgia in the place of innovation. Chris Ware’s work also channelled nostalgia, but that of the half-forgotten works of turn-of-the-century storytellers like Frank King (Gasoline Alley), George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend). Before superheroes overpowered most of the comic-book industry in the fifties, these innovators were labouring away at how best to evoke pictorial rhythm in their full-page Sunday strips, where the constraints of a single page had to be utilised perfectly to structure a story, and the varied permutations that could be applied to a theme without making it seem repetitive and shallow. To say that Ware stole from these past masters wouldn’t be wrong (in his own words, he is “a parrot”). But he did more than mimic them; he applied their ideas to a twentieth-century aesthetic, creating something that is post-modern enough to appeal to a universal audience. Quimby the Mouse is Ignatz the Rat, albeit a twenty-first century version of that quaint little icon. It is not without reason therefore, that Chris Ware has become synonymous with someone who pushes the boundaries of graphic storytelling and The Acme Novelty Library something more than just word balloons stuck over pictures.

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