I like Chris Ware’s comics but don’t love them. Granted, he’s one of the most gifted comics technicians ever to put ink to paper. His work foregrounds and explodes the grammar and structural concerns inherent in cartooning. At his very best, he marries his formalism and experimentalism to emotionally moving narratives.
The problem is he’s rarely at his best on the latter end, so his work often leaves me cold. His character designs are so abstracted and simplified that his characters, and thus their situations, don’t draw me into them, or into his world. This doesn’t seem to be his intent, anyway. He uses closeups sparingly; his colors are always muted and solid, rather than vibrant and shaded; his pages read like diagrams, and it’s (intentionally) difficult to find an entryway for the eye; his buildings dwarf his characters; the natural world—trees, animals, rolling hills—is drawn as schematically as possible, like architectural blueprints. Ware’s humor—and he is very funny—tends towards a single tone, a conflation of irony and melancholia. The abundance of deadpan dialogue, super-sad events, and super-arch voiceovers can be deadening.
All of this lends a distancing sense to Ware’s comics. Even at its most absorbing, the experience of reading The Acme Novelty Library is like looking through a microscope. As a result of all this, Ware is a cartoonist whose work I admire more than I adore.
His best work is his 2000 epic, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Even there, he sometimes resorts to what I initially thought was an irritating tic. Interspersed throughout the long story are designs and instructions for cut-out toys. I figured Ware included all this stuff in his comics as elaborate jokes, as conceptual art intended to articulate, too obviously, the diagrammatic nature of drawing and reading comics. The incredibly detailed instructions, and digressions from them, are funnier and more useful than the end results. So, I never imagined that the toys could actually be built, like model airplanes or Lego buildings. Besides, I never wanted to cut up, fold, and paste together pages from my (expensive) full-color issues to find out if his toy designs worked.
To use an art-theory term, the toys are diegetic—i.e., internal to the fictional world that Ware created. A foldout toy of a robot is a mockup of a robot that appears in one of Jimmy’s dream sequences; a large toy is intended to be a 3-D replica of Jimmy’s childhood home, which appears in the comic; a cut-out zoetrope is a model of one that appears in the comic.
It turns out, though, that there’s someone as obsessive as Ware out there. Following Ware’s instructions and diagrams, he has constructed various toys from Acme Novelty Library pages. They work. The above picture is the Corrigan homestead.
Among other things, this complicates my understanding of Ware’s cartooning. If he didn’t mean these toys to be ironic catchphrases, but instead wants us to build them, this means that he wants us to interact with his comics on a deeper, more visceral level than by merely flipping the pages. Despite the distancing nature of his art, Ware wants us to immerse ourselves in his cartoons, cutting out and manipulating its pages, encouraging (and sometimes forcing) our eyes read the panel in different patterns than we’re used to. The opening section of Jimmy Corrigan requires that we rotate the book 90 degrees clockwise to read it properly, and then turn it back to the regular position after the first four pages. He’s alerting us that this reading experience will be different than any you’ve ever read before.
All of which sounds like postmodern gimmickry. Ware’s oeuvre is very much comics about comics—how they’re created, and how they’re read. But I don’t mind postmodernism, in part because I think it’s not well-defined enough to irritate me. On the right, conservatives tend to define postmodernism as anything modern that they don’t like. On the left, liberals tend to refer to art with “transgressive” political concerns—about race, gender, sex, art, and capitalism—as postmodern, even if these themes have been addressed in countless works of art pre-1960. “Postmodernism” is a term with political, not aesthetic, concerns. Literally, it just means “after modernism,” which, if you think about it, isn’t much of a definition. It’s also worth noting that, in literature and comics anyway, few of the people most often cited as quintessential postmodernists actually refer to themselves that way. William H. Gass, a critic and philosopher as well a high priest of postmodernism, calls his prose “late modern.” I doubt Ware’s used any iteration of the word “postmodernism” to define his work. Thomas Pynchon, that grandmaster of the style—well, we’ve got no idea what he thinks about the term.
Postmodernism is a shorthand term, but who knows what it’s shorthand for? In any case, these cut-out toys indicate that Ware’s comics are rooted as much in the past as in some imagined newfangledness. Comics as an artform are 150 years old. Ware’s layout and design elements evoke turn-of-the-century (20th, not 21st) advertisements, record covers, posters, and product labels. (Ware, incidentally, edits The Rag-time Ephemeralist, a magazine devoted to ragtime and American old-timey culture.) His stories featuring Quimby the Mouse look like storyboards for 1920s silent cartoons.
And make-your-own paper toys are products of the 1950s, if not before. I finally get it. Ware wants us to read his comics—intended for adults—with the same immersive commitment that children bring to favorite picture books. Dog-ear them, color in them, make origami out of them, don’t be afraid to smudge them. The Acme Novelty Library is conceptual art, sure, but it’s not meant for museums or academic tomes.
I’m still on the fence about Ware. Seeing the cut-outs, though, made me aware that the academic theory’s not just abstract with him, but is right there on the page, ready to be used.