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The Acme Novelty Library

by Chris Ware

(Fantagraphics Books, quarterly comic, 24-32 pages, $3.50-3.95)

Reviewed by Allen Varney

Say, Chris Ware, you think maybe you could go to the zoo? Join a volleyball club, take aikido lessons, volunteer at a clinic or homeless shelter, sing in a church choir? Judging from your new comic, The Acme Novelty Library, you need to get out more, Chris.

This series looks as capably crafted, as involuted, as peculiar as anything you've ever done, and that's saying a jawbreaking mouthful. In the latter '80s, while you studied art at the University of Texas in Austin, I followed your cartoon work in the Daily Texan college paper and its now-defunct arts magazine, Images. First the minimalist noir of Floyd Farland, Citizen of the Future, an astonishing work from any artist, let alone a 20-year-old. Then your self-reflexive daily comic strip Bande; the surrealistic para-superhero Brick Brady; those strange untitled adventures of the potato-shaped guy who keeps losing his eyeballs; and my favorite, Quimby the Mouse. They all showed a compulsion to draw and easy mastery of two dozen styles.

To express what view? Eh-heh-heh, well, when I was in college I didn't know anything about anything, and so I wrote stuff like yours, Chris: vague WASPish neurotic fables about childhood fears, power fantasies, and the emptiness of life. About nothing. With that in mind I looked at your work, where impeccably drawn mice and potato heads wandered around unhappily, revisiting their childhood homes, mooning with unrequited romantic attraction over unseen females, and occasionally getting beheaded. I looked at this, what we might call brilliantly crafted navel lint, and I thought, "When this hotshot gets out into the world and finds something to say, he'll blitz the comics field."

In fact, in 1988 I wrote as much in a review:

This Ware, a hellraising 20-year old talent whose work makes a reviewer cross out "brilliant" and type in "absolutely, unquestionably, damnably brilliant," draws brain-blowing minimalist exercises in linearity and self-reflexivity: comic strips, in the tradition of Herriman's Krazy Kat and McManus's Bringing Up Father and Sterrett's Polly and Her Pals and other works of art. [...]

I look at Garfield, Marvin, Drabble, Kudzu, and the rest of the one-panel-xeroxed-three-times gag school, and all I can think of is Wally Wood's remark about Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, heretofore the nadir of American comics: "It takes less time to read Nancy that it does to decide not to read it." The Nancyization of comics is virtually complete.

Now may be the time for Chris Ware. Always Ware takes a style and makes it his own, mastering it with instinctive ease. Always he displays deep love of the form. Always I think of comics in a time of steep decline, and hold my breath, waiting for him -- for somebody -- to anti-Nancyize one of the great American art forms.

In retrospect I apologize, Chris, for trying to saddle you with that kind of burden. I thought, and still think, you're up to it, but what business was it of mine? It's just as well Bill Watterson took off the pressure with Calvin & Hobbes.

You graduated from the University of Texas and went to art school in Chicago. Your work started appearing in Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly's RAW and in Chicago's New City arts and entertainment paper. Now, Chris, at the ripe age of 27, after four or five years piling up experiences in that lively, raunchy, big-shouldered city, you have a popular quarterly comic from Fantagraphics, the Seattle publisher of Love & Rockets. What is it about? Eh-heh-heh.

The Acme Novelty Library is still about nothing, although it's the most attractively presented nothing I've seen in quite some time. A conscious anachronism, a faultless and obsessive pastiche of wholesome early-1900s periodicals for children, this mannered series shifts formats as effortlessly as the work inside. Issue 1 ("An Indefensible Attempt to Justify the Despair of Those Who Have Never Known Real Tragedy"), in conventional comic-book size, gives us vignettes of the existentially lonely Jimmy Corrigan. Number 2 ("A Fancy Newspaper Comic Booklet of the Finest Quality") and #4, both in a large tabloid size, handsomely collects old Images pages featuring Quimby the Mouse and, um, a headless cat. The teeny-tiny third issue includes strips about the potato-shaped man, and #5, in the same short-stack size, brings us back to the artfully depressing life of Jimmy the terminal nonentity.

Many of these pages present straightforward stories. But some, I tell you, I look at them for five minutes and then stare and blink as though concussed. Panels point to others across the page, or they tell three unrelated stories at once, or they just have a million little pictures. Their energy and unmatched craft give anyone reason enough to buy these issues, even though they are about lonely guys sitting around feeling bitter toward their mother.

The back pages parody the Sea Monkeys/X-Ray Specs ads of our youth. Here alone, in the indicia's microscopic print, does this comic actually reveal its creator's name, Chris, and only through these parody ads can we guess at what's been happening in your life. "EX-GIRLFRIEND/EX-BOYFRIEND," one ad begins. "WHY WAIT for it to be over. Start receiving those late night phone calls now. Find out what fun it is to be `just friends,' watch as the flimsy foundation of your past `relationship' slowly becomes embarrassingly clear. Have someone to shamelessly despise, and to long for again in times of despair. [...] Surprise delivery $1.98."

"In only one hour's time, master the secret of drawing. Be able to produce a sketch of any object, place, or person with carefree ease. [...] Many have used this amazing technique. You can too. Act now. Then try and find a job."

Confession and detachment -- reading The Acme Novelty Library is a strange, arresting experience. It's the opposite of another memorable experience, seeing a carnival geek. We don't enjoy the geek exactly, but we watch in fascination to see what the poor bastard bites next. He has no stagecraft, but so what? We're waiting for the blood.

Like a geek trip, these stories fascinate, then quickly pass from the memory, but for the contrary reason. We gasp at the craft, but we never get blood. No life, no experience. Nothing. They impress us, these perfect riffs on dead forms that no one remembers, but in the end they're just riffs, like a cover band or karaoke.

Chris, you should put away your drawing board for a while and join the carnival, bite a few chicken heads. Be a roadie for a band or the World Wrestling Federation. Bike across the country. Enlist in the Marines. Travel somewhere very different from Chicago, like say Thailand, and stay there a long time. You've done novelty, you've mastered it, stop already. Forget about novelty and find something true to say.

And eat, eat! You look thin.

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Copyright ©1996 Allen Varney.