Lonely Planet

Chris Ware
Acme Novelty Library
Fantagraphics

Rocket Sam is building a new life, but nothing seems to work. Living in his crashed spaceship on an uninhabited planet, he has ample food and secure shelter, but sensible companionship is hard to come by. The radio-transistor robot cuts its own tether trying to follow him, and dies without its electricity. And when the only Christmas gift his other cybernetic companion can offer him is a giant flower traced in the snow, Sam becomes enraged and beats the robot into scrap.

Exploring the remote reaches of space, Chris Ware could be the future of independent comics, though his characters seem to have no futures at all. Ware's series Acme Novelty Library is in its fifth year, and each issue has astonished readers--and the medium's critical community--with its bitterly nostalgic, lavishly designed portraits of misery. There is no hope for Acme's cast of sci-fi explorers, funny animals, and mopey milquetoasts. Every possible improvement is fraught with risk, and the only sure thing is the past.

The past is everywhere in the pages of Acme Novelty Library--Jimmy Corrigan recounts all the girls who turned him down, Quimby the Mouse pines for the enthusiasm of youth--yet its reach extends beyond memory alone. It seeps into Ware's drawing style, which ranges from 19th-century art deco to 1940s Disney films. It appears in the book's accumulation of oppressively extravagant detail: the ornamented page frames, byzantine panel compositions, lavishly hand-lettered titles, constructible cut-out dioramas and flipbooks, and indicia and other text minutiae printed in stilted English and miniscule type.

But while Ware's characters appear in different styles from strip to strip--either as white-gloved Disney-esque renderings or diagrammatic stick figures--they share a visual expressiveness that breathes life into their surroundings. These characters exude an aching need for solace in the face of their dysfunction and inaction: from Big Tex, a stupid but good-hearted yokel, who keeps asking himself why his father would keep beating him and abandoning him, to Jimmy, who spends his free time watching television and staring out the window, loathing himself for his inability to interact with the outside world.

As often as not, such sadness is exploited for tragicomic effect. Ware routinely dismembers his characters in incidents that are often structured like jokes, with a blinding or a decapitation as the punch line. But physical impairments are only stand-ins for emotional scars--a legless cat as a needy, abuse-taking lover, for example--and such violations are only occasionally ornamented with tear-shaped blood drops.

One attack, however, is uncharacteristically bleak. Jimmy meets his father for the first time and then fantasizes about punishing the man for abandoning him and then cavalierly stepping back into his life. As he imagines shoving a glass into his father's eyes and then cutting open his back, and hears his father sputter and gasp for mercy, the camera pulls up and away from Jimmy's patricide, lending the scene a cold, methodical tone.

This gore speaks to the changes Acme has undergone in the last few issues. In the beginning of the series, narrative chronology wasn't a consideration. Most events refused to fit into a sensible history: Jimmy's mother is either dead or alive, depending on the needs of the individual strip. Instead of using a clear narrative to define his characters, Ware employed a seemingly random accumulation of apparently unrelated vignettes to create a unifying mood. The world of Acme is callous whether it is seen through the eyes of Jimmy Corrigan, Big Tex, Quimby the Mouse, or Rocket Sam; unhappiness persists in different people, in different relationships, and on different planets.

The recent story line of Jimmy's meeting with his father has threatened to introduce an unprecedented narrative structure, in which Jimmy's static life has been replaced by a process of discovery. It has also forced Ware to focus his approach to a single topic: the Corrigan family history. Through flashbacks and imagined childhoods, Ware communicates a wealth of information about the Corrigan lineage, elliptically depicting Jimmy's great-grandfather as an abusive parent who takes out his frustration on his only son, and linking the rise and fall of the family to the Civil War and the 1893 "World's Columbian Expedition."

Jimmy's ennui, it turns out, is more a legacy than an accident, a product of generations of impotence and quiet rage. His suffering has a genealogy and, like Acme Novelty Library itself, he's trapped staring at a history that entertains while it cripples.

 
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