As if to compensate for the mindless enthusiasm and glee of the superhero comics of their youth, so many alternative graphic novelists of the past quarter-century or so have focused their work on a profound, inescapable sense of personal depression and hopelessness. While the medium continues to grow almost daily by leaps and bounds, alienation, loneliness, and melancholy have become a reliable standby for so many contemporary graphic novelists. Much of this is thanks to the work Chris Ware, whose epic late-nineties graphic novels like Jimmy Corrigan and Quimby the Mouse explore the ramifications of emotional emptiness on a grandly complex and ambitious scale. Ware’s newest book, The Acme Novelty Library no. 18, which tells the story of a one-legged girl recalling her various failed relationships, likewise relishes in this irreconcilable depression but inadvertently exposes its inadequacies as a means in and of itself.
Like all of Ware’s work, Acme Novelty Library no. 18, part of his ongoing “Building Stories” series, is about missed opportunities, the regretful remembrance of things past, and the agony and loneliness of growing up to find that you have somehow failed to successfully mature. As usual, these penitent recollections are told through Ware’s epic, blueprint-like diagrams. With the minute, technical craft of his art, Ware is able to scientifically poeticize the flow of thought with an almost-Proustian sensibility and, at his best, is able to capture the most sentimentally sloppy of moments and emotions with the most precise, categorical of means. The opening pages of Acme Novelty Library reveal a complicated labyrinth of nighttime thoughts, wherein the nameless protagonist contemplates the possibility of her own death. Each morbid prospect is visually linked to the next, only to be finally returned to where it began, creating an endless chain of circling thought. Ware counterbalances the epic grandeur of these diagrams with an elegant, understated cursive, at times imbuing the seemingly far-removed work with a delicate intimacy.
Ware’s comics are always enticing to read, primarily because they are so richly colored and delicately crafted. Sweeping, full-page drawings like the aforementioned combine the best motional qualities of film with the diagrammatic qualities of architecture and illustration. Ware is particularly talented at sustaining a set format for several pages, using a key motif to show transition and growth within the story. In one section, for example, various photographic family portraits lie in the center of the pages, presenting the official, external version of the events that surround them. As the surrounding events become more depressing and dysfunctional, the portraits point to the gap between experience and official representation. As always, the subtle changes recorded by these narrative experiments are used to further a sense of loss and agony.
But if Ware’s skill as an artist is to find the never-ending manifestations of sorrow and melancholy, his failure as a writer is to find meaning or resolution within them. At times it seems as though melancholy moves beyond simply being an affect for Ware and becomes an end in and of itself. Like the filmmaker Todd Solondz, Ware populates his stories with his relentless onslaught of pained, tortured characters; yet if Solondz’s flaw is an excess of cruelty, Ware’s is an excess of pity. One can’t help but feel that Ware’s project as a storyteller is to create characters for him to cast his pity upon – nearly all of his narrative creations are inexplicably unconfident, depressed, lonely, and universally untalented. His characters themselves are unable to find meaning in their problems beyond dull and clichéd grievances and the occasional unrealized dream of suicide, and as a result, the reader isn’t able to find meaning, either. The most Ware’s protagonist can find to say about her hopeless situation is frequently less-than-profound (“My life is stupid. I’m stupid”) or merely restating the obvious (“I am entirely, 100%, horrifyingly, alone”).
Ware seems to seek to make up for the static melancholy of his works by upping the ante with his own technical abilities, but, problematically, the more mathematical and precise Ware’s drawings become, the less heart and human interest he is able to squeeze into them. A little over halfway through, the book becomes repetitive and tedious. Ware’s complex diagrams, however elaborate, are unable to provide the book with a sorely missed literary depth, and though they continue to provide the blandness of the protagonist’s depression with an ever-shifting artistic sophistication, it soon becomes impenetrable and monotonous.
Ware remains perhaps the most masterful and certainly the most prolific of contemporary graphic novelists, and he already has contributed immensely to the medium over the course of the past fifteen years, showing the possible technical and structural complexities inherent in comics. For him to continue to push forward the medium as he has in the past, Ware must likewise strive for a newfound complexity in storytelling, likewise pushing the medium past its cliché of alienated, self-pitiful stories and into the more complicated realm of true literary depth and sophistication.