The Comic Book as Object

[2 March 2006]

By Gabriel Greenberg

Pages: 1  2

The Comic Book as Object, Part II

In Part I, Gabriel Greenberg discussed the growing movement in the comics industry to treat the physical object of the comic as a work of art and reviewed Wimbledon Green by Seth.

For his part, Chris Ware flirts with a very different kind of pointlessness from Seth. While Ware’s works are neither boring nor cloying (except for Quimby the Mouse, which is boring), they can be very, very depressing. Ware loves nothing better than crushing an innocently hopeful expectation, and he takes every opportunity to do so. At times, this narrative technique becomes formulaic; when it is a surprise, you kick yourself for not having seen it coming and falling into the emotional trap. Why, you wonder, does he do these stories to us?

Its not that every book must be sunshine and roses, but Ware delivers the kind of wet-blanket malaise that makes you wonder why you keep coming back for more. You wonder, that is, until you remember the art. For Ware is the undisputable don of comics drawing in the current era. His Eeyore-eye-view is refracted through a dazzling visual imagination. It’s a strange dichotomy. His stories are lumps of coal (well told lumps of coal, that is); his drawings are shimmering diamonds.

Ware draws with clean, architectural precision, every object and every frame neatly outlined in bold black inks, and saturated with impermeable color. From these sturdy little structures, Ware proceeds like an erector set wiz-kid, building them up into astonishing, interconnected lattices, which, to their creator’s seeming horror and delight, mysteriously come to life. Panels stretch out across the pages, and through time, in sometimes dizzying and always beautiful arrangements. Every page is a work of art, deeply impressive both as a feat of formal design and a display of innovative story-telling.

Example: the last third of Ware’s newest book, Acme Novelty Library #16, is part of an ongoing saga entitled “Building Stories,” a narrative constructed around the life of a single city building. (The pages included here have been partially serialized in the New York Times Magazine.) On the left hand side of each page is a cross-section of one apartment in the featured building. On the right side is an image the building itself, interwoven with a complex geography of panels illustrating a vignette in the life of the person whose apartment is featured on the right. Like the panels, the lives of the tenants are interconnected. The story itself revolves around the top floor inhabitant, a lonely one legged women looking for love.

Long time readers of Ware are too canny to get attached to these characters. We know that things always turn out worse in the end. Miss one-legged lonely hearts will almost certainly end up broken hearted and estranged from her parents; plus some jerk will run over her cat in his pickup truck and laugh about it.

Still, Acme Novelty Library #16 shows signs of combining the usual art with some genuinely new subject matter. The main storyline stars Rusty Brown, a character that fans of Ware will recognize from previous issues of the Acme Novelty Library. In fact, Rusty Brown stories of the past are guilty of being some of the most depressing sideshows in Ware’s depress-o-rama. There, Rusty is a socially inept, fearful, and downtrodden adult, living under his mother’s domineering thumb. Did I forget to mention? He also collects comic books.

But the new “Rusty Brown” (which promises to become Ware’s next epic, on par with Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth) has the potential to be a much more compassionate, enlightening tale. For one thing, we have a fresh start: the book begins in 1970-something when Rusty Brown is not the pathetic lump of pain we are familiar with, but a quiet, socially outcast child with a very interesting imagination.

There are still the usual bummers. When we are first introduced to the Rusty, he is pictured as a small figure at the bottom of the page, being beaten up by school bullies. (Sigh.) Later in the book we dutifully follow the life of a bee, from its escape out an open window, through the cycles of pollination, love, and, finally, being squished by an uncaring foot. Ware is the kind of guy likes to take you up just to put you down.

But beyond these typically dreary moments, the book sparkles with something almost like life. The lives, predictably, are not altogether happy, but neither are they systematically smushed. Here, Ware quietly ushers us into the psyches of outsiders: there is Rusty Brown (outcast, comics lover), Joanna Cole (Rusty’s black homeroom teacher), Franlkin Christenson Ware (angsty po-mo art teacher), Chalky White (nervous new boy), Alison White (Chalky’s spunky older sister), and W.K. Brown (Rusty’s self-loathing dad). (Unlike Seth, Ware regularly writes stories starring both black-people and women-people—two leaps of creative imagination that are not all that common in the world of art-comics.) We can only hope that future episodes will not rain too hard on the parade.

There are only a few comic artists through history who can match Ware in formal genius. One, certainly, is Winsor McCay, most famous for his 1900’s newspaper serial, “Little Nemo in Slumberland”. Every week between 1905 and 1910—and sporadically after that—“Little Nemo” followed the dream-life of a boy, Nemo, and his fantastical, more-than-just-a-dream adventures through Slumberland. (Fans of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and In the Midnight Kitchen will have no problem spotting the lines of influence.) Today, McCay’s work is a welcome salve for those of us who are fed up with the contemporary scene’s predictable blend of nostalgia, mangy lives, and fancy books glorifying the mediocrity.

I shall not sing the entire opera of praises for Little Nemo that it deserves. Like Ware, McCay was a formal innovator, always looking for new ways to put the tools of comics—panels, sequence, speech bubbles, and text—in the service of narrative. But he also had a wild visual imagination. “Litle Nemo” is populated with giant sized butterflies, talking rabbits, upside down cities, strange distortions of space and time, and all manner of impish inversions of reality. His intricate, detailed, psychedelic drawings give these impossibilities a disorienting air of actuality.

“Little Nemo” originally appeared as a weekly in the New York Herald starting in 1905. Unlike newspaper comics of our day, “Little Nemo” took up an entire page. And back then, the pages were bigger too. On top of that, “Little Nemo” was printed in full color. The cumulative effect of the size, color, realist style, and surrealist themes would have been akin to that of the best digital animation of our day, only better.

But until very recently, these wonders could not be fully appreciated. Besides a 1966 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the original “Little Nemo” broadsheets have been very rarely seen. In the late 1980s Fantagraphics undertook the formidable effort of reprinting the entire “Little Nemo” run, in six voumes, but these are now out of print. And these books were only about 11 inches by 13 inches, just about half the size of the originals! Art Spiegelman likened the reprints to a miniature model of a car: the original is not merely bigger, it is a different beast altogether.

Those were dark days in the land of Americana. But then, once upon a time, there was a good man named Peter Maresca who was obsessed with “Little Nemo”. And one day he had a very, very good idea: he would publish the original “Little Nemo” as it originally appeared, at its original size. No editor in the land would touch the project. It was too difficult, too expensive, and too hard to sell. Then the king of comics, Art Spiegelman, told Maresca “go forth and self-publish.” And he did.

Enter: Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! At $120, this book does not exactly upset the leisure-class orientation of collector culture, but if you can afford it, its worth every cent. It is remarkable not only because it returns McCay to print, an event which was long overdue, but also because it breaks new ground in how comics are, and should be, reproduced. In other words: the content is extraordinary, but so is the enormous object itself.

And enormous it is, about 16 inches by 21 inches, far larger probably than any other book you own. It’s almost impossible not to fall inside McCay’s world when it virtually fills your field of vision. And, in one episode where Nemo becomes as big as a building, its that much more shocking when he’s bigger than your head. On top of that, the subtle coloring in combination with the large format lets you discover new details which were imperceptible before. For example, Maresca, the editor, notes that the words of characters who are far away are written in blue, but black when the are close up. Such was the thoroughness of McCay’s vision.

Size is not the only feature which sets Splendid Sundays apart. Maresca had a unique attitude towards reproduction. As he explains in an introduction, there are divided philosophies about how to reproduce old comics. One approach is to recreate our best guess about what the artist saw on his drawing board. This means cleaning up scuffs on the image, setting the background to white, and so on. But in this process, the image color and line quality is inevitably distorted. On the other hand, merely photographing the original broadsheets inevitably incorporates stains, tares, and fading in the surviving samples.

Maresca elected for the difficult middle-way: “This volume tries to do some of both, attempting the look of a “new” newspaper page to recreate the reader’s experience of a century ago. Hours were spent on each page to accomplish the imperfect ideal.” The guiding principle, in other words, was to recreate, with historical accuracy, the original printed object, blemishes and all. Again he writes, “Along with an original size broad-sheet come many of the imperfections of this most ephemeral of media. Many of the flaws of the pulp paper (fiber, discoloration) and the printing process (smudges, off-register colors) remain, but those caused by time and handling (tears, holes, yellowing) for 100 years have been corrected to reach the desired aesthetic.” The pages of the final product, therefore, are printed on dirty-white paper that is the same color as period newspaper pulp, but of course, of much finer quality.

It is clear that Maresca takes the idea of comic-as-object very seriously. He is not willing to draw a frame around the image and be done with it. That is, he is not willing to reproduce the mere content of the original comics. Instead, he is intent on reproducing the object of the original comics.

While this approach is genuinely innovative, it is also a natural outgrowth of the new, sculptural awareness of comic books. And it has not gone unnoticed by the pioneers of that movement. Chris Ware has said of Splendid Sundays: “After this book, it just seems unacceptable and a disservice to the artist’s memory to do it any other way.” This is high praise indeed, coming from an artist so completely obsessed with reproduction himself. But Ware is right: Splendid Sundays dwarfs (and not only in size) Ware’s reproduction of “Krazy Kat,” and Seth’s work on “Peanuts.”

Indeed, whatever their narrative short-comings as authors, both Seth and Ware should be recognized for making a complete sculptural awareness of comic books as obligatory as it seems today. The kind of perfectionism that Peter Maresca has brought to Splendid Sundays is only possible, I think, in the wake of the budding culture of comic-book-as-object. We can only hope that the artistic merits of this new attitude will outgrow the occasionally shortsightedness of its youth.

Pages: 1  2

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/060302-comicsasart2/