Chris Ware’s The Acme Novelty Library #17

cover art for The Acme Novelty Library #17The concept of the Acme Novelty Library is described in very specific detail in tiny little print in the front of this Seventeenth issue. It tells the reader that it was “established in 1989 as the brick and mortar fictional facade of the American cartoonist and undergraduate art startup F.C. Ware (1967- ). Phobic of and mortified by the opinions and duplicitous patronage of other human organisms for most of his conscious life, the absorption of this icy corporate strategem indeed proved canny, artistically isolating him from ever having to reveal his true motives to the general public (and, more importantly, to himself).” And it goes on. And on. But that’s Chris Ware for you. He writes in this language because he thinks it’s funny. And, in fact, it is. And that’s on the publishing information page! The book hasn’t even started yet!

The frontispiece, now there’s an interesting page. It resembles a children’s book from the late fifties: a little buck-toothed boy with red hair is being waved at by a teeny naked fairy from a flower garden. Hmmm. The subtitle says, Scenes of Early Childhood. The painting is all three-dimensional and cutesy-pie, and the look on the boy’s face is, well, gormless. Then you turn the page and see snowflakes. Then panels of a snow covered house. A birdhouse in the yard. A squeal builds from down the street as a cardinal, perched on the birdhouse rings a bell with his beak. As the squeal comes closer and gains in volume, the cardinal moves to the top of the television antenna. The noise is a garbage truck. The cardinal flies away. The truck drives by.

The snow is still coming down as the red-headed, buck-toothed boy stares out the window of his school. He’s sitting at his desk. Same gormless look on his face. He’s Rusty Brown, the titular hero of this story. This will be the next scene of his early childhood. Readers of Chris Ware’s previous Acme Novelty Library books will recognize him. And they will immediately wonder what trouble he’ll get into this time. Fact is, he immediately is singled out by his teacher because he’s not paying attention. It’s recess. The class dresses and exits, but Rusty needs to go to the bathroom. It’s a ruse; he runs down the hall back to his classroom because he’s forgotten Supergirl. And with very few words, and many many pictures, Ware tells the story of an ordinary boy, in ordinary circumstances.

Ware’s panels are different than what you might be used to. Unlike Peanuts (another collection of “Scenes of Early Childhood”) which start in the left and using four equal squares tells a linear tale, Ware’s work is much more cinematic. There may be a large cover shot in the centre of the page, then quick cut closeups on one side, zooming out, panning right, and the story progresses visually. Where there is conversation, it’s as though we are overhearing the chatter from our perch, like the cardinal’s. It may cut to another story, in another room, with different characters. Different scenes of early childhood.

Ware’s drawings are quite stylized. They look as though they were drawn with a drafting kit, and yet they are so perfectly detailed and coloured that what might be stiff and flat takes on a richness and a virtual life of its own. Certainly his observations are carefully and honestly presented. These kids (and the adults around them) seem real. Ware, in fact, appears as the art teacher, who draws sketches of another teacher farting. Imagine the response that would get in your school, when found in the wastebasket by a couple of boys. Hmm.

After the Rusty Brown stories there are some pages of “Branford the Best Bee in the World.” These are more abstract, and use even fewer words. Ware tells us that these panels were inspired by “seeing ‘Crying Bee,’ a 1996 painting by Bruce Linn, every morning of the author’s life for approximately 1,279 days.” But, who’s counting? Chris Ware is counting, obviously, and that kind of obsessive behaviour is reflected in all his work. In earlier issues of the Acme Novelty Library, in his incredible graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan and in Quimby the Mouse it’s all so precise and intimate. And fascinating. Even if, as the sticker on the back cover warns us, “This issue is not nearly as interesting as the last one was,” this is the cartoon art of the new millenium. Get on board now. You won’t be able to put it down, once you get into the rhythms of Ware’s stroytelling techniques and his sly, subtle humour.

(Drawn & Quarterly Books, 2006)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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