The Smartest Kid on Earth

Rupert Loydell's recent attack on disappointing comics may have rung some bells for you, assuming you care about such things, as it did for me. But it overlooked one of the best graphic artists on the American scene, Chris Ware. The highest compliment I can pay him is to say that his writing is almost as dexterous as his gorgeous visuals.

I first noticed Ware's work in the old Raw anthologies that Penguin, apparently in a fit of get-with-the-young-scene funkiness, published here a decade ago (that Raw was edited by the excruciatingly fashionable Art Spiegelman probably swung them a bit). Raw in general was so cutting edge a lot of its stuff just looked like hell, so even the early flickerings of Ware's old-fashioned craftsmanship stood out sharply. At that stage he was still at the University of Texas (to save time here, consult Lars Ingebrigtsen's Warehouse at http://quimby.gnus.org/warehouse/ for more background).

Since 1993, the bulk of Ware's comics have appeared in his own title, The ACME Novelty Library (published by Fantagraphics, who also have a large site at http://www.fantagraphics.com/ , where you can find details of Ware's new book). Making notes for this piece-honest, I did-I tried to come up with a pithy summary of ACME and could only get as far as "Twin Peaks meets 1930's superhero comics as drawn by an architect". Sort of. Ware's forte is niggling at classic American male neuroses and hang-ups. The characteristic atmosphere is angsty, stifling and banal-with the concomitant danger of slipping into triteness: Ware is notably less adept at times in his pastiche texts, which parody the verbose journalism of early 20th century magazines (the age-old problem of portraying tedium entertainingly-"Look, I'm being boring" -"Yes, you are"). Even here, he scores some cherishable hits-particularly with the mock adverts in the style of 1950's mainstream comics. In one example their relentlessly upbeat invitations to earn money selling greetings cards to one's neighbours are twisted to "Boys, girls ... Everyone loves taking narcotics" (ACME 6, 1995).

This kind of japery is not dissimilar to Viz, but ACME's main continuing story is a million miles from puke-flecked Geordie sweariness. Through several issues, culminating in the epic no. 14 (2000), Ware has unravelled the family history of Jimmy Corrigan, "The Smartest Kid on Earth". Naturally Jimmy, who has the appearance of a minor character in a college capers musical, with his unvarying and anachronistic waistcoat and knickerbockers, is only smart in his fantasies. In reality he is the epitome of modern urban anomie, a humble, friendless drone living in a contingent world-his age, which used to jump about, has settled down to fortyish recently, but his relations with his parents are characterised by instability and pain, and he is ill at ease wherever he goes.

As the story develops, Ware traces the family's flaws back to an ancient series of events taking place against the backdrop of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The cruelty and hypocrisy of Jimmy's great-grandfather finally explain some of his tortured psyche, and the saga concludes on a fitting note of reticent ambiguity. For me, this very plotty section is especially fine, Ware's sense of irony counterpointing the glorious optimistic abstractions of the Exposition with the shabby, sordid deeds of the little men who built it. The past is sunlit, inviting nostalgia with its clean beauty, but it's also twisted, duplicitous and unfeeling. Ware's characters, both past and present, move through an immaculate landscape which exists for itself, amoral and indifferent to suffering.

Space precludes discussion of many other startling characters who may now be more developed in Ware's work-the knowingly-named Quimby the Mouse, Big Tex, and the caped "hero" variously called Superman and God, a further essay in irony who comes to rescue and stays to punish and terrify. They all come from the same planet of fine lines and utter despair.

In short: if you don't think that comics are for grown-ups, give Chris Ware a go. Never mind Martin Rowson and Mayor Ken-Ware is the Cartoon Laureate of our time.

Mike Morris 2001


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