February 2006

Soo Jin Oh

fiction

The ACME Novelty Library #16 by Chris Ware

For those who kicked themselves, much as I did, for not knowing Chris Ware's work early enough to collect the original installments of The ACME Novelty Library that were later collected into the fat chunky book, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, such latecomers will want to rush out immediately (if they haven't already done so) to buy The ACME Novelty Library #16. While there is the instant gratification of being able to read Jimmy Corrigan in its entirety, each of the slim volumes of The ACME Novelty Library provides the visually intense pleasure of fixating on the consummate artistry of Ware.

The 16th volume is the first installment of what is anticipated to be a long narrative about an obsessive collector of superhero and toy paraphernalia named Rusty Brown. His sole friend throughout his lonely life is Chalky White, who like Rusty, was once a boy fascinated by superheroes and their ability to protect the vulnerable. Unlike Rusty, though, Chalky gives up collecting comic book figures, marries, and starts a family. Yet, all this has yet to occur in the first installment, which is concerned primarily with setting up the characters and the scenery of Rusty's and Chalky's childhoods.

Our first introduction to Rusty is while he is lying in bed on a cold winter morning, saying "I love you" to an action figure doll of Supergirl while his father yells at him to shovel the snow on the driveway. This scene succinctly captures the psychological architecture within Rusty: a chubby little boy living with an uncaring father and whose consolation is a fantasy world where he has super powers.

Simultaneously, on the bottom of the same pages, a smaller set of panels show Chalky in bed, wide awake with anxious eyes. He has just moved into town and the next day will be his first day in school. Chalky and his older sister Allie are forced to live with their grandmother in Omaha, Nebraska, due to some unmentioned problem with their mother.

Like most schools, the private school which Chalky and Allie will now attend along with Rusty, and where Rusty's father teaches, is a casually cruel arena. Teachers such as Rusty's father and F.C. Ware (a cameo of Chris Ware), are absorbed by their interior monologues about their own insecurities, and therefore, ineffectual at stopping the school bullies from tormenting Rusty. In this place of tormentors and the tormented, Allie's kindness to her younger brother endows her with a particular radiance and beauty.

Not much more happens within this first volume. Like Jimmy Corrigan, Rusty Brown will surely continue progressing at a leisurely pace. Yet, such slowness in unfolding the plot allows the reader to understand the psychological drama within each of the characters. Such pacing is necessary for the double set of panels to intertwine with each other: as Rusty and Chalky's lives begin to interact, the smaller panels allow the reader to see the meeting from Chalky's perspective while the top larger panels give us Rusty's viewpoint.

That Ware's panels are so small is surely not accidental, for what Ware reveals within his narratives are the secrets and insecurities that each of us would most like to keep hidden within ourselves. One of the most memorable panels is a small panel on one bottom corner of the page (in Chalky's set of panels) that shows Allie lying in her bed, her frustration at having to move in with her grandmother and to a new school revealed in her unruly position facedown, her limbs splayed out recklessly.

The story of these two boys is a very familiar one: the sensitive ones who are the underdogs, the ones who are always bullied. However, there will be no keen-sighted and kind adult to rescue these boys; Ware's treatment of American loneliness, even while being lyrical, is the furthest thing from Hollywood inspirational movies. In Ware's stories, the adults are as consumed by fantasies and loneliness as these boys, who will grow up to be just such adults.

As with all The ACME Novelty Library volumes, there are extra features. Volume 16 includes portions of the “Building Stories” currently serialized in The New York Times Magazine, and a comic of Ware obsessing about his daughter's possible future as a high school senior. Whatever you do, don't breeze through this book. There is such craft and beauty in this graphic novel -- it deserves to be perused for hours.

The ACME Novelty Library #16
Fantagraphics
ISBN 156097513X
64 Pages