Three panels from “Our History of Art,” by Chris Ware. From the 2005 Pantheon collection The Acme Novelty Library.
Three panels from “Our History of Art,” by Chris Ware. From the 2005 Pantheon collection The Acme Novelty Library.
The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner. 2019 trade paperback from NRYB. Cover design by Kathy Homans featuring an image titled Ruins of Castle Acre Priory Church, c. 1780-1820 (artist uncredited).
Ironic, mordant, energetic, and packed with life, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fifth novel The Corner That Held Them (1948) tells the story of a backwater convent over the course of a few hundred years. Warner’s story weaves her nuns’ mundane world into something grander and funnier than might be expected of such a premise.
Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. 2019 first edition hardback from Pantheon. No cover designer or artist credited, but the work is unquestionably Ware’s.
Rusty Brown is ostensibly the first part of Ware’s third novel. It ends, after 350 pages, with the word “INTERMISSION” vibrating across two pages, promising us a second part. I hope that that second part will not take Ware as long to produce as this first part, which took the better part of two decades. Like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000), Rusty Brown is crushingly sad and aesthetically brilliant; like Building Stories (2012), Rusty Brown adds up to more than the sum of its parts—its fragments come together to tell the story of sad lives intersecting. It’s moving, it’s funny, it’s beautiful, it’s challenging, and I hope that we don’t have to wait too long for the next installment.
The Doomed City by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky. 2017 trade paperback from Gollancz. English. Cover illustration by Eamon O’Donoghue; no designer credited. English translation by Andrew Bromfield.
“The Experiment is the Experiment” repeat the citizens of the titular doomed city in the Strugatskys Kakfaesque dystopian novel, which was written in the early 1970s but wasn’t published until 1989. The Experiment, purportedly run by the Mentors, seemingly begins as an egalitarian project, but soon devolves into civil war against baboons, and eventually a dictatorship. There’s a late act expedition across the desert to infiltrate the fabled Anticity. Baggy and abject, The Doomed City was not the best Strugatsky novel I’ve read, but I enjoyed its weirder moments very much.
Let’s start with the meat in the middle: Charles Portis. Why hadn’t I read Charles Portis until 2019? Maybe I initially dismissed the idea after first seeing True Grit (1969) with John Wayne. I know I was a bit more interested after seeing True Grit (2010), but I still didn’t quite realize that Portis is like Cormac McCarthy or Barry Hannah, picaresque and hilarious, a scion of the dirty south. I picked up his first novel Norwood at a tiny wonderful little bookstore in Portland Oregon this summer, prompted by its being in a Vintage Contemporaries edition more than anything else. I loved its energy and humor, and picked up copies of The Dog of the South and Masters of Atlantis, and promptly read them. (I couldn’t find a decent looking copy of True Grit and ended up ordering one on AbeBooks for four bucks.) I’ve heard Masters of Atlantis referred to as the masterpiece, and I thought it was very funny and even Pynchonesque (and also really relevant in its evocation of con artists and scammery), but Dog of the South was the most affecting of the three novels. A kind of bizarre road trip novel, Dog is told in first person narration by an asshole loser who, like most asshole losers, doesn’t realize that he’s an asshole loser. By the end of the novel he won me over though, and even grew as a person (I hate that I wrote that sentence). Dog’s shagginess is a small virtue; Master’s shagginess is unexpectedly grand. Norwood seems like a trial run at both, but also wonderful and grotesque. I read the first part of True Grit yesterday and loved the voice. I need to do a proper Thing on Portis, but for now, color me a Portishead.
I read Fernando A. Flores’ debut novel Tears of the Trufflepig last month, which I picked up after reading J. David Gonzalez’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The concept of the book—a very-near future where drugs are legal and cartels have taken to trafficking “filtered” (genetically-altered) animals is fascinating—but the prose and structure left something to be desired. Trufflepig suffered perhaps from its proximity to my reading Anna Kavan’s Ice and Portis’s Norwood.
I read the first chapter of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 historical novel The Corner That Held Them today. Amazing stuff: Ironic, mordant, energetic, and surprising. Set primarily in a spare humble corner of 14th century England, Corner starts with a cuckold murdering his wife’s lover, “sparing” her, and then founding a nunnery in her honor when she dies. Warner’s prose shuttles her nuns into the Black Death plague with bathos and wit. Really loved what I read.
I read In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Draeger this weekend and loved it too. There are three tales in the collection, translated by Brian Evenson and Valerie Evenson. Draeger is one of Antoine Valodine’s pseudonyms, but also one of his characters—a concentration camp librarian who invents tales for the camp’s children. The stories are whimsical with a dark edge, an edge perhaps provided if one know more of Volodine’s project (encapsulated neatly in Writers). The Draeger stories focus on a detective named Bobby Potemkine and his dog Djinn, and they are lovely.
I continue nibbling at Chris Ware’s forthcoming opus Rusty Brown. “Nibbling” is not the right verb—look, I’m gobbling this thing up. It’s astounding: funny, painful, gorgeous, maybe the best thing he’s done to date.
Kilian Eng’s Object 10 simply happens to be at the bottom of the pile. It too is gorgeous.
I finally dug into Chris Ware’s forthcoming graphic novel, Rusty Brown yesterday. A finished review copy arrived on August 7th, 2019, the day that David Berman died.
I had spent some time simply looking at the book’s exquisite book jacket, which unfolds into a kind of two-sided poster thing, complete with notes and suggestions how the reader might personalize the jacket by folding it in different ways. The spine section of the jacket is also quite amusing—a sort of TV Guide goof that stages Rusty Brown as a television special (in four parts, including comedy, western, sci-fi, and drama). There’s also a crossword puzzle, a maze, and other minutiae. If you’ve read Ware, you’ll know that his work is often crammed with little details like this. Here are two pictures that fail to capture how gorgeous this thing is:
Here’s the inside cover, too:
So well and anyway. I tooled around with the cover for a half hour or so on that Wednesday then started in on making dinner, the making of which was interrupted by a text from a friend telling me about Berman’s suicide.
If you’ve read Chris Ware—maybe you’ve read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth or Building Stories, both of which are exceptional—hell, Building Stories is like the invention of a new genre of reading itself—if you’ve read Chris Ware you likely know that his work can be really fucking sad.
I have not wanted to read anything really fucking sad for the past few days.
(I’ve been rereading Berman’s collection Actual Air and reading Charles Portis’s comic picaresque The Dog of the South.)
On Sunday afternoon I decided to dig in. I met the cast of Rusty Brown:
–and picked up the setting:
The introduction of Rusty Brown runs over a 100 pages and intertwines several of the characters’ perspectives. If there’s a lead though, it’s Woody Brown, a miserable son of a bitch who hates his life (wife, kid, teaching job) and daydreams about running away or even killing himself.
Woody’s poor son, the titular Rusty, daydreams as well, fantasizing that he’s gained superpowers (well, a superpower—incredible hearing) and fixating on his Supergirl action figure, who enters his bored mind when he’s at school. School is bad for Rusty, too; he’s bullied terribly. Ware depicts these scenes with honesty and pathos, but also humor. Consider this little cut scene:
The comic timing frequently leavens the first part of Rusty Brown. The thought bubble here cracked me up:
We also meet Alison and Chalky White, a brother and sister who are starting their first day at a new school. They’ve moved in with their grandmother; they’re new to Nebraska, and they’re miserable. Ware runs their story concurrently with the Browns’ story, and the two occasionally sync up in wonderful little plays on perspective.
Ware also inserts a version of himself into the story. Mr. Ware is the art teacher at Rusty’s school. Ware’s depiction of Mr. Ware is a kind of mean self-parody, but also very funny and even warm at times.
Mr. Ware has been working on a series of Pop Art paintings that he hopes will achieve “an intuitive transcendence of culture and corpus.”
Ware has been working on Rusty Brown for over a decade and a half now (you might’ve read bits of it here and there over the years), and the depth of storytelling here shows. Full review forthcoming, but for now, here’s publisher Pantheon’s blurb:
Rusty Brown is a fully interactive, full-color articulation of the time-space interrelationships of three complete consciousnesses in the first half of a single midwestern American day and the tiny piece of human grit about which they involuntarily orbit. A sprawling, special snowflake accumulation of the biggest themes and the smallest moments of life, Rusty Brown literately and literally aims at nothing less than the coalescence of one half of all of existence into a single museum-quality picture story, expertly arranged to present the most convincingly ineffable and empathetic illusion of experience for both life-curious readers and traditional fans of standard reality. From childhood to old age, no frozen plotline is left unthawed in the entangled stories of a child who awakens without superpowers, a teen who matures into a paternal despot, a father who stores his emotional regrets on the surface of Mars and a late-middle-aged woman who seeks the love of only one other person on planet Earth.
Eddie Campbell’s book Alec: How to Be an Artist (Eddie Campbell Comics, 2001) covers the “rise and fall of the graphic” over the course of a few decades. Alec combines memoir with art history and art criticism, all told through scratchy inks and spidery lettering (and plenty of pastiche–Campbell literally pastes the work of other comic artists of the last century throughout the book, along with “serious” artwork ). While Campbell’s autobiographical stand-in “Alec MacGarry” is obviously central to the story, other figures loom here, including Bill Sienkiewicz (“Billy the Sink”), Art Spiegelman, Stephen Bissette, Dave Sim, Eastman and Laird—and especially Campbell’s From Hell partner, Alan Moore.
How to Be an Artist offers a fascinating and personal look at the time before (and immediately after) comic books reached a tipping point into (gasp!) serious artistic respectability. Witty, warm, and occasionally cruel, Campbell’s book explores the intersection of commerce and art in a very particular place and a very particular time.
The book was especially revelatory for me, I suppose: I transitioned from super hero comics to, like comix in the early nineties, a transition helped by works championed in How to Be an Artist, like Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Sandman books and Dave Sim’s Cerebus. Indeed, the backpages of Cerebus in the late eighties and early nineties operated like a long messy ranty meditation on the theme of “How to be an (independent, successful, self-publishing) artist”—and it was also in the backpages of an issue of Cerebus that I first saw Campbell’s work (the prologue of From Hell was published in Cerebus #124).
How to Be an Artist’s final chapter sees Campbell offer up a canon of “graphic novels” from 1977 to 2001 (I’ve typed out the full list at the bottom of this post). Campbell (or, properly, Campbell’s persona Alec) begins the chapter by dwelling on the problematic term “graphic novel”:
After resolving to use the term, despite whatever problems might be attached to it, Campbell goes on to point out that, after the success of works like Watchmen and Maus, a glut of so-called “graphic novels” flooded the market place. He then goes about naming the best, those works that represent a “worthwhile phase in the human cultural continuum”:
The list is organized semi-chronologically; Campbell groups works in a series together, as with Will Eisner’s Dropsie Ave books. Here’s the first page of the canon, to give you an idea of its form and layout (note that the list, like the entire book, is written in the future tense):
I’ve never read When the Wind Blows.
I’ve also never read, to my shame, the unfinished project Big Numbers (by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz). Campbell details the drama surrounding why the project was never finished in How to Be an Artist. I’ll have to track it down.
Campbell includes a trio of Love & Rockets novels. Poison River is the first one I read. I was a junior in high school; I checked it out from the public library. Somehow my mother saw it, flicked through it, and was mortified.
Campbell seems to split the difference on Dave Sim’s Cerebus, including critical favorite Jaka’s Story along with the later novel Going Home (which sees Sim trying to reign in the project and steer it toward a conclusion). (Nobody asked me but I would’ve included Church & State and Church & State II).
Joe Sacco’s comix-journalism is excellent, and Campbell includes both Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde. These “graphic novels” (they aren’t really graphic novels, except that they are) expanded what was possible not just in comics, but also in journalism.
From Hell isn’t the only one of his own works that Campbell includes on his list—he also includes another Alec novel, The King of Canute Crowd. I love the gesture—an artist fully assured of the qualities in his best work. For the record, if pressed to name “the best graphic novel” I would probably immediately say, “Oh, it’s From Hell of course” (and then hem and haw and hedge, bringing up Chris Ware’s Building Stories, the first half of Sim’s Cerebus project, David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, Love & Rockets, etc.).
Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan shows up on the list, of course. I’m sure Building Stories would be on here too—along with dozens of others—if the list were updated. Indeed, Campbell’s canon (my term, not his), ends with this disclaimer:
Here’s the full list:
A Contract with God, Will Eisner, 1977
A Life Force, Will Eisner, 1985
The Dreamer, Will Eisner, 1986/1991
Dropsie Avenue, Will Eisner, 1995
Tantrum, Jules Feiffer, 1979
When the Wind Blows, Raymond Briggs, 1982
Maus, Art Spiegleman, 1991
V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd, 1988
Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, 1988
Big Numbers, Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, 1990
The Death of Speedy, Jaime Hernandez, 1989
Blood of Palomar, Gilbert Hernandez, 1989
Poison River, Gilbert Hernandez, 1994
Jaka’s Story, Dave Sim and Gerhard, 1990
Going Home, Dave Sim and Gerhard, 1999
Alec: The King Canute Crowd, 1990
The New Adventures of Hitler, Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, 1990
The Cowboy Wally Show, Kyle Baker, 1987
Why I Hate Saturn, Kyle Baker, 1990
Violent Cases, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1987
Signal to Noise, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1992
Mr. Punch, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1995
Casanova’s Last Stand, Hunt Emerson, 1993
Tale of One Bad Rat, Bryan Talbot, 1995
City of Glass, Paul Auster/David Mazzucchelli, 1994
The Playboy/I Never Liked You, Chester Brown, 1991/1994
Stuck Rubber Baby, Howard Cruse, 1995
Palestine, Joe Sacco, 1996
Safe Area Gorazde, Joe Sacco, 2000
Ghost World, Daniel Clowes, 1997/2000
It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, Seth, 1997
Ethel and Ernest, Raymond Briggs, 1998
Gemma Bovery, Posy Simmonds, 1999
Cages, Dave McKean, 1998
Uncle Sam, Steve Darnall and Alex Ross, 1998
From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, 1999
Hicksville, Dylan Horrocks, 1998
The Jew of New York, Ben Katchor, 1998
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware, 2001
Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Craig Thompson, 1999
Dear Julia, Brian Biggs, 2000
Berlin, Jason Lutes, 2001
Today’s Sunday Comics entry is a page from Chris Ware’s magnificent 2012 novel Building Stories (Pantheon Books).
I had occasion to look through Building Stories again this week. I had to paint a room, which required moving books from shelves, which meant unshelving Building Stories, which unwieldy beast that it is, has been covered in other books for a few years. Building Stories takes the form of 14 different sized books in a box—it’s pretty hard to shelve in any accessible way, which is a shame (but also a pleasure). Ware’s opus seems to me one of the best American novels of the past decade, but I think its greatness tends to get overlooked because a) people are still prejudiced against comics and b) it challenges all the “reading rules” we bring with us to novels—there’s not a “right way” to read the novel. You have to put it together your self, in a sense. Anyway, for me the page above, which is the last page of the chapter called “Disconnect,” is the “conclusion” of the novel, a sort of metacommentary epilogue that (somehow) ties the narrative threads together in a moving and satisfying “end.”
Chris Ware, one of the greatest living American novelists, will be publishing his new novel The Last Saturday, “tracing the lives of six individuals from Sandy Port, Michigan,”
in installments in The Guardian this fall. New episodes every Saturday.
It was the Peanuts collections in my grandfather’s basement office that really stayed with me through childhood and into college. Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy, and Lucy all felt like real people to me. I even felt so sorry for Charlie Brown at one point that I wrote him a valentine and sent it to the newspaper, hoping he’d get it. I’ve said it many times before, but Charles Schulz is the only writer I’ve continually been reading since I was a kid. And I know I’m not alone. He touched millions of people and introduced empathy to comics, an important step in their transition from a mass medium to an artistic and literary one.