If you are thinking of a gift for someone recovering from open heart surgery, keep in mind he would not be able to lift Chris Ware’s “Monograph” for weeks. In fact, this nearly nine-pound unbouncing baby, which stretches an unwieldy 18″ by 13″, may not make a good choice for anyone inclined to reading while lying in bed. Lose grip for an instance; you risk a pugged nose or punctured spleen.
Though none of his earlier works needed similar “Customer Warning” labels, Ware has never been overly reader friendly. Even in his formative “Acme Novelty Library” days, I often abandoned entire two-page spreads because no matter what effort I put into adjusting my bi-focals, his type size selection seemed to parachute-drop me into the most impenetrable jungles of an optometrist’s vision-testing charts.
While Ware’s characters tend to inhabit a range of human experiences available within walking distance of dismal big city apartment buildings or well-trimmed suburban lawns, and feelings generally capturable by 20 shades of gray – whine-producing self-pity, misery, and despair – his readers benefit from surprising moments of humor, tenderness and compassion and startling flights of fantasy, time-shift and surprise. The magic of creativity cause the mundane and dreary to sparkle.
Ware is also unmatched in his ability to transform the commonality of page composition into a wonderland. The tracking of his thoughts and his characters’ adventures across it becomes a fun ride of unanticipated possibilities for those of us with more boxed-in imaginations. We spin and whirl and chuckle. Once in a while, he plunks a mini-comic in the middle of a page like a prize inside Crackerjacks.
“Monograph,” a retrospective look at Ware’s life and career, takes self-deprecation for someone so honored to an almost Oh-come-off-it! level. (I mean, you think Mr. Potatohead would get a book so freaking humongous?) “Why,” he wonders, “would a writer of (Zadie Smith”s) caliber, intelligence and humanity… bother to give me the time of day.” “I awoke every day,” he writes, “with a paralyzing pain of panic, fear and death.” He notes his “overwhelming self-doubt,” “stupid” mistakes, “embarrassing words,” “stories so bad there’s no rescuing them,” and “lack of knowledge, artistic sophistication and inadequate understanding of how the world actually works.” At the same time he fills 275 pages with the drawings, comics, dolls, toys, dioramas, flip books, store signs, “New Yorker” covers, sheet music, storefront designs, sketch books, and teaching materials, works with paper, wood, canvas, clay, brass, and glass that establish him as one of the major creators of his time. He has ventured into animation, film, opera, radio, and TV. And he mentions a happy marriage, proud parenthood, and solid relationship with friends and colleagues that might be expected to ripple hope across any gloomy pond. Still, he writes, “death may be the single greatest thing that ever happens to us.”
Well, it certainly seems to be the one that lasts the longest.
For me, someone who is, as I often offer as a disclaimer to readers, “a word, not a picture person,” “Monograph” is most rewarding when Ware delineates his thinking about his choice of art form. In these passages, he shows an interest in connection, a “We’re-all-in-this” humanity, that might otherwise have been overlooked. Comics, he writes, represent “the way we remember life itself,” words and pictures occurring to us at the same time, duplicating “memory and consciousness,” “recomposing our lives from ever-decomposing pieces and stories.” “(U)ltimately, we’re all working on our own graphic novels of our lives…,” he says, “trying to understand, feel through and hopefully empathize with others as well as with ourselves.”
He seems a nice fellow. One can be glad for his success and thankful he has been able to pursue and document his vision.
Even if it might smack us on the nose