Acme Novelty Library #19: Take Two

Posted by on January 4th, 2010 at 3:34 PM

Great, now Chris Ware has sucked the joy out of comic books and sci-fi.

Oh, it’s a great comic, of course.  It’s brilliant.  It’s gorgeous.  Stylistically, Ware continues to do things with layout, sequential storytelling, and word/image interplay that no one else even tries, because everyone else is a lazy bore.  The art is lovely, especially all that wonderful flat color.  The book design cleverly echoes old science fiction magazines, although taking a pulp sci-fi cover, surgically removing all the cheese, sleaze and clumsy grandeur, and injecting it with prim and sterile modernist good taste seems to miss the entire point of making a pulp sci-fi cover.  (It reminds me less of pulp magazines than of the crisp advertisements for space-program research perusable here–stunning work, but about as far from the sloppy gung-ho romanticism of pulp sci-fi covers as you can get.)  It contains one brilliant image: the middle-aged Woody looks in the bathroom mirror, and his middle-aged face gazes back, but the figure looking into the mirror, his back turned to us, is the young Woody.  It’s a great comic.

It’s just so glum.

Acme Novelty Library #19 continues the Rusty Brown saga with a flashback to the youth of Woody Brown, Rusty’s father, to explain why he’s such a creepy asshole.  The book is split into three chapters: a science fiction story Woody wrote as a young adult, a chronicle of the events in Woody’s life that inspired the story, and a short prose piece, Woody’s second and last published story.  The prose section is brief and doesn’t do much but establish that Woody is a nostalgia junkie obsessed with a woman who probably long ago forgot he exists, which we already knew from chapters one and two.

As others, like Robert Clough, have noted, the first chapter is not really Woody’s sci-fi story, but Woody’s internal concept of his story, perhaps while rereading it as a middle-aged man.  There’s one obvious color choice that gives it away, and numerous other discrepancies between what the text tells us and what we see.  Ware, almost unique among cartoonists (he does so many things that are unique among cartoonists), likes to alternate panels of nothing but text with panels of nothing but image, and in a story like this the choice encourages side-to-side comparisons.  Similarly, the second chapter invites comparison to the first chapter, suggesting how this experience might have inspired that story element, with the caveat that Woody is not a reliable narrator.  During the Ghost World roundtable a while back, I was surprised when the comments turned to a discussion of Lolita, because I don’t think Dan Clowes has much in common with Nabokov.  But Chris Ware does, and this is his Pale Fire.

The plot, broken down to its essentials: as a shy, nerdy young man in the 1950s, Woody loses his virginity to a coworker, an obviously troubled woman whose situation is far too complex for him to handle or even comprehend.  Unfortunately, since the story never wavers from Woody’s viewpoint, and Woody has no curiosity about the woman except as something to project his romantic fantasies upon, the reader never gets to know what the hell is going on with this character.  Woody gets his heart broken, marries a nice woman he doesn’t love, and is miserable for the rest of his life.  The experience inspires him to write a science-fiction story set on Mars in which he cripples and kills women to keep them from getting away from him.  Also, dogs go blind, which is symbolic of the fact that it’s really sad in stories when bad things happen to dogs.  (For the record, the saddest science fiction story is Connie Willis’s “Last of the Winnebagos,” in which dogs go extinct.)  The final image of Acme Novelty Library #19 is, as mentioned above, the middle-aged Woody gazing sadly into his bathroom mirror.

It’s not a spoiler to say that the story ends with Woody gazing into his bathroom mirror, because this is the way all bleak modernist stories of middle-class alienation end: with the protagonist looking out a window or into a mirror and having a small but significant personal revelation.  This is because these stories are based on the first and greatest of them, Joyce’s “The Dead,” except that they get it wrong.  They forget what the damn revelation is.  “The Dead” ends with the protagonist realizing that his wife has an internal life, and by extension so does everyone; he has a glimpse of the universality of the human condition that snaps him out of his solipsistic fretting.  He looks out the window and sees the snow fall on everyone, the living and the dead.  All the dull Raymond Carver stuff that followed inverts this revelation.  Instead of recognizing the connection they share with humanity, the protagonists are forever falling deeper into their own bellybuttons.  They look into mirrors, or, if they stare at a window, it’s only to examine their own reflections.  The revelation at the end becomes the sort of petty personal stuff the guy in “The Dead” realizes is unimportant, usually something about getting old.  Guess what?  Everybody gets old.  Everybody has disappointments.  Realizing that you, personally, are old and disappointed is not much of an accomplishment.  Realizing that the person next to you is old and disappointed–now, that would be something.

Ware’s previous long work, Jimmy Corrigan, understands this, sort of.  That’s why the book ends with Jimmy speaking over his cubicle to a coworker–that’s the level of human contact Ware will allow his protagonists.  But it’s still the coworker, not Jimmy, who makes the effort; it’s not clear whether Jimmy has realized anything in all the stunted dealings with his family that comprise the bulk of the book.  You need a realization!  A revelation!  You’re the protagonist!  Random women from the office should not have to do all the work of giving your story a point!

Acme Novelty Library #19 is a perfect execution of a fundamentally flawed structure.  The flaw is that the story must, by necessity, be told exclusively from Woody’s point of view, and Woody is incapable of doing anything but feeling sorry for himself.  We’re doomed never to know what the deal was with the woman who banged young Woody; she’s barely a character at all.  She gets two borderline human moments: laughing at Woody’s science fiction magazines, and giving him $100 to leave her apartment, the latter of which opens up her character just because it’s so odd.  (Is she trying to pay him off so he won’t ruin her reputation?  Does she think he could get her fired?  Is she trying to treat him like a prostitute?  Does she feel like a prostitute?  Did somebody once do the same to her?  How did she feel about it?  About anything?  Why did she ever want to have sex with Woody in the first place?)  Likewise, Woody’s long-suffering wife is a cypher.  Nabokov loved doing this kind of thing, giving us tantalizing blurred glimpses of characters through the myopia of a supremely self-absorbed narrator.  But it’s hard to do, and it may be impossible in as literal and visual a medium as comics.

Reading Acme Novelty Library #19, and in fact the entire Rusty Brown saga, I kept wondering, cantankerously, why this whole long epic has to be about Rusty and Woody at all.  Like we’ve never, in literature, seen a middle-class white guy who thinks he deserves better than his frumpy wife and his imperfectly fulfilling job in academia.  That’s only the plot of every novel ever praised in the New York Times Review of Books. Why couldn’t the story be about the crazy slut?  Whatever’s (or whoever’s) eating her, it’s got to be more interesting than what Woody is doing.

Woody’s obsession with pulp sci-fi is presented as an indicator of his introverted nerdiness, his retreat into fantasy and nostalgia, his loneliness; it serves the same self-abnegating function as Jimmy Corrigan’s thing for comic-book superheroes.  Rusty spends his ill-gotten $100 on sci-fi mags and gloats over them in the same fetishistic, narcissistic way he loves that nameless woman, in a wonderfully staged scene meant to illustrate his fear of human contact.  But those old magazines had something else in them, something Ware even remembers to include in his pastiche of pulp page layouts.  Old sci-fi magazines had letters columns.

Before the Internet allowed us, for better or worse, to lock into the nerd hive-mind 24/7, the pulps were relay stations in a fragile but lively network of awkward dreamers.  As a regular reader and sometime contributor, Woody would have known there were guys like him out there.  Getting published probably would have garnered him letters from readers and invitations to join the mailing lists of mimeographed fanzines.  For most science fiction readers of the period, the pulps weren’t a retreat from human contact, but a tenuous connection to the type of contact they craved.  I’m not saying that Acme Novelty Library #19 should have included a digression into the content of the letters columns of the magazines Woody buys.  I am, however, suggesting that the comic’s idea of Woody as a man trapped in hopeless, pathetic isolation is as false as Woody’s idea that the office pump wants to marry him and bear his children.

Here is one science fiction writer describing the subculture of the pulps, writing at around the time Woody would have published that forgotten second story:

A beautiful secret real world, with real people, real friends, doers of great deeds and speakers of the magic word, Frodo’s people if you wish…

You know as well as I do we all go around in disguise.  The halo stuffed in the pocket, the cloven hoof awkward in the shoe, the X-ray eye blinking behind thick lenses, the two midgets dressed as one tall man, the giant stooping in a pinstripe, the pirate in a housewife’s smock, the wings shoved into sleeveholes, the wild racing, wandering, raping, burning, bleeding, loving pulses of reality decorously disguised as a roomful of Human beings.  I know goddamn well what’s out there, under all those masks.  Beauty and Power and Terror and Love.

That’s James Tiptree, Jr., a.k.a. Alice Sheldon, whose life would make a hell of a comic book.

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10 Responses to “Acme Novelty Library #19: Take Two”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    It’s interesting that you kind of end up in the same place I did with the New Yorker Halloween cover. There’s this claim that the essence of the characters is their isolation…but the case for it seems like special pleading. Parents aren’t really watching their cell-phones instead of their kids; fan writers and geeks don’t now and never did live in a solipsistic bubble. So why are we so desperate to pretend they are? It’s like he’s only got the one emotional lever, and, with great skill, he keeps pulling it and pulling it because, for all his formal innovation, he can’t for the life of him figure out how to tell a story that involves other people.

  2. Ian says:

    You’ve articulated a lot of the feelings I had after reading Jimmy Corrigan, specifically, “That’s why the book ends with Jimmy speaking over his cubicle to a coworker–that’s the level of human contact Ware will allow his protagonists.” Jimmy was an unbearably flat character for this reason: instead of developing Jimmy emotionally by letting him truly interact and empathize with other characters, Ware confined him to a sniveling, predictable pattern of HaHas.

    But, as you said, it sure was purty ta look at.

  3. Uland says:

    Really well written and funny, Shaenon.
    I think it’s a really attractive idea, thinking that being an obsessive fan is like wearing some kind of magical disguise , but this wouldn’t be so attractive if it didn’t rest in a basic alienation from the mainstream of social life, something that is also really sad for a lot of people, especially those who desire (right or wrong) trappings of that mainstream life.If you’re a guy, that might mean getting laid and not feeling like a worm. I think that can happen within the world of fandom, but we all know it often does not. I think we can safely imagine that in Omaha in the early sixties (?) it’s even less likely. Woody maybe knew that there were many out there like him ( were there? I think it’s easy to say in retrospect, but how open were these early fans? Did they all have similar experiences in fandom? Was it a “thing”, like we like to think it was?)

    Yeah, I know; boo hoo. Also, that’s for white males. Ware is stuff white people like. Everybody knows that’s just another way of saying lame, unsexy…

    Woody is a self-absorbed, bitter loser. They do exist.
    There are successful, well adjusted dorks out there, but that’s not who this comic is about. It’s about a guy who would’ve been miserable even if he never read a sci-fi short, even if he’d become obsessed with antique clocks instead. If you’re not interested in this story — just like I might not be interested in one of Noah’s parapalegic, pre-teen, transgendered Pacific Islander cartoonists—, well, fine, but I’m not going to say it’s because it’s not playing to my particular concerns.

  4. Uland says:

    As far as Ware “allowing” his characters only so much human connection— Jimmy, in this case— again, I think you’re basically complaining that Cormac Mcarthy isn’t funny enough, you know?
    I thought that ending was really hopeful..

  5. I guess we can only hope that one day Chris Ware will do a comic about a woman or something that isn’t just New Yorker fiction in comics drag. Come on, Johnny One-Note!

  6. Rob Clough says:

    Shaenon,

    Thanks for the link to my essay on this comic. A few comments:

    1. I’m guessing that we’re going to see individual issues of ACME in the Rusty Brown saga that focus on one of the principles of the story as shown (but not stated) by Ware in the first chapter. That would include Rusty, Chalky, Alice White, “Chris Ware”, Woody, Jason Lint (the thuggish guy that Alice has a crush on) and Joanne Cole (Rusty & Chalky’s teacher). So I’m guessing we’ll see a variety of points of view, if I’m right.

    2. I thought it was implied that the writing of the prose story came right after that scene with the mirror, as Woody tried to trigger his own creative instincts after his long-dormant feelings for the nameless woman who dumped him were stirred. This story, for various reasons, didn’t do as well as his earlier story, and it’s implied that he never wrote again.

    3. I thought it was very strongly implied that the woman WAS prostituting herself to Woody’s boss at the paper. I thought the book was about relationship-as-power-struggle, with her exercising her power over Woody as a means of externalizing her own self-hatred. This was a pattern that Woody then put into effect with his future wife Sandy.

    4. I don’t think Ware is making any kind of statement that all geeks live a solipsistic lifestyle by nature. This was a story about a narcissist, one who by both circumstance and design was never able to understand or appreciate any point of view but his own. That was especially true of pain–he didn’t understand that his object in desire was clearly in constant emotional turmoil.

    5. Maybe it’s just me, but I found a lot of this comic to be bleakly funny. I especially liked the scene where Woody pretended to drop his glasses when he saw his boss, only to have them smashed.

  7. Ian says:

    My personal taste definitely played a role in how I received Jimmy, and I should have made it clear that I wasn’t trying to make any broad statement about Ware’s work. I haven’t read many of Ware’s comics, and in fact, other than Jimmy Corrigan, I’ve really enjoyed his strips.

    I can see how the ending seems hopeful, but in a comic saturated with loneliness, abuse, timidity. . .I had a hard time arriving at hope in the aforementioned scene, especially since it was given such a small amount of space.

  8. Uland says:

    I think the ending implied ( been a long time since I read it, mind you.) that Jimmy had experienced some kind of catharsis, after the harrowing meeting of his Father, and that the woman he speaks with at work would start some kind of relationship with him — she seems to mirror Jimmy, in many ways, which is code for “partner”, in that context, I think.

  9. Uland says:

    I think the ending implied ( been a long time since I read it, mind you.) that Jimmy had experienced some kind of catharsis, after the harrowing meeting of his Father, and that the woman he speaks with at work would start some kind of relationship with him — she seems to mirror Jimmy, in many ways, which is code for “partner”, in that context, I think.

    Just for the record, I don’t get how anybody could be bored , or made to feel shitty, after reading Acme #19. I thought it was great fun.

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