Great, now Chris Ware has sucked the joy out of comic books and sci-fi.
Oh, it’s a great comic, of course. Â It’s brilliant. Â It’s gorgeous. Â 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. Â The art is lovely, especially all that wonderful flat color. Â 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. Â (It reminds me less of pulp magazines than of the crisp advertisements for space-program researchÂ perusable here–stunning work, but about as far from the sloppy gung-ho romanticism of pulp sci-fi covers as you can get.) Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â There’s one obvious color choice that gives it away, and numerous other discrepancies between what the text tells us and what we see. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â But Chris Ware does, and this is hisÂ 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. Â 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. Â Woody gets his heart broken, marries a nice woman he doesn’t love, and is miserable for the rest of his life. Â 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. Â Also, dogs go blind, which is symbolic of the fact that it’s really sad in stories when bad things happen to dogs. Â (For the record, the saddest science fiction story is Connie Willis’s “Last of the Winnebagos,” in which dogs go extinct.)Â Â 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. Â This is because these stories are based on the first and greatest of them, Joyce’s “The Dead,” except that they get it wrong. Â They forget what the damn revelation is. Â “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. Â He looks out the window and sees the snow fall on everyone, the living and the dead. Â All the dull Raymond Carver stuff that followed inverts this revelation. Â Instead of recognizing the connection they share with humanity, the protagonists are forever falling deeper into their own bellybuttons. Â They look into mirrors, or, if they stare at a window, it’s only to examine their own reflections. Â 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. Â Guess what? Â Everybody gets old. Â Everybody has disappointments. Â Realizing that you, personally, are old and disappointed is not much of an accomplishment. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â You need a realization! Â A revelation! Â You’re the protagonist! Â 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. Â 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. Â We’re doomed never to know what the deal was with the woman who banged young Woody; she’s barely a character at all. Â 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. Â (Is she trying to pay him off so he won’t ruin her reputation? Â Does she think he could get her fired? Â Is she trying to treat him like a prostitute? Â Does she feel like a prostitute? Â Did somebody once do the same to her? Â How did she feel about it? Â About anything? Â Why did she ever want to have sex with Woody in the first place?) Â Likewise, Woody’s long-suffering wife is a cypher. Â Nabokov loved doing this kind of thing, giving us tantalizing blurred glimpses of characters through the myopia of a supremely self-absorbed narrator. Â 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. Â Like we’ve never, in literature, seen a middle-class white guy who thinks he deserves better than his frumpy wife and hisÂ imperfectly fulfilling job in academia. Â 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? Â 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. Â 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. Â But those old magazines had something else in them, something Ware even remembers to include in his pastiche of pulp page layouts. Â 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. Â As a regular reader and sometime contributor, Woody would have known there were guys like him out there. Â Getting published probably would have garnered him letters from readers and invitations to join the mailing lists of mimeographed fanzines. Â 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. Â I’m not saying thatÂ Acme Novelty Library #19 should have included a digression into the content of the letters columns of the magazines Woody buys. Â 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. Â 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. Â I know goddamn well what’s out there, under all those masks. Â 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.