The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking

Posted by on April 8th, 2010 at 11:33 AM

Kent reviews the latest edited collection on comics from the University Press of Mississippi.

The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking. Edited by David M. Ball and Martha B. Kuhlman. University Press of Mississippi, 2010. $28.00 paperback. 288 pp. 20 color illustrations, 30 b&w. ISBN: 978-1-60473-443-0.

Even as Dan Nadel, Frank Santoro, Paul Karasik and others push for a more open and inclusive understanding of what makes a compelling comic, many of the academics who write and teach on comics have fixated on a handful of artists and texts. The race to establish a canon, and a dominant interpretive tradition, is on.

The Comics of Chris Ware takes as given its subject’s membership in the comics firmament. As the editors point out in their introduction, “Ware’s work has already made a powerful claim for scholarly consideration and inclusion in course syllabi.” In addition to his work as a cartoonist, illustrator and book designer, Chris Ware has edited high-profile comics collections and “served as a guiding force in the reissues of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Frank King’s Gasoline Alley.” He has “won over twenty Harvey and Eisner awards” as well as the American Book Award, the VPRO Grand Prix, the critics’ award at the Angouleme festival and the Guardian First Book Award. His work was displayed at the 2002 Whitney Biennial and the 2005 Masters of American Comics exhibitions. Along with Jules Feiffer, Marjane Satrapi and Art Spiegelman, Ware is one of those cartoonists you can safely bring home to your departmental chair.

Rather than framing Chris Ware’s career in relation to a single analytic framework (e.g., Marxism, Freudianism or formalism), the editors have included essays that span “multiple approaches and orientations – from literary theory to urban studies, disability studies to art history, critical race theory to comics history – in order to better understand and illuminate Ware’s graphic narratives.” The result is a thoughtful, engaging but somewhat uneven collection whose contributors only occasionally indulge in scholasticism and autopilot jargon. The editors have included essays by well-known writers on comics (Jeet Heer, Isaac Cates, Marc Singer), as well as folks who have only recently settled on a dissertation topic. A couple of the pieces have a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time quality about them. While the approaches are multiple, the bulk of the contributions are by Ph.D. candidates and assistant professors in literature departments.

As one might expect, the essays often return to Ware’s familiar tropes – heartache, unhappy families, empty buildings, superhero kitsch and the multiple uses of false rhetoric. A lot of effort is expended on the challenge of decoding Ware’s notoriously dense and circumspect imagetexts. His pages comfortably mesh with the prevailing academic sensibility at least in part because their cerebral and self-consciously “difficult” aspect practically cries out for sustained scrutiny. If, under “Lost” type circumstances, a tribe of academics had to subsist on an intellectual diet of nothing but Chris Ware they could probably make it.

Several of the essays are quite clever. In “Comics and the Grammar of Diagrams,” Isaac Cates calls attention to how Ware’s comics often deploy “peculiar and inscrutable devices, external to the comics narrative, designed to testify to the intensity of Ware’s authorial attention.” He points out that the diagrams in Jimmy Corrigan reveal “things to the reader that are unknown to the point-of-view characters,” which substantially alters “the emotional tenor of the graphic novel’s conclusion, broadening its scope beyond Jimmy’s breakdown, worry and isolation.” As Cates notes, “the art of the diagram is one of a number of ways in which Ware’s comics technique is informed by disciplines or media that aren’t often considered by literary critics.” He intriguingly concludes that Ware’s “diagrammatic, iconic drawing…seems to be an appeal to the possibility that drawings might approach the semiotic directness of language.”

I was similarly impressed by Georgiana Banita’s piece on “Chris Ware and the Pursuit of Slowness,” which opens by comparing “the tenor and rhythm of Chris Ware’s comics” to the stroll of the nineteenth-century flâneur. The “formal grammar of Ware’s comics render time conspicuous…It also calls attention to controlled pace as, among other things, an obstacle to the frenetic temporality of contemporary consumer culture.” Banita usefully flags Ware’s offended rejection of modernity: “It seems [there is] this arrogant sexuality to the modern world that I find very annoying, and, I guess, threatening…Everything has to be cool. Everything has to be sexy and fast-paced and rock-and-roll and I just find it kind of offensive.” As she points out, “few graphic narratives resist this fast-paced, rock-and-roll aesthetic as effectively as Jimmy Corrigan.” Just as Ware’s pages

spatially juxtapose past, present and future moments on a single page (or even within a single panel), his highly textured comics also engage in a complex strategy of determining narrative speed by structural and compositional means. Ware toys with narrative expectations of temporal movement by drawing panels that give the readers pause and quicken their pulse at the same time. The narrator of these multiply temporal strips is simultaneously immersed in time and assembling time.

It’s worth emphasizing that the concept of the diagram and the idea of slowness both respond to the specificity of Ware’s creative output. This willingness to take the work seriously, rather than simply apply generic concepts to a currently-fashionable case study topic, is a hallmark of Cates and Banita’s chapters, as well as those by Jacob Brogan (“the superheroic legacy”), Katherine Roeder (“the burden of art history”), Benjamin Widiss (“Quimby the Mouse“), Peter R. Sattler (“the art of memory”) and a few others.

In addition, Jeet Heer’s lucid essay on “Inventing Cartooning Ancestors: Ware and the Comics Canon” sheds light on Ware’s “deep and abiding love of old comics” as well as his “engagement with comics history.” Ware’s “effort to retrieve and recuperate earlier comics is a pursuit intimately connected to his own artistic practice…Chris Ware represents not just the future of comics but also its past; indeed, the burden of his work is to show that the past and future are tightly bound together.”

Coeditor David M. Ball’s piece on “Chris Ware’s Failures” reminds us just how pervasive the theme of failure is in Ware’s comics. Readers and fans have come to expect a “characteristic self-abnegation in all of his public performances and publications, an insistent rhetoric of failure than imbues everything from Ware’s interviews and critical writings to the layout and packaging of his hardbound, book-length publications.” Indeed, when “first informed about the 2007 Modern Language Association roundtable on his comics that served as the origin of this present collection,” Ware said he was “not sure whether to be pleased or terrified that my stuff would fall under the scrutiny of people who are clearly educated enough to know better.”

Ware’s suspicions might be aroused by Joanna Davis-McElligatt’s contribution on “race, immigration and representation,” especially since the author has a way of putting words in his mouth that is close to parodic. “By choosing to present his critique of twenty-first-century American foreign and domestic policy in an early twentieth-century idiom, Ware offers an interesting historical contrast,” she says. The ACME Report (2005), she finds, contains “some of the most forceful and clearly articulated critiques of American cultural identity and national policy in the history of comics.” See what you make of the following:

According to Ware, America – founded on and forged out of racist, nativistic, capitalistic and imperialistic policies and ideologies, a nation that has been steeped in notions of its own exceptionalism and superiority – was never structured to support the myth of racial, ethnic and political inclusion. Rather, he argues, America has always taken for granted the means by which it achieved its development, insistently disregarded the value of domestic and international Others, and continually romanticized its own ceaseless “conquest”…These “personal mythologies,” Ware argues, must be deconstructed and re-interpreted in order to come to any solvent comprehension of the past, present and future.

Using or even inventing a specialized terminology to capture the specific means by which an individual cartoonist integrates time and space on the page is one thing. Tossing around words like “capitalistic” and “imperialistic” is another. It’s 2010 for Kirby’s sake! Even the phrase “the development of the American nation-state,” in this context, makes me shiver. Similarly, when Matt Bodby (“Building Stories”) says that “Ware’s vision of the city resists the prevailing view that capitalism and the capitalist ethos are the best and only option for progress,” I have to wonder whether, first, Ware himself uses the term “capitalism,” and, second, if his outlook has any meaningful relationship to the word “progress.” Ware may well scorn capitalist ideology, and embrace a non-capitalist future, but I’d like to see some evidence before taking these kinds of claims at face value.

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5 Responses to “The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Jimmy Corrigan at least is definitely concerned with race and Americanness, I’d think. Academics are obsessed with capitalism…but on the other hand, it’s kind of a big deal, and something Ware at least seems interested in talking about on occasion.

    I mean, do you feel that since it’s 2010 imperialism and capitalism don’t exist any more? If the articles don’t make a good case, they don’t make a good case, but it sounds like you’re saying that if an artist doesn’t say “I’m talking about capitalism!” a critic has no right to discuss the issue. Which seems silly to me.

  2. Kent Worcester says:

    There’s a difference between working with the material at hand and using it as a prop, or a pretext.

  3. Caro says:

    Noah, I believe Kent is saying that Joanna David-McElligatt has a magic pill and consequently Chris Ware looks like a stomachache.

    Which, well, she has a point.

  4. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Fair enough Kent.