TCJ 300: Acme Novelty Library #19 reviewed by Chris Lanier

Posted by on January 6th, 2010 at 7:57 AM


Acme Novelty Library #19
Chris Ware
Drawn & Quarterly
80 pages, $15.95
Color, Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1897299562

All images from

Acme Novelty Library #19, ©2008 Chris Ware.

Part of the fun of Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library #19 is seeing him apply his style to a new mode. The first half is a science-fiction adventure story involving a desperate struggle for survival, a failed escape across inhospitable terrain, the murder of several dogs, and even a brief bout of auto-cannibalism. All this transpires on a faltering colony on Mars, and the arid setting allows Ware to maintain his usual formal distance without shortchanging the urgency of the plot. At its core, the story is one of abandonment — both intimate and infinite.

The pioneering Mars colonist who narrates the story is first cut off from the human race when signals from Earth stop coming — but it wounds him more deeply when he’s emotionally cut off from his fellow colonists, and especially the woman who was to be his co-pioneer and wife. The scale of events is deliberately distorted in visual terms, using an overriding schema to fix circular forms in rigid square grids. The square is the window of the panel, while the circle is a variety of things, wildly different in size, but contained within the frame. (The narrator remarks that space travel makes you “lose all sense of scale.”) The circular inventory includes a toy ball, portholes, the glaring halo of a flashlight lens and the illuminating circle it projects, the bubble of an oxygen helmet, the planet Mars itself, spaceship dials and buttons, and a single drop of water, suspended in zero gravity, the highlight a circle within the encircling blue. The stark mathematical relation between square and circle creates an atmosphere that’s impersonal, implacable — something that won’t bend to human desire.

While there are moments of high drama in the story, there is also room for the kind of stasis that permeates Ware’s work, as though time were mostly an accumulation of awkward pauses. In Ware’s universe, the clock doesn’t tick; it intermittently clears its throat. The very beginning of the book is unstuck in time. Ware doesn’t reveal at first that the setting is Mars, and we’re introduced to the main character in his house as he shaves. The home itself is a wood cabin, and the man’s clothes suggest a rural homesteader of the ’20s. But more details from incompatible time periods begin to appear. An electric generator squats outside the house. There’s a photo pinned next to the mirror, and the people in it sport hairstyles that could date from the ’50s. Finally, when the man emerges from the house, we see next to the homestead the heavy metal arrow of a rocketship. It seems that the march of eras, with its particulars of costume and architecture, is negotiable. What is fundamental across time is the studied and futile self-maintenance of a man shaving. For Ware, these are the sorts of things that count as eternal verities: the patch of ceiling one stares at while lying awake in bed, and the rasp of razor against stubble.

In the course of the story it becomes obvious that the main character, as he narrates the travails of the colony, is deeply unreliable. His “gee whiz” locutions spackle over the fact that his fellow colonists come to regard him with suspicion, and then outright fear. As companions go, he has an easier time with the dogs that were brought along with the settlement — though the fidelity of the dogs doesn’t end up doing the dogs much good.

An unreliable narrator isn’t where the unreliability stops: it turns out the story we’ve been reading is a story-within-a-story, titled “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars,” written by the fictional character W. K. Brown. Brown is now a high-school English teacher, but in the ’50s he wrote a couple of promising science-fiction stories, of which “The Seeing Eye Dogs” was the first. In it, he was trying to nudge the genre tropes of science fiction into a more self-consciously literary realm; he would have been a fellow traveler of ambitious pulp toilers like Philip K. Dick and Cordwainer Smith. The second half of Acme #19 follows the young W. K. Brown around the time he wrote “The Seeing Eye Dogs,” while he was working at the bottom of the food chain in a Nebraska newspaper office. “The Seeing Eye Dogs” becomes an extension of, or a compensation for, a failed relationship with a woman who also worked at the office. Writing the story is a way of sifting through the pain and humiliation of the rejection he suffered, recasting a somewhat tawdry affair against a backdrop of cosmic struggle. This is how those ’50s hairstyles infiltrate the future timeline of the Mars colony: They’re fragments of the time when the story was written, not when it was supposed to be taking place. The science-fictional first half of Acme, it turns out, is sifted through the perceptions of the adult W. K. Brown, re-reading his story in an upstairs office of his home. So we have an unreliable narrator being read by an unreliable reader.

The few paragraphs of text reproduced from the story — along with some faux covers of ’50s science-fiction magazines — allow Ware his delight in pastiche. For the magazine covers, Ware can break out of his semaphore visuals, where characters have been stylized to agglomerations of circles and ovals, not inhabiting buildings and landscapes but rather being stranded in schematics and blueprints. Ware has shown, in his sketchbooks, how warm and varied his style can be — for the cover of the issue of Nebulous Worlds of Imagination that features Brown’s story, he gets to go in for a stolid, macho pulp tableau. The protagonist of the story — who comes across as a neurotic, decidedly average physical specimen in the story itself — here looks like someone who could easily win a bar brawl, shooting his virile space-gun (no space-gun actually appears in the story) at some indeterminate target in the Martian sky. His dog is aggressive and wolfish; the object of his desire, collapsed to her knees in the foreground, is wearing some sort of diaphanous astro-gown, which provides her both an oxygenated helmet and a vista of exposed cleavage.

For the paragraphs of Brown’s story, Ware shows off his talent for good bad writing. At this point, with years of verbiage from the fictional conglomerate the Acme Novelty Library under his belt, he could probably reel off comically solicitous catalog copy in his sleep. “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars” gives him room to stumble toward cosmic poetry, stubbing toes against precociously “scientific” prose: “A six minute-old sixty million mile-long needle of starlight pierced his cornea, threaded through the vitreous gel of his eyeball, and scratched a spark on the slippery black moviescreen of his retina.” It would embarrass Ware to approach such an image frontally. To put it in the mouth of an obscure science-fiction writer — now a teacher in high school, a mediocre-at-best husband and dad — with all its awkwardness, its shabby pretensions intact, opens up a wide and fertile area between the image itself and its expression.


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