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

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


Going back to that cover of Nebulous Worlds of Imagination (a fictional magazine title that’s a joke, but also more than a joke) — between the pulp figures and the elder Brown’s imagined version of those characters, where do the characters, themselves, reside? Pastiche, of itself, opens up a gap that can be related to the gap of the comics “gutter,” in its reliance on a kind of omission. You don’t look at the figures in a pastiche as things that are actually there — you look at them conscious of the fact that they’re a particular person’s or culture’s idea of what might be there. The thereness is invisible, unmaterialized.

Much is made of Brown’s fiddling with the hair color of the woman in his story; in the printed version, her hair is red, but as we’re shown the character (the visuals being Brown’s imagined internal movie of the story as he reads it), her hair is brown. Brown was the color of the hair of the woman who broke his heart, back in that Nebraska newspaper office. We see manuscript versions of the story where the hair color flickers between “brown,” “chestnut,” “rusty” and “red.” Ultimately, the character’s hair isn’t a color, it’s the congelation of desire. Brown eventually married a woman he didn’t have much romantic feeling for, someone he slept with mostly out of frustration at not having access to his true obsession, compelled to the altar by an unplanned pregnancy. His wife’s hair is red. Their son’s name, “Rusty Brown,” is made up from a couple volleys of that ping-ponging negotiation of hair color. This naming detail is probably a bit much, but it’s in keeping with Ware’s approach to reality, which amounts to a series of feints. Rusty is an act of absence, the concrete realization of a thwarted desire. The “real” thing is stuck between valences of representation.

Since at least his early short comic “I Guess,” Ware has been preoccupied with escapism. Fantasy interests him not as an end in itself, but in relation to the reality it is attempting to mitigate or transcend. The heroic is only interesting as an extension of the pathetic. The escape route traced in Acme #19, from sexual humiliation into a cool fictional firmament, is rife with Freudian possibilities. The sci-fi pulp covers the young Brown stares at, standing on his bed in his underwear, are full of comically phallic monsters. Sometimes a cigar might be a cigar, but the recurrence here of an erect finger poking into various surfaces (a red button, a map that refuses to divulge some necessary information) becomes nearly pornographic. The protagonist loses the tips of several fingers in an accident, and since these close-ups of an extended digit abbreviate it with panel borders or edges of shadow, the book becomes an accumulation of diagrams of castration anxiety.

But if Ware’s thesis could be boiled down to “sci-fi escapism is a projection of sexual inadequacy,” it would be disappointing for its pat obviousness. Fortunately, he seems to be up to something a bit trickier. W. K. Brown is the latest in a long line of passive, fairly pathetic “heroes” in Ware’s comics. They’d all be considered “losers” in their wider social contexts. Brown, however, is the first protagonist to be both pathetic and somewhat monstrous. There’s something sour and curdled in him — he’s estranged from his kid, his insecurity causes him to hold his bright students in contempt, he mutters insults at his wife under his breath. The doughy, petulant Brown seems incapable of any self-awareness; the way he’s drawn, with his semicircle of retreating orange hair framing his ovoid head, he looks like a face that’s perpetually emerging from a pair of cleaved buttocks.

And yet, there’s a hint of self-knowledge in “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars.” The fact that the narrator is unreliable — that the reader realizes his self-pity masks a murderous solipsism — edges the story out of escapism. Perhaps, for the young Brown, the writing of it served merely as a sort of passive-aggressive catharsis. In the story, while the narrator doesn’t actually get the girl, he holds power over her, and maims or destroys the other people he feels are keeping them apart. But looked at a bit more charitably, this act of transference and projection is less a field of imaginative escape than it is an act of imaginative reckoning. It’s the place where Brown can really see himself. The lovelorn loner is exposed as someone whose fantasy — whose disconnect between the pictures in his head and the reality in front of him — has bloomed into sociopathy.

Unfortunately for Brown, that spark of insight is something he never made good on. The final scene of the book has the elder Brown shaving (and hence, in the Ware universe, reducing himself to the human fundamentals). Ware exploits the strangely contradictory nature of the ritual of shaving: On the one hand, shaving is a mark of adulthood, and on the other hand, it can be a return to pre-pubescent hairlessness. For the elder Brown, the shaving is a deliberate stab at regression. At this point, regression seems his only hope of escape. He shaves off his moustache and removes his glasses.

There has already been a sequence where a younger Brown breaks his glasses: Ware represents Brown’s myopic POV by removing the outlines of objects, and diffusing the colors into scatters of enlarged Ben Day dots. The industrial printing process used to materialize fantastic spacescapes and improbable aliens, imprinting them on cheap pulp paper, is thus wedded to his native vision, the way his eyes see the world.

When the elder Brown looks at himself in the mirror, with his blurred vision, he’s looking at himself through an exploded mist of nostalgia. The face that greets him, shorn of its moustache and scrubbed of its details, is the face of his boyhood. There’s no real warmth to this retrograde squint; there’s no sense of childhood being an idealized state. The glimpses of his childhood the book provides are full of unease, nausea and deep loneliness. He wants to swim through the dots back to childhood not because childhood was an Eden, but because that was the time he was a genuine victim, someone who deserved pity. It was the time before he was a monster.



Chris Lanier is a cartoonist, artist and Assistant Professor of Digital Art at Sierra Nevada College.


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