Acme Novelty Library, #20, Chris Ware’s last installment of his ongoing graphic novel Rusty Brown, has certain surprises in stock. One of the most striking is related with its visual style: as the narration goes on, Ware’s graphic trace becomes more solid and less schematic; something very unusual in his work, always biased towards a certain stylistic abstraction. It is often that we hear Ware comparing his protagonists with typographic characters, or the act of looking at his pictures with reading (Ware, quoted in Sabin, 1997: 41).
What’s going on with Acme #20, then? This volume, also known as Lint, the name of its protagonist, is a more or less straightforward Bildungsroman (formation novel) that follows the progress of one of the bullies of the school where Rusty Brown studies, from his birth to his death. The changes in the graphic style are synchronised with the different stages of maturity of the protagonist; the last pages of the book have a rough, unsettlingly realistic appearance, but the first pages almost look like if they were drawn by a child.
Almost as if they were drawn by a child, but not quite. If you stare at a Picasso, you can bet that one out of five parents will give you their word that “my child can draw exactly like that”. I don’t know if many children can write like this:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo… His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face. (Joyce, 1916: 3)
These are the first lines from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, a book that relates language to stages of maturity in manner that resembles Ware’s approach. This paragraph certainly looks like children’s writing, but it is not: the election of the words is very deliberate, the rhythm and the sound too perfect. However there are certainly insistent traits of children language in the style: the use of iconicity and onomatopoeias (moocow), the absence of commas in the first sentence, the standardized opening expression (Once upon a time), the simplicity of vocabulary, the fixation on the face and the gaze of the father, etc.
In Lint, we can find the visual equivalents of all these linguistic traits, although the central role of the father is enacted by the mother. Since the father is almost always absent in Ware’s narrations, she is the one in charge of uttering the archetypal word of castration “No”. So, here, little Lint focus his attention on his mother’s face, instead of his father’s; her face is in fact the same iconic image repeated in three different panels, an archetypal image that is always looking at him. Not just “a mother”, or “his mother”, but “The Mother”. Verbal language is very simplified too. In fact, all the words we can make out in the balloons are some of the few words any child of Lint’s age would be able to understand: “no”, his name, “bad” and “what are you doing?” The rest is gibberish: it’s impossible to get any meaning from the words in the lower left corner of the page. The reason is simple: little Lint does not understand them.
But the most striking thing about this page is its style, too schematic even by Ware’s standards (they even lack the isometric perspective characteristic of Ware’s work). Lint and his mother are always shown from a frontal/lateral point of view, like the characters of early Sunday Pages: Ware turns to the origins of comic language to reproduce the origin of human language. In fact, the solution Ware adopts to represent the quick movement of the arms of Lint’s mother, may be related to the very origins of visual sequentiality: Sergei Eisenstein affirmed that Shiva’s multiple arms in ancient hindu statues were not meant to represent multiple arms but a moving pair; after all, Shiva is not only the God of destruction, but also the God of dance (Eisenstein, 1937-1940: 140-141; Bartual, 2008).
We can even find further Joycean echoes in this page if we consider that in episode 14 of Ulysses, when Mina Purefoy, a secondary character, gives birth, Joyce suddenly turns to the origins of the English Literature using the alliterative language of Anglo-Saxon verse to describe the first moments in the life of Mina’s child. My intention, when drawing all these comparisons, is not to justify Ware’s work in the light of well-accepted, canonical, modernist literature, but to underline the fact that even if Chris Ware may not be the first artist to achieve inner focalization through stylistic choices in his art (that is, to make the reader see things as the protagonist does by changing the style of drawing; something that has been attempted too by Moore and Gebbie in Lost Girls), he is certainly the first to do so with such a high level of sophistication and detail.
For other instances of inner focalization in Ware’s work (not by means of stylistic changes, but by means of mise en cadre and mise en page) see: Samson, J. and Peeters, B. (2010) Chris Ware: la bande dessinée réinventé (Montréal: Les Impressions Nouvelles)
Bartual, R. (2008) “¿Es el comic el único arte secuencial? Ecos de la secuencia en el arte pictórico”, in Revista Digital Universitaria de la Universidad Autónoma de México, vol. 9, #6 <http://www.revista.unam.mx/vol.9/num6/art34/int34.htm>. Accessed 22 February 2011.
Eisenstein, S. M. (1937-1940) Towards a Theory of Montage (London: British Film Institute) [Hacia una teoría del montaje, vol. 1 (Barcelona: Paidos, 2001)]
Joyce, J. (1916) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (London: Heinemann, 1973)
Samson, J. and Peeters, B. (2010) Chris Ware: la bande dessinée reinventée (Montréal: Les Impressions Nouvelles)
Sabin, R. (1997) “Not just superheroes”, Speak magazine, #6: 38-45
Ware, C. (2010) ACME Novelty Library, (Montréal: Drawn and Quarterly, #20)