Books

The Bard of Sadtown

The empty, miserable comics of Chris Ware.

Chris Ware sitting beside a desk.
Comics artist Chris Ware.
Seth Kushner

Chris Ware’s characters almost never smile. They stare out at the reader with their eyebrows raised in pained shock and their mouths half-open in a plea for understanding. They look at an unseen conversant, eyebrows drawn as a V and mouth an upside-down U of rage. Or their faces are abstracted into a scattering of shapes, their thoughts unknown. Ware’s faces register for us the wounds of his characters’ lives, and in his books wounds come on almost every page.

In Ware’s new graphic novel Rusty Brown, Rusty and dozens of other major and minor souls might be surprised by those wounds, but anyone familiar with Ware sure won’t. Over the course of a career that has made him one of the few superstar comics artists in America, Ware has brought the hammer down on his characters again and again. Whether they’re awful people or not—and frequently they are—his characters find little but muted agony waiting for them, their lives a terrible price to pay for the privilege of existing.

Chris Ware emerged as part of a boom in both commercial success and cultural cachet for the comics industry in the 2000s. Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics broke comics down for a general audience, while Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature did the same for the academy. Articles declaring that comics were not just for kids anymore dropped so frequently they became the subject of an Onion article. It felt at the time like the promise of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and its 1992 Pulitzer win was finally being fulfilled. Every month seemed to bring at least one great new comic by either a wunderkind establishing himself or a master upending the form.

In 2000, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth seemed, to many readers, like both at once. Collecting stories the ambitious cartoonist had published over the previous decade in his Acme Novelty Library series, this rather large book mostly made up of rather small panels experimented with the medium of comics while relating an intergenerational saga of lost men. It seemed an unlikely bestseller, yet it moved over a quarter of a million copies and made Ware an elder statesman of comics seemingly overnight. He edited a special issue of the then-inescapable journal McSweeney’s devoted to comics. He won dozens of Eisner and Harvey awards, was the first comics artist to exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art, and wrote a monograph on his own work published by Rizzoli. Even if you’ve never heard of Chris Ware, you’ve almost certainly seen his frequent work on the cover of the New Yorker.

Critics lapped up Ware’s unremittingly bleak vision of fathers and sons and established a consensus around his work with remarkable speed. To his boosters, Ware took comics into the realm of seriousness by focusing on characters most writers would never bother with and by treating their daily miseries with high modernist panache. Reinforcing this feeling of seriousness was Ware’s go-to technique of using objects of nostalgia like Sunday comics, model sets, and old action figures as vehicles of pain and rage. Like comics themselves, he was putting away childish things, turning them inside out in the process. That he made his purposefully unpleasant stories purposefully difficult to read is a sign that he was, in Douglas Wolk’s formulation, “deft at balancing the demands of fine art, where sentimentality is an error, and those of storytelling, where emotion is everything.”

Jimmy Corrigan was part of an early-century wave of comics, all by men, fueled by male depression and shame. The best of these—Paul Hornschemeier’s The Three Paradoxes, Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings, and the work of Daniel Clowes—burn that fuel to take the reader somewhere, essaying shame, regret, and loneliness in their particulars along the way. The weakest of them, including Jimmy Corrigan, instead muck about in misery, mimetically reproducing in the reader the feeling of being bored, alone, sad, and self-hating.

In part because the book was semi-autobiographical (Ware’s father, like the protagonist’s, abandoned him when he was a child), critics read into Jimmy Corrigan a kind of tenderness and intimacy that Ware’s work pointedly avoids. Jimmy Corrigan is instead hermetically sealed. Its characters exist to show that people are the worst (or the saddest), and their aspirations to betterment are doomed. It’s also tightly controlled because, without its creator’s rigidity, some actual life with all its complexity might get in and spoil the fun.

Ware’s work after Jimmy Corrigan has shown occasional glimpses that he might stop plowing this particular furrow. But Rusty Brown demonstrates that he may not be capable of doing so. Begun shortly after Jimmy Corrigan was finished, and serialized in a variety of outlets prior to its collection, Rusty Brown gathers together a small ensemble of victims for Ware’s crushing worldview, whose paths intersect through one miserable day of school in some snow-covered Midwestern nowhere. (Officially, it’s Omaha, Nebraska.) The book spirals out from that day, taking us into the future, the past, and even to outer space, but wherever the book travels, Ware finds only misery.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a book about the futility of life—just ask whoever wrote Ecclesiastes—but Ware has gone to this well so many times that the thumb he’s placed on the scale is clearly visible. Rusty Brown has two kinds of stories: Either a character is punished by the world because he deserves it, or he’s punished by the world even though he doesn’t. The book’s 356 pages contain more upskirts of underage girls (two) than complex human characters (maybe one) because actual people would revolt at being treated and depicted in such a fashion. The view of humanity in the book is dime-store Freudianism: Scratch a character and you’ll find their primal wound, which then overdetermines their behavior. There’s little compassion to be found in Rusty Brown, because compassion requires curiosity, and Ware has worked out everything too carefully for that. The schematic lifelessness that results creates a kind of numbing effect. You may not know the story in advance, but you know where it’s headed: straight to Sadtown, Population: Everyone.

The pages are at times deliberately difficult to read, filled with tiny panels, scrambled chronologies, cramped handwriting. But the reward for doing that work is always the same: Ware tries to make you feel bad. After too much of this, a kind of armor accretes, until nothing the book does can affect you. More than anything else, it leaves you feeling tired.

This is a shame because, while Ware’s gifts as a storyteller may be suspect, he really does bring astounding formal invention to the page. Rusty Brown’s ambitions on that front are immense. It begins by tracing the intersecting paths of its characters (two outcast children, two stoner bullies, a few adrift teachers including one named Chris Ware, etc.) and grows to attempting to represent in comics form how memory and time work in the human mind.

This is a Joycean project, and it’s to Joyce whom Ware is often compared, but while their aims are similar, their methods are wildly different. Joyce is quite invested in a reader’s pleasure, while even Ware’s champions will admit that he seems actively hostile to it. Joyce’s sentences can be difficult to make sense out of, but they’re often warm and funny, playful and poetic. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man starts with a bedtime story and a toddler’s attempt to make sense of it and the world around him, all rendered with a singsong cadence and sense of wonder at being alive. Rusty Brown’s riff on the same territory, on the other hand, looks like the world’s most unfortunate instructional diagram:

A series of panels from Rusty Brown in which Jordan's mother is horrified by her son's defecation.
Pantheon Graphic Library

This infant—his name is Jordan “Jason” Lint III, and he’s one of the school bullies from the book’s first chapter—is destined for a painful life, of course. Ware pushes the miserablism so hard that it comes to feel like self-parody. Baby Lint drops a deuce on the floor, causing his mother to scream in sadness and rage. His dad beats her, they get divorced, she gets sole custody, and she dies, leaving Lint to fend for himself with his abusive dad. Soon we see Lint killing his best friend in an auto accident. By the end of Lint’s life, he’s been married a couple of times, broken one of his own sons’ collarbones upon finding out he might be gay, and turned into the kind of guy barely anyone would mourn or remember.

But the formal gambits Ware engages in to tell this story are extraordinary. The breaking of the collarbone is drawn in all red and looks like something Philip Guston might paint during a psychotic break. As Lint ages, every experience comes to remind him more and more of past experiences, and they peek through in layers and miniature panels, forming a kind of Greek chorus of regrets. Years of his life might pass on one page that braids together both his internal and external reality, showing us 20 or so isolated flashes of events that come together in our subconscious to create a legible whole. Ware is known for the mechanical difficulty of reading his pages. His favorite panel size is roughly that of a postage stamp, and some pages in Rusty Brown have panels a quarter of that size. The Lint chapter, however, is fully legible even when pushing the possibility of the comics medium to dazzling extremes.

It’s a masterpiece of artistic invention, yet it shares, like all the immaculately detailed, soulless pages in Rusty Brown, a fundamental emptiness. It’s the emptiness of Ware dramatizing an interracial couple going to the Grand Canyon for no real purpose other than dunking on woke millennials, or declaring in an earlier book that punchlines “don’t exist in the real world, so why should I accommodate them in ART?” As if pleasure were fundamentally suspect, as opposed to being part of the human condition. It’s the emptiness of Jimmy Corrigan’s unsmiling face as he gazes out into a world that holds nothing for him, and of a book that spends more time asking you to cut out and assemble a model World’s Fair than searching for meaning in his loss. Chris Ware can do seemingly anything with a comics page. Anything, that is, except portray a recognizable human being.

Rusty Brown book cover.
Pantheon Graphic Library

Rusty Brown

By Chris Ware. Pantheon Graphic Library.