In reading the comics of Chris Ware again, long after the dazzle of his formal novelty had dimmered, a word came to mind: ‘reaction’. Now, let’s excise all narrow political connotations and deal with the essence of the term: that any swing too much in one direction necessarily begets a counterforce, less because it has value than simply that it must exist, as uniqueness is a perennial human want, though little understood. And, as much contemporary media is infantile, democratic in the basest sense, and abusive of well-rooted psychological patterns, alternatives are almost destined to crawl out of the margins of the mainstream. In the most lucrative, and most besieged mediums, that of comics, video games, and animation, reaction creates a mirror-world of seriousness, clutches at ‘the grown-ups table’, an aesthetic to counteract the frivolities, the ‘sell-outs’, that is consciously unfun, unentertaining, uninteresting, and bloated with consciousness itself. None of this determines that the products be mediocre, as Art sometimes has a way of slipping past intentions. Yet what it means is these works are subject to the same dice-rolls that plagues all pabulum. This is because reaction is also a pattern; a nobler pattern, but a pattern all the same.
So, what is Chris Ware’s primary shtick in the world of comics? It’s a fairly predictable one, given how things have played out in other mediums: ransacking the excesses of Modernist and Postmodernist works for every creative trick in the book, while ill-applying it to banal ‘realism’ which usually centres on the boring melodramas of lonely losers. Thus, you have metafiction, pastiche, blatant authorial-inserts, stream-of-consciousness, polyphony of perspective, etc…applied to tropes of existential angst, modern ennui, adultery, bigotry, bullying, sexual frustration, basically everything that has appeared some form or another in a Woody Allen film, only without the comedic edge, poesy, and wit to elevate it into transcendence. And, as expected, the critics lapped it up. Chris Ware is known as a master in the medium, with works like Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories making into the sequential art canon (AKA the establishment critic’s best-of lists). Helps too that the ‘labours’ inherent in visual art are far more salient, easier to compliment. Compared to a paragraph of prose, crafting a page of a comic simply requires more technical work. No doubt, Ware has laboured on his pictures, each of his major works taking several years, up to a decade or more, to produce. And no doubt a prose-writer, working with the same subject matter, could dish out a novel in half or a quarter the amount of time, or choose to bloat it to the length of a thousand-page maximalist monstrosity. Superficially, this gives the average comics critic (already working within an undervalued ‘lowbrow’ medium) a lot to latch onto. Even the detractors, who rightfully charge Ware’s works as being soulless and banal, find that ‘master’ status hard to overcome. This excerpt, from the most negative review of Rusty Brown I managed to scrounge up, by Isaac Butler from Slate, is telling:
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.
That Butler still calls Rusty Brown “a masterpiece of artistic invention” even as he excoriates its content shows that, at some level, he believes Chris Ware is an important figure for comics. And, for all the good points his review brings up (the “dime-store Freudianism” of the characterization, and the utter lack of humour), there’s always a sense that Butler is focusing more on the moral critique than the artistic one: that Ware’s works are too out-of-touch, too unprogressive, too unhumanistic, too misanthropic, too hypocritically liberal, too white, and too male. But such qualities do not intrinsically condemn a work to banality. That these traits float up to the surface is really the symptom of a far deeper problem: Chris Ware is, simply, bad.
So, let me make my critical stance absolutely clear. The comics of Chris Ware are bad. They have always been bad. Sometimes, they’ve been bad in ways that others can build on by negation of their excesses. Other times they’ve just been plain bad. The only saving grace is that, by working in a visual medium, some of the badness is culled. Chris Ware is nowhere close to the badness of the worst Po-Mo tomes out there. He’s not David Foster Wallace-bad. But he’s still rancid, a swamp of shit that critics have been wallowing in for decades.
Rusty Brown is Ware’s latest opus. It is 356 pages of dense, messy, and bloated storytelling. Everything bad about Ware is in there, all the formal trickery, pretense, and melodrama. Even worse, it’s apparently only Part 1 of a projected two-part narrative. Before I levy my hatchet at the work itself, though, let’s deal with its art-style, the style Ware has pretty much used for all of his works, a style that, in an interview in Chris Ware: Conversations, he self-effacingly described as:
Icy, cold, and dead. I try to make them as linguistically simple as possible so that they’re easy to read, in the same way that Nancy is. If you look at them as drawings, they’re not satisfying drawings; they don’t communicate much emotion as drawings at all. As a matter of fact, they’re bad drawings. But you don’t read a book trying to get emotion out of the font that it’s printed in. You read it for the story. You read for what happens in your mind, and to me comics are some sort of magic language that happens before your eyes. This is not true for all cartoonists, of course, but I found that the more detail or the more expression that I put into the line of my own stuff, it didn’t come alive as much as I wanted it to.
“Icy, cold, and dead” is an apt description, though he gives himself too much credit with ‘icy’, which implies a sense of bite and danger. Rather, the style is dull and cowardly. It’s a graphic designer’s wet dream, meticulously sterilized of anything resembling Beauty, only an inert cleanliness left to hang on the page. While a style based on visual shorthand rather than expressive and detailed art isn’t necessarily exempt from greatness, it does mean a greater reliance on the written and structured narrative. And guess how Chris Ware fares in that area? Hell, one merely has to look at what Osamu Tezuka, the ‘Godfather of Manga’, was doing decades earlier with his use of stock characters and simplifications, spread across a prolific span of works in every genre, to see how uninspired Ware is. One can also read a reactionary strain in the stylistic choices; Ware’s art is clearly opposed to the showy, action-packed grandiosity of superhero comics (ignoring that even in terms of formal and narrative experimentation, superhero comics, especially since Alan Moore’s Watchmen era, were already trying out new tricks for better or worse). If I was forced to choose between an entire medium full of Ware-esque banalities and an entire medium full of spandex, though, I’d go with the spandex.
Of course, in art, specifics mean everything. And this is where we begin our proper critique of Rusty Brown. The comic centres on a cast of characters in Nebraska: the titular Rusty Brown, a bullied nerd who is frequently trapped in his own fantasies and likely has some sort of autism-like mental disorder; Chalky White, his timid and equally nerdy friend; Alice White, Chalky’s sister, an average angst-filled teenage girl; Jordan Lint, school bully; Woody Brown, Rusty’s fat, pathetic father, also a literature teacher for Alice’s class; Joanne Cole, Rusty & Chalky’s teacher and the only conspicuously black character in the mostly white main cast; and, finally, Chris Ware, a self-effacing authorial insert who is Alice and Jordan’s art teacher (I’ll refer to him as ‘Chris’ to distinguish him from real life Chris Ware). The comic can be split into sections, with the first introducing the entire cast and each other section focusing on the lives of individual characters. In this currently released Part 1, we delve into the lives of Woody, Jordan, and Joanne, although through these perspectives we also get foreshadowed glimpses of the fate of other characters. Taking cues from literary predecessors, the narrative leaps through time and perspective, attempting an expansive cosmic view of reality through the explored microcosm of lives that intersect in one Nebraska school. The keyword here being ‘attempting’, as Ware’s view of things is too melodramatic, morose, and just plain boring to represent much of any wider reality than his specific creative confines.
The wan novelties begin even before the narrative actually starts. The comic comes with a book jacket that can be removed and unfolds into its own tableaux, roughly the size of one newspaper page. We get diagrams and illustrations of the scenes and events that occur within the story while, at the borders, with excruciatingly small font, Ware slips in blurbs, plot-summaries, optical illusions, a crossword puzzle, a maze, instructions on how to fold the cover itself, etc… you get the idea. The writing in this jacket is in an overtly self-aware, pretentious metafictional style, for example:
Instructions: for enjoying all the exciting features of your specially designed “RUSTY BROWN” book jacket which, by its inherent nature and structure, conveniently and site-specifically reflects the equilateral trisymmetry of the protagonist-structure of the half-text by providing the reader with the ability to select…
Yes, one can argue that this is a parody of book jackets and the pompous writing is intentional. The problem is that parodies are supposed to be funny, and this is neither funny nor does it provide much meaning narrative-wise. Ultimately, the whole thing amounts to meticulous masturbation: Chris Ware showing off how smart, ‘creative’, and wacky he is, despite merely rehashing, visually, the tedious gimmickry of many other postmodern novels. Nor is it even new to Ware’s own works, since he has done the same meticulous parodying in pretty much everything he’s ever created. Even in terms of simple tactility, the jacket transforms an already bulky, oddly shaped volume into something even more unwieldy and intrusive to actual handling. In the end I removed it, dumped it in a drawer, and forgot about it until the writing of this review.
The narrative begins proper with a monologue by an unknown narrator on the uniquity of snowflakes, set upon a background of snowfall. This is Ware’s attempt to be poetic, but the symbolism is obvious and overdone, and Ware’s prose is awfully overmodified:
While a snowflake on a finger lingers only a second before resolving back into a drop of water, freezing that drop of water will not produce a snowflake—it will only produce a little bead of ice.
The exquisite, miraculous shape of a snowflake is a result of the singular path it takes through utterly unique conditions of cloudiness, temperature, and humidity, a veritable picture of its whole life from its birth as a speck of dirt to its end as a fragile miniature crystal flower.
Like the growing rings of a tiny hexagonal tree, billions of water molecules spin around and around, each finding the closest, easiest, and most comfortable bond (just as people, who seek the companionship of like minds and bodies, cannot simply be thrown together and expect to thrive) until, with no room left to fall, the whole finds its way to your snow-shovel, glove, or TSSHHT.
I don’t think I need to point out the specifics of why this is mediocre writing, but it’s very telling that Ware drops a comment in parenthesis spelling out the themes of loneliness and alienation, as though that wouldn’t be obvious from the remaining 300+ pages of the book capturing anomic, lonely internal lives. The ‘TSSHHT’ at the end is more gimmickry, as the next page reveals the title ‘Rusty Brown’ on a background of television static which has visual correspondence with the falling snow. After that, we get a page that lists the main characters TV-credit style, drawing attention to the story’s fictive confines.
We then zoom in on Rusty Brown’s house as dawn breaks on a winter morning in 1980s Nebraska, which opens the first section. The main narrative gimmick of this section is that the panels on the top half of the page chart Rusty’s perspective, while those on the bottom chart Chalky’s perspective, allowing us to follow parallel storylines simultaneously, though the POV will shift to other characters in a freeform manner as the narrative plods on, until both parallel storylines merge and it returns back to a relatively linear sequence. This section deals with Chalky and Alice’s first day of school as newly transferred students. The events of the day are depicted in ‘real time’, such that sometimes the events of the top storyline will run continuous with the bottom one. School life in this section is utterly unromanticized and almost every single character is miserable. Rusty is bullied, socially ostracized, and has lewd fantasies about his Supergirl action figure in class. Chalky dreads school and is later bullied with Rusty when he tries to befriend him. Woody is undergoing a mid-life crisis, grumbles about the meaninglessness of it all, secretly lusts after Alice, and is mocked by his students behind his back. Alice angsts about making new friends, leaving old ones behind, and has to deal with the cruel teasing of Jordan as well as general high-school social dynamics. Chris is depicted in the worst light in this section as he also angsts about his life, though in a more pretentiously literary style of narration, while he’s shown to smoke weed with Jordan in the school carpark, peek at Alice’s panties during his art class, and draw mocking caricatures of Woody behind his back. Through flashbacks we also find out he makes derivative Roy Lichtenstein-style pop art paintings and has his own relationship problems. Only Joanne and Jordan escape the melodramatics of this section, though their internal struggles will be revealed later.
The one thing that becomes clear even this early in the narrative is that, for all the gimmickry and formal bombastics, Chris Ware has a surprisingly lacklustre observational eye. He’s rarely able to pull off subtle, indirect characterization and either uses obvious visual cues, makes obvious symbolic connections, or overdoes the narration. For example, a scene with Woody sitting in a carpark, staring at a map of Nebraska, has his POV zooming in on one of the map’s roads, and he suddenly recalls (or imagines) meeting a woman at a Holiday Inn’s salad bar, having a one-night stand with her, and being wracked with guilt while lying in bed. Then, we get an image of him blowing his brains out with a gun. Whether it’s a memory or fantasy matters little. The greater sin is that it does little to limn Woody’s character beyond the cliché of an ugly, fat teacher churning with sexual repression. Immediately after this moment, Woody spots Alice, while Ware provides a close-up of her face to signal to us that he’s leering at her. Not exactly the heights of psychology to have a sexually repressed loser who ponders adultery, contemplates suicide, and is shaken by the appearance of beautiful young babe that represents to him all that stands beyond his reach. Just think how much more mystery and subtlety Ware could have infused into the scene if he used a few elliptical panels hinting what’s taking place, or if he didn’t drop a cliché like adultery but spelled out Woody’s existential woes in a more indirect manner.
Still, Chris Ware’s saving grace, which ensures, at least, his palatability as an artist is, well, his art. That is, the way the mechanics of comic panels allow for nonlinearity (e.g. ‘stream-of-consciousness’ techniques) to register better than similar attempts in other mediums, such as prose. This, combined with the general condensation visuals allow, means that even when Ware makes so many bad artistic choices in a row, there are still interesting combinations that point to further possibilities to be harnessed by a more controlled artist. The aforementioned gimmick of the parallel panelling, for example, does serve a subversive purpose to undermine Woody’s leering in this scene, as it tracks Alice’s perspective of the event, which rebuts some of his romanticization of her. No, this isn’t equivalent to the same techniques of perspective layering and intentional monotony in, say, a film like Satantango, as Ware’s art is nowhere near atmospheric enough, nor his text potent or poetic enough, to cohere these combinations into a more transcendent form of communication. But to deny they exist would be unfair. Yet, even if such moments bring meaning to melodrama, perhaps allowing for a reading that criticizes the solipsism of the characters (which is likely what Chris Ware intended), the fact is, the reader is still forced to slog through about 80-90% of the narrative’s cliches for wan payoffs that have been executed better in many other works. Thus, one finds little reason for this narrative to exist in the particular way it does.
Much of the first section putters through these character perspectives, setting up surface impressions which will be elaborated on later. The section then terminates with a scene of Woody standing in a carpark, pondering the desolate winter landscape. This leads into an abrupt transition to the next section, which begins with a science fiction story-within-a-story called “The Seeing-Eye Dogs Of Mars” that lasts for about 30 pages. Later, we’ll find out this story belongs to an SF zine and was written by a younger Woody who used to be a science-fiction nerd, providing some parallels between the obsessions of father and son. Ultimately, Seeing-Eye Dogs is a third-rate Twilight Zone-esque tale about a group of four astronauts (two couples) who are sent to Mars to establish a base, only for them to realize that their communication with Earth has been severed, nor are they receiving any of the resources needed to survive. The story is relayed by an unreliable, suspiciously polite narrator and charts the breakdown of the group, largely due to the narrator going crazy and killing everyone else, becoming the lone survivor on the base. Its purpose within the greater narrative is painfully obvious, merely reiterating Woody’s psyche, as well as the larger themes of loneliness and alienation, in a fantastical manner. The narrator himself shares Woody’s hair colour and his wife is depicted in the same manner as Woody’s first girlfriend. Seeing-Eye Dogs doesn’t even function as a satisfactory standalone SF story because it capitalizes little on the genre’s strengths, such as the ability to provide a visionary glimpse of alternate modes of existence. Rather it’s a psychokiller melodrama transplanted into space, without any of the grandeur of space itself since all of it is still drawn in Ware’s sexless, unimaginative style. One could argue that this reflects Woody’s lack of talent as an author. But, if that was main point, the fact that the tale stretches for so many pages gives it unnecessary narrative weight so it overstays its welcome. More likely, Chris Ware himself thought it was an interesting gimmick. I could even see it as a Watchmen reference, since Alan Moore uses the same trope there. Honestly, at this point one would do better to put down Rusty Brown and read Watchmen instead. At least the art there is vibrant.
After Seeing-Eye Dogs, we move into Woody’s section proper. The story’s intrusion into the overarching narrative is framed as Woody reading the SF zine at night. He sets it aside, flips through other books, coming across a picture of his first girlfriend hidden in one volume. This sends him reminiscing about 1955, where most of the section takes place. What follows is probably the worst part of the whole comic, an utterly melodramatic and unrealistic portrayal of a relationship between a creepy loser and a cold, manipulative vixen, featuring bad, rambly narration like this:
I’d never even kissed a girl before, let alone lain in bed with a completely naked one… her cold leg thrown over mine, her body inches from my face… Truth is, it hadn’t gone well at all…something about her was…scratchy…painful…I think I even started to bleed…I was sure I was doing something wrong…plus, there were all of these things I hadn’t expected, like the tiny hairs where I’d never imagined there could be any…
Woody’s girlfriend (who is not named) works at the same newspaper office as him and alternates between coming over to his place to have sex and acting coldly towards him in public. It’s clear that she keeps him at a distance because ‘people will talk’, and she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s having a relationship with the person on the lowest rung of the office social ladder. Eventually, Woody becomes obsessed with her, stalks her all the way to her house, gets rejected, goes into a breakdown, and secludes himself in his own home with a stack of science fiction books. After a while, he’s visited by her, looking to reconcile. The remaining trajectory of the relationship is then condensed into a single page of fragmentary panels, showing how they reconcile and breakup two more times until she finally rejects him by tearing up a love letter from him publicly. He gets fired, probably due to his poor work performance and absences. As he leaves the office building he meets the plump, orange-haired woman who will become his future wife and falls into a relationship with her, probably as a rebound from the disaster that was his last relationship. Then, two pages depict their marriage (apparently a shotgun one) all the way to its 1980s state, with Woody working as a teacher.
While the relationship between Woody and his first girlfriend is not outside the realm of possibility, what really stretches the psychological credulity is how incomprehensible the girlfriend’s actions are. She’s both a caricature of cruelty and opaque in her motives. After all, Woody doesn’t have anything going for him, either intellectually, sexually, or in terms of simple emotional compatibility. It’s also implied that she’s sleeping with other men in the office, as Woody bumps into his boss leaving her house, so it’s not a lack of choice or options that ties her to him. More likely, she’s just a sadist who wants to lord it over a lesser human being. But given how high the social stakes apparently are to her, and how unstable Woody becomes with his stalking and delusions, her willingness to reconcile with him several times is just weird. And for the imaginary Chris Ware fanboy in my head who might try pull the “humans are irrational and life is irrational” card in an attempt to justify the characterization here, there’s a difference between depicting a consistent portrait of human fallibility and one that is simply underdeveloped and, as a result, comes off as schizophrenic. Woody Allen’s Manhattan has a consistent, realistic portrait of a woman with issues in the form of Mary. Chris Ware’s take feels like he wanted to make his own wish-fulfilment melodrama and implemented the nerd-vixen scenario without properly considering the narrative mechanics.
In the end, even if Woody’s girlfriend were to be written better, there’s still Woody’s own anomic trajectory and solipsistic narration to deal with. It’s not that this is merely another story about a white male loser, as some critics would note, but that this is merely another story about a white male loser, merely another indistinct entry in a long line of depictions stretching from Chekhov to Charlie Kaufman to even Chris Ware himself (in his earlier Jimmy Corrigan). And, once again, the only inklings of any attempt to transcend these tropes are found in the ink itself, especially with the small panels that condense Woody’s life to convey both his messy experience of time and the insignificance of it in the larger scope of things.
Woody’s section ends in 1980s with a humiliating scene in his home’s bathroom. The next section, about Jordan, is the most consciously experimental section, playing with the temporal flow of the comic itself. It spans the whole of Jordan Lint’s life, every flip of the page aging him by one year. This is probably the most celebrated part of the comic, going by the reviews of critics and on Goodreads. It was even sold as its own volume before the whole Rusty Brown was published. Compared to Woody’s section, Jordan’s comes off as better, but that’s like comparing a pile of shit to a gob of spit. At least, I think Jordan’s section provides far more insight into Ware’s artistry than the other sections, because by utilizing this year-by-year montage gimmick, Ware forces himself into a sort of observational flash-fiction style of storytelling. Every page has to focus on a scene or moment that condenses and conveys an aspect of Jordan. Ware’s general artistic failings, his overreliance on melodramatic tropes and inability to pull off meaningful psychology, are thus far more prominent and diagnosable.
Chris Ware opens with Jordan’s infant years, which are depicted in a sort of diagrammatic abstract art style to convey a diluted neonatal internal world. It’s unique, but the underlying psychology is extremely Freudian, establishing the figure of the mother as prominent, while displaying scenes of him shitting on the floor and developing a phallic fixation. This sets up a couple of simplistic Freudian motivations that will recur throughout Jordan’s life: his need for a mother (since his actual one will soon die), his constant need for sexual gratification and love, and his inability to not be an asshole no matter how hard he tries.
With these psychological posits put in place, what follows is a life that unfolds like every single WASPy melodramatic trope crammed into a singular human being. In fact, I’ll list it all right here (numbered, for convenience): 1. Abusive father influencing inner violence 2. Dead mother and mommy issues 3. Resentment towards stepmother 4. Becomes school bully 5. Buys guitar, starts rock band 6. Crashes car leading to death of best friend 7. Joins college fraternity house and hazes initiates 8. Attempts to kickstart rock star life by moving to California (?) which predictably fails leading to angry phone call with father 9. Adultery (girlfriend) 10. Acquires office job from father’s connections 11. Finds woman who soothes soul, leads him on the right track recovering from alcoholism and trauma 12. Gets married, has family with child 13. Returns back to Christianity, has Christian guilt phase 14. Adultery (wife) 15. Starts embezzling funds 16. Divorce 17. Witnesses 9/11 18. Meets new woman with daughter and kickstarts new relationship and marriage 19. Mid-life crisis and corporate ennui 20. Embezzlement discovered; life goes to shit 21. Develops aging health problems, blood in puke 22. Becomes bitter old bastard who stares at computer and evicts renters 23. Discovers that son from previous marriage was gay and became author who drops memoir detailing child abuse (the ‘twist’ that he was an asshole all along) 24. Life falls into further shambles, new wife leaves him 25. Dementia and decay 26. Dies alone.
All of the above is squeezed into roughly 72 pages and, for once, the critique of ‘too white and too male’ might actually be appropriate. Interesting effects do pop up here and there, facilitated by the art and the montage-structure, but so much is weighed down by pure cliché. This has the result of making Jordan’s life seem incredibly mundane and incredibly unrealistic at the same time. The narration is less rambly than Woody’s, but Ware intends to acquaint you to Jordan’s inner vapidity as thoroughly as he can, to the point where one feels like teleporting next to Ware to shake him by the lapels, screaming: “YES, I GET IT! JORDAN IS A BRAINLESS TWAT!” I can imagine a situation where an artist could still make Jordan’s life narratively work by leveraging on the art to play off the melodramatics, but they would have to be great, an actual master of the craft, not the sort of poseur Ware is.
As though to remind us that we’re reading a larger narrative and not a standalone WASP melodrama, sometimes Jordan’s life will intersect with other Rusty Brown characters. There’s a scene of him meeting Rusty in a supermarket, in his adulthood, and we find out that, since the 1980s, Rusty’s mind has declined even further, reducing him to a sort of manchild. Then, at other times (notably, during his death), Jordan will have brief memory flashes of what appears to be a scene of Alice White naked and unconscious on the seat of his car, hinting that some sort of rape occurred. These plot points serve to make the comic more complex, adding a bit of intrigue, but the narrative’s already too flawed for it to mean much.
With Jordan out of the way, we come to the last section of the comic, focusing on the black female teacher Joanne Cole. This is by far the best section of the whole comic, although, when compared to the entirety of art out there, it’s just a mediocre tale that avoids the melodramatics of the previous sections but falls, instead, into consistent banality. There are no grand gimmicks this time. Much of it centres on Joanne living her life and the little humiliations and sufferings she weathers, as she climbs her occupational ladder, finds artistic pleasure in learning the banjo, and takes care of her mother, all while her mind shuttles between past and present. Chris Ware’s intentions with the book’s structure, starting with two white male losers and ending with a black ‘good woman’, are extremely transparent, almost insultingly so. Still, perhaps it’s the extra effort required to write about a racial experience outside his ken, as well as the danger of being publicly pilloried if he were to fuck it up, that Ware managed to lift this section up into passability.
This also provides a conundrum for me as a critic because, frankly, there’s really nothing much I can say about this section. It’s neither bad nor good. All of its flaws are flaws throughout the whole comic that I’ve already dealt with, such as the banal art and wan formal experimentation. The rest is just…okay. Subtle forms of racism, ‘microaggressions’, are shown. America’s racist history is touched on. Familial insecurities are touched on. Loneliness and stoic resignation are touched on. The idea of art as a panacea for strife is touched on. The observational storytelling is better, though there are no visionary images or powerful artistic insight that ignites within. And the section itself sort of peters out with a mild dramatic reveal that Joanne had a child put up for adoption, who finally comes to visit her and alleviate the guilt she felt within her. It ends with a scene of the daughter comforting the mother. Then it cuts to ‘Intermission’. The end. And, thus, we’re left with probably a decade-long wait for the banal continuation of Rusty Brown.
If you ask me, that’s really where the existential horror of the comic lies. That there are comic artists out there slaving so much for a medium where the technical barriers enforce a slim artistic output, yet most of that output amounts to piffle, partly because of a plain lack of talent and vision, and partly because of market forces flattening everything into meaningless tripe. Perhaps, it’s also the fact that, being one whose childhood was immersed in the 2000s, with its endless marvels, illusions, and diversions knocking on all doors, I’ve always found myself drawn to these novel mediums, despite writing being the only world within my grasp. Theoretically, comics, video games, and animation should be the apex of all the arts, since that’s where the synthesis lies, where all mediums converge, where one a world of pure intellect can be imagined without the limitations of the real. By some fluke of history, or, perhaps, by cosmic inevitability, these mediums have remained stuck in the cradle, suckling on wealth, nostalgia, and desire. And, in the alternation between mainstream and reaction, we’re left with a centre perpetually bereft, waiting to be found.
So, one asks, what now?
Ultimately, I cannot answer. It’s not my fight, after all. Only, having slogged through this comic, I can make a few modest recommendations. For those who have no stake in the medium, don’t waste your time on Chris Ware. The faster he’s forgotten, the better. For those budding comic artists, maybe pick up Building Stories or Jimmy Corrigan to use as a whetstone for sharper, icier blades, and start shredding.
* * *
If you enjoyed this review of Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a comparison between Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a survey of photography from Josef Sudek to Laura Makabresku, and a discussion of Hermann Hesse’s classic novel, Steppenwolf.
More from Chin Jian Xiong: Facts of a Face: on Janet Lewis’s “The Wife of Martin Guerre”, The Issue To Create: Debunking a Helen Vendler Myth With (Good) Poetry