The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking.
MICHAEL A. PEMBERTON
Georgia Southern University
In their introduction to The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking, editors David M. Ball and Martha B. Kuhlman note that for many years, Ware "was a cult figure primarily known only within the comics community," an innovative writer/artist who came to the attention of the scholarly world only after the publication of his graphic novel jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth in 2000 (xvii). Though Ware began his comics career many years earlier, drawing quirky and innovative cartoons for UT Austin's Daily Texan, it was not until he published four pages in RAW in 1990 that his work gained nationwide exposure and a growing cadre of fans. Between 1990 and 2000, Ware published fourteen volumes of The ACME Novelty Library, an anthology of short comics stories, character studies, experiments in graphic design, quasi-autobiographical narratives, and preliminary forays into the world of Jimmy Corrigan. Now, ten years after the collected/revised/expanded Jimmy Corrigan appeared on bookstore shelves, this collection of fifteen essays exploring Ware's life and oeuvre represents the first book-length critical text devoted entirely to his comics work. It is, at heart, an attempt--and an impressive one at that--to justify the sustained scholarly interest that Ware has attracted over the years.
Ware is a tantalizing subject for scholarly study for several reasons, not the least of which is his assiduous postmodern sensibility regarding matters of character, identity, narrative, and culture. In his comics he embraces an unconventional, avant-garde approach to art and story that transcends (and some would say, transgresses against) literary and artistic conventions. Typically, he focuses on the ordinary, mundane circumstances of life, the minutiae of experience, and the trivial details of place (a la Harvey Pekar and Alison Bechdel) rather than the fantastic, the heroic, or the idealistic that comprise most comic book fare. He draws from a wide range of literary and artistic traditions and violates just as many, often disrupting readers' expectations with non-sequential narratives and impressionistic renderings of temporal and spatial relationships. It is no surprise, then, that contributors to this collection (which had its origins in a 2007 MLA Conference roundtable) approach Ware's comics from a diverse set of scholarly perspectives that reflect the richness of their subject matter, including comics and art history, disability studies, and critical race theory. Having said that, the theoretical and rhetorical paradigms for all the essays in this book are firmly situated in the domain of literary theory and critical/cultural analysis.
The book is divided into five sections--Contexts and Canons, Artistic Intersections, The Urban Landscape, Reading History, and Everyday Temporalities--each of which offers a distinctive lens for analysis and interpretation. However, they all display a striking homogeneity in their shared attention to the tensions and inherent self-contradictions that appear in nearly every aspect of Ware's graphic corpus. To be fair, Ware's work almost demands this sort of critical explication. His art and storylines belong to what New York Times Magazine critic Peter Schjeldahl describes as "a 'cult of difficulty' that has always characterized avant-gardes" (ix). Ware's strategy for provoking this sense of difficulty involves the carefully chosen juxtaposition of concurrent yet conflicting images and themes. To cite just one example, in "Contexts and Canons," a single unifying theme quickly emerges in each of the chapters, namely the conflict between Ware's forceful rejection of the critical and aesthetic frameworks of canonicity and his equally forceful though somewhat ironic reverence for the aesthetics of high art and the stylistic sophistication of 'serious' literature. Marc Singer's chapter on "The Limits of Realism: Alternative Comics and Middlebrow Aesthetics" examines this odd contradiction explicitly, arguing that while Ware has blamed the marginalization of the comics medium on arbitrary distinctions between high and low culture, he has nevertheless "reinforce[d] many of the same assumptions and values--favoring the literary, the textual, the realistic--that denied comics such legitimacy in the first place" (29). Other chapters in this section explore similar tensions and conflicting aesthetic allegiances in Ware's comics. Jeet Heer examines the impact that two dramatically different comic strip creators, expressionist George Herriman ("Krazy Kat") and realist Frank King ("Gasoline Alley"), have had on Ware's distinctive notions of layout, panel design, and narrative structure. Jacob Brogan chronicles Ware's unrelenting rejection of the superhero mythos in Jimmy Corrigan, but juxtaposes that against the unabashed homage Ware pays to superhero comics and their compelling ideologies in the same work. David Ball, focusing on the whole of Ware's literary corpus but paying particular attention to "Writers on Writers," notes that failure--a common trope and generative device for literature--is a pervasive theme in Ware's stories, characters, and settings. Thus, Ball argues, despite his claims for independence and his denunciation of conventional literary norms, this concern for failure places Ware firmly within a well-established literary tradition.
Other chapters in this collection identify related complexities and contradictions in Ware's artistic and aesthetic style (Roeder, Kuhlman, Cates); in his critiques of modernism and gentrification of urban landscapes (Worden, Godbey); in his interpretations of cultural history and identity construction (Davis-McElligatt, Gilmore, Wildis); and in his manipulations of time, disability, and memory for narrative and rhetorical purpose (Banita, Berman, Sattler). These are all strong, well-researched and thoughtfully written essays that articulate the depth of Ware's critical thought and the extent to which he employs the stylistic and narrative commonplaces of modernist representation in service of a scathing ideological critique. To a person, the contributors exhibit an intimate familiarity with Ware's aesthetic philosophy, the nuances of literary and comics theory, and the scholarly dimensions of non-literary fields that can provide intriguing insights into Ware's vision.
Though it may seem like a relatively minor matter, it is worth noting that unlike many other academic texts about comics, nearly every chapter in this book incorporates illustrative examples of Ware's work, including full-page and two-page spreads. Even better, a sixteen-page full color insert at the book's midpoint allows readers to get a much fuller sense of Ware's robust draftsmanship and design sense. This is a high-quality, intellectually challenging compilation of articles about an equally high-quality, intellectually challenging master of the comics form. For those who wish to learn more about one of the field's most respected innovators--or for those who just want someone to explain what the heck Ware's comics are all about--this book is a welcome addition to any library.