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Comic genius
Cartoonist Chris Ware may be the smartest kid on earth
Ware uses pictures as well as words to speak a language all his own.
Credit:Tom Van Ende

Inside Daniel Raeburn's Chris Ware, an academic monograph that Yale University Press published in 2004, there's a full-page photograph of the comics artist sitting in his Chicago-area living room. Cartoonists don't get the academic-monograph treatment very often, and Ware doesn't look entirely comfortable with the idea, his gaze directed off to the side, where one can imagine an intruder ' a hooded skeleton holding a scythe, perhaps ' coming his way. But the cat on Ware's lap hasn't woken up. And the Morris chair he's sitting on, next to the fireplace, gives off a warm, cozy vibe. Ware himself, though not yet 40, has a grandfatherly air about him ' the wire-rim glasses, the sensible watch, the chinos. Only the hiking boots, so pigeon-toed they form a right angle, suggest a gawky kid who, given the courage, would like to come out and play.

Over Ware's shoulder, arranged on the mantelpiece like the toy aisle at Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, are some of the spin-offs from Ware's overactive imagination. The Acme Book Dispenser, a wooden contraption that looks like the world's first vending machine, sends a miniature 60-page comic book sliding down the slide in exchange for a house key. Next to that is the disembodied head of a robotic cat, encased in glass. Fans of Ware may or may not recognize this as Sparky, Ware's answer to George Herriman's eternal optimist, Krazy Kat. Turn a crank on the side of the box and Sparky sings while his eyes open and close and roll around in their sockets. Next to Sparky is another hand-cranked gizmo, this one of Quimby the Mouse, Ware's answer to Ignatz, who always responded to Krazy Kat's undying affection with a brick to the side of the head.

Of all the cartoonists working today, Ware, who will be appearing at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 21 (Wisconsin Union Theatre, 3 p.m.), is perhaps the most beholden to the past. His graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, which was heralded as a masterpiece when it was released in 2000, reached all the way back to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, the Victorian era's last gasp before the onslaught of World War I. And his work seems to pick up where some of the early giants of comics history ' Herriman, Winsor McCay, Frank King ' left off, before Superman and Batman and all the other Men in Tights turned the medium into greasy kid's stuff. Right above Ware's head in the photograph, framed and hung on the wall, is one of King's old 'Gasoline Alley' strips, from back when the automobile held such life-enhancing promise.

Ware, who plays banjo and can bang out a rag on piano (he also edits and produces The Ragtime Ephemeralist, an attempt to keep that lost art from disappearing altogether), may have been born into the wrong century. He might have felt more at home in the horse-and-buggy world of 1906 than in the point-and-shoot world of 2006. At any rate, he's often expressed disappointment with the era he wound up in. 'There seems to be such a laziness in ' and I hate to use this phrase ' the modern world,' he once told The New York Times. 'Everything is pumped out so quickly to show that you can read it while passing by, like billboards and those flashcards before movie shows.'

Flashcards? Movie shows? Who calls them movie shows anymore? At first glance, Ware can seem lost in nostalgia for a time before he was even born.

At second glance, he seems like some kind of genius, a poet who uses pictures as well as words to speak a language all his own.

We're always told not to judge a book by its cover, so let's skip past the exercise in Constructivist typographia that Ware designed for Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and proceed directly to the book's front matter, which leads off with a set of 'General Instructions' printed in such teensy-weensy type that you have to run out and buy a magnifying glass just to see what Ware's up to. He's up to his usual tricks, testing the reader's patience with a style of writing last seen in an outhouse-destined Sears Roebuck catalog. ('It will be noted that the volume which you now hold has been engineered for facile deportment....') But the content runs farther afield, encompassing everything from a one-paragraph summary of comics history to a 10-question 'Exam' designed to seek out the book's true audience. ('Begin when we say begin. Begin.')

For a guy whose stock-in-trade is pictures, Ware has a real way with words ' yesterday's words, anyway. His fake ads, which are used less as filler than as rhetorical Whoopie Cushions, are pitch-perfect renditions of turn-of-the-last-century flim-flammery, the kind of hucksterism that Professor Henry Hill spews forth in The Music Man. But band instruments aren't the items for sale here. 'RAISE MINIATURE HUMANS,' the headline reads for what turns out to be an ad for a sex manual. 'Complete guidebook, instructions. Start now. Here's how: Find someone of the opposite sex, have intercourse and then wait. Wow! Everybody's doing it. Don't miss out.' Then, where the name of the business establishment would normally go: PLANNED PARENTHOOD, INC. Thus does Ware put an ironic, contemporary twist on the snake-oil salesmen of the past.

For years now, Ware has been sending out collections of his various strips under the banner of the fictive Acme Novelty Company, an outfit that can't help but remind us of the Johnson Smith Company, purveyors of a mail-order catalog through which generations of boys and girls, but mostly boys, have achieved their wildest dreams, as long as their wildest dreams involved, say, exploding cigars and stink bombs. Acme is a key part of Ware's esthetic, a throwback to a simpler time that, upon further reflection, doesn't seem so simple after all. And like Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, it has a reality all its own. But Ware might have been stranded there, turning out 'The Finest Poorly-Drawn, Non-Serious, Low-Class, Juvenile, Good Old-Fashioned American Colored Cartoon Pages,' if he hadn't focused his attention on Jimmy Corrigan.

Imagine a 36-year-old Charlie Brown who, over the years, has finally lost the thin thread of hope that, maybe this time, Lucy won't pull the football away at the last second. That's Jimmy Corrigan, a bland office worker in a bland office building who, according to Ware, is 'a pathetic version of myself.' He even looks like Ware, with his rounded-off features and his receding hairline. But Jimmy is also an Everyman for those of us who 1) have no friends, 2) talk to our moms on the phone every day, 3) still eat Captain Crunch cereal for breakfast and 4) try to ward off life's nightmares with daydreams. Don't fit the description? Then you may not enjoy this epic ode to fathers and sons, loneliness and despair, remorse and regret, getting old and dying. But if your father has seemed a little distant lately ' the last 36 years, say ' then this may be just the epic ode you're looking for.

It opens with the young Jimmy heading off with his mother to a Classic Car Show, where a guy who used to play Super-Man on TV is making a personal appearance, complete with bad jokes about having just flown in. ('But y'know, my arms aren't tired at all!') Yelled at by his mother for wandering off, Jimmy is rescued by the man in the cape, who proceeds to take both of them out to dinner at the Kountry Kookin' restaurant. And the next morning, while Jimmy's eating his Captain Crunch, who should wander into the kitchen from the general direction of his mother's bedroom but Super-Man, now in street clothes and whispering so as not to wake up the lady of the house. Making a hasty retreat, he hands his mask over to Jimmy, says he deserves it and tells him to keep an eye out for crime. It's an understatedly poignant moment, the closest Jimmy will ever get to having a dad around.

Zoom ahead 30 years or so and Jimmy, looking up from his carrel one day, sees a man in a superhero costume on a nearby roof. The man waves. Jimmy waves back. Then, in a two-panel moment that takes up a whole page, the man, unable to leap tall buildings in a single bound, leaps to his death instead. People gather around, then disperse. Jimmy takes a phone call from his mother, who's dying in a hospital. And now you have an idea of just how bleak things are capable of getting. Super-Man's dead, and Jimmy isn't feeling so good himself, but there's change in the air, as signified by a close-up of the change machine in the employee break room. After 36 years of watching the world go by, Jimmy's about to be summoned by his father, whom he's never met. A plane ticket arrives in the mail, and we're off to see the wizard, who tends bar in an airport lounge called the Landing Field.

What follows, through hundreds, if not thousands, of meticulously drawn panels, is a family saga that traces three generations of Corrigan men, history repeating itself but also coming up with all new sorts of ways to frustrate them. Jimmy's visit with his father ' they rent a video their first night together ' is juxtaposed with the 1890s childhood of Jimmy's grandfather, an abused child growing up in the shadows of the World's Columbian Exposition. And the fair, in all its wedding-cake whiteness, represents the beautiful, dignified life that always seems to lie just beyond the Corrigans' grasp. Jimmy's grandfather, taken to the top of the world's largest building, which Ware renders with an architect's eye for detail, is left there to fend for himself. As in a Dickens novel, abandonment is the black hole where the heart should be.

Unlike Dickens, Ware doles out emotion in carefully calibrated droplets, sentiment never diluting into sentimentality. And through all the cruelty that the Corrigan men inflict on one another, there's always the sense that, if only because the law of averages will eventually catch up with them, things just might get better. 'The book is morose,' Ware told one interviewer, 'but I tried to make the pages as beautiful as I possibly could.' And beautiful they are, each panel a jewel that's been smoothed and polished, then placed on the page with the utmost care. In Jimmy Corrigan, Ware goes with warm browns and grays, largely avoiding the primary colors that superhero comics prance around in. And the warmth is welcome, offsetting a certain chilliness in the drawing style ' the thick, black outlines, the flat planes of color, the sense that Ware did it all with a T-square and a compass.

It's a strangely seductive effect, everything tamped down, muted, yet glowing, like embers or long-forgotten memories. Individually, the panels don't bear much scrutiny; they're ideograms, worth something less than a thousand words. Collectively, they get a rhythm going ' the dot-dash-dot of Morse code or the tickly tinklings of a player piano. But Ware's work isn't just the art of mechanical reproduction. There's real emotion here, moments of sublime stillness, as when Jimmy's grandfather, having tagged along with a red-headed girl who will never again give him the time of day, looks out over the nearly completed fairgrounds and is mesmerized, not by the Beaux Arts masterpieces or the wide expanse of Lake Michigan, but by 'the single strand of red hair that dances silently around his nose and eyelashes.' In an otherwise empty panel, we see a short, wavy follicle of hair.

Since completing Jimmy Corrigan, Ware has been focusing on a pair of strips, either of which could turn out to be his next graphic novel. Rusty Brown features a pudgy, buck-toothed kid obsessed with superhero action figures who grows up to become...a pudgy, buck-toothed kid who's still obsessed with superhero action figures. And Building Stories, which was serialized in The New York Times Magazine in late 2005 and early 2006, presents a set of interlocking stories, all of which take place in a three-story brownstone that literally embodies the phrase 'If these walls could talk....' Sometimes employing axonometric projections ' it's like looking down at a doll's house with the roof removed ' Building Stories feeds Ware's hunger for formal experimentation. This is the guy, after all, who once squeezed 325 tiny panels onto a single page of a 'Quimby the Mouse' strip.

He's also the guy who created 'The World's Smallest Comic Strip,' which runs along the book-cover outer edge of his most recent Acme Novelty Library volume. And he's the guy who drew a complete history of art, from the pre-Cambrian era to the World of Tomorrow, in four ' count 'em, four ' pages. (The Cartoonist of Tomorrow takes a break from his Herculean labors to visit an art museum on his touch-screen computer but winds up dropping $199.95 on porn.) Finally, he's the guy who provided complete instructions for how to build your very own disembodied cat head. ('A Pleasant and Affecting Winter Project for the Amateur Hobbyist or Craftsman.') So relentlessly fertile is Ware's imagination, so Joycean in its abundance, so Picasso-like in its search for new forms, that you have to struggle to keep up, return over and over again to the old stuff to see if there's anything you missed. There invariably is.

And yet it's heartening to know that, day after day, year after year, Ware continues to go back to the ol' drawing board, searching for just the right way to translate a fleeting emotion into words and pictures. His is an antiquarian art, totally at odds with the iPod, the Xbox, MySpace and YouTube. But he can hardly be accused of mining the past for its nostalgic nuggets, unless we remember that nostalgia was once considered a mental illness akin to melancholia. Sadness seeps through Ware's work like a radioactive cloud, poisoning everything in sight. But only by facing up to the fact that the past ain't what it used to be, that life is wasted on the living, can we start to appreciate how damn beautiful everything is, from the world's largest building to the single strand of hair that dances silently around the nose and eyelashes of a lonely boy who only wanted to go out and play.

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