Chris Ware probably isn’t an interesting enough person to deserve the extraordinary talent he has. At least that’s what you think he wants us to think, and whether it’s an admission or a humble-brag aching for rebuttal, you don’t know — and you don’t particularly care.
Someone whose ego matched his abilities would have rejiggered his new book’s immensity (18 inches high, almost 9 pounds) to make the autobiographical anecdotes related in readable type. Instead, raw tiny lines of text bury relevant personal tales in the middle of anodyne recitations of the technical details of his craft.
But that’s been his shtick all along: Subsume the self-loathing in stories defined by misandry, loneliness, comedy, bathos and an appreciation of American visual vernacular that’s as merciless as it is affectionate. The result: a collection of works without parallel in modern storytelling and graphic design.
“Monograph” assembles his work in a volume of daunting density that lays out one simple thesis: Regardless of what Ware thinks about himself, he deserves this level of celebration. All he did was master every graphic style of the 20th century — and invent a new one for the 21st.
Alas — or, as a Ware cartoon would put it, the word “ALAS” looming over a tiny picture of someone weeping big cartoon tears — “Monograph” presents selections from his three main narrative works (“Jimmy Corrigan,” “Rusty Brown” and “Building Stories”) as stand-alone art stripped of their narrative.
This allows the reader to appreciate them as compositions, but discourages close examination. If you do peer at the panels, nose an inch from the paper, the parts seem far less than the whole — an impression you rarely get when reading one of the books.
The more complex the illustration, the more daunting the details, the less it rewards examination. The reader follows 20 tiny lines to 40 tiny pictures only to learn that life is meaningless, and everything is connected. His latest stylistic innovation — simplistic characters made of three circles and stick limbs — lack the playfulness and personality of his earlier work; his New Yorker covers are more accomplished, but downbeat and didactic.
At the end of the book the reader is astonished by his accomplishments — the typography, the models, the dioramas, the innumerable panels, the masterful use of color — but it’s telling that you might want to spend more time with the earliest work. Black and white, with dread all over — but full of life, and something else his later work lacks: the silly joy of an artist just starting out.
James Lileks is a Star Tribune feature writer and columnist.
By: Chris Ware.
Publisher: Rizzoli, 280 pages, 300 color and black and white photographs, $60.