Chris Ware (#110 of 8)

Review: Hillary L. Chute’s Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists

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Review: Hillary L. Chute’s Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists
Review: Hillary L. Chute’s Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists

Almost eight years ago now, Yale University Press released a thick, glossy book by Todd Hignite called In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists. It was a collection of interviews with indie cartoonists, among them Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware. The book not only reproduced, in its almost 500 full-color illustrations, examples of the work of the artists being interviewed, but also reproduced the comics they read and loved and studied and borrowed from while developing their own way of drawing and of telling stories.

Last month, the University of Chicago Press released a book by Hillary L. Chute called Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists. While it doesn’t have as many lush, dramatic reproductions of comics new and old as Hignite’s book has, it’s nevertheless a satisfying survey of the artists who have turned and are still actively turning the graphic novel into a new kind of literature—and in so doing are now being stamped with the approval of academia and its elite university presses.

Chute’s book contains 11 interviews and spans the range of the comic medium’s creativity, from the artists whose work is fully fictional (Ware, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, and Adrian Tomine), to work that’s closer to memoir and essay (Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, and Spiegelman), to new forms of political journalism (Joe Sacco and Phoebe Gloeckner), to theory and aesthetics (Scott McCloud). Chute also interviews two women who were at the helm of the most important underground comics magazines of the 1980s: Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who co-edited Weirdo with her husband Robert Crumb, and Françoise Mouly, who co-edited Raw with her husband Art Spiegelman, and who today is the art director of The New Yorker.

Looking Back Chris Ware’s Building Stories

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Looking Back: Chris Ware’s Building Stories
Looking Back: Chris Ware’s Building Stories

Though never so explicit in the everyday lives of the worried, circular-headed suburban Chicagoans who populate his work, the engine that drives Chris Ware’s comics has always been the tension between narrative control and submission. Ware’s first full-length graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, was a beautiful and exhausting exercise in authorial intrusion, coming as it does with an actual instruction guide on how to read its nonlinear paneling. The novel’s two main stories unfold in exquisite synchrony, the structure bending under the weight of multiple dream sequences and lengthy arrows from here to there. Even the use of colors and the movement of frames exploit the momentum inherent to the single-volume format, wrestling from top to bottom and left to right on the level of rods and cones.

Confined to a medium in which the briefest expositions (the cursive words, for Ware) necessarily impose on or pause what seems like the present-tense story, cartoonists, even the great ones, seem nearly doomed to the problem of artificiality and contrivance in the reading experience itself, determining the rules of the page over and over again. Building Stories, Ware’s second full-length work, addresses this issue outright, doing away entirely with the single-volume format and instead offering (at a hefty but worthwhile price tag) an oversized box filled with books, pamphlets, newspapers, and other assorted printed matter.

Far from Home Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City

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Far from Home: Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City
Far from Home: Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City

A question for the history of the graphic novel: Will anyone ever write a cartoon equivalent of Moby-Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or For Whom the Bell Tolls? Will there ever be a cartoonist who in his or her real life does a bunch of dangerous and exciting stuff, such as work on a whaling ship, pilot a river boat, or fight in a war, and who then sublimates those experiences via the imagination into a work of fiction that’s vivid and dense and spiritually substantial? More specifically, will there ever be a cartoonist who can combine with his or her comics all that you get in Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin (the audacity, the action, the energetic globetrotting) with all that you get in Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (the disappointment, the ambiguity, the baroque psychology)?

Guy Delisle’s new Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City is a nonfictional graphic novel about being far away from home in an occasionally dangerous and precarious and confusing place. It’s about living for a year in Israel while trying to be a husband, a father, and an itinerant cartoonist. Insofar as it’s a memoir, Jerusalem is low-key and humorous, and brings to mind Ross McElwee’s documentary Sherman’s March. Insofar as it’s a travelogue, Jerusalem is inquisitive and observant, and brings to mind another doc: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. As a whole, the book is both enjoyable and instructive; it makes you chuckle and grin, and it makes you feel like a more informed, concerned citizen of the world.

Minimalism Extremis Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions

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Minimalism Extremis: Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions
Minimalism Extremis: Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions

In the tradition of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, and Charles Burns’s Black Hole, Anders Nilsen’s underground graphic novel Big Questions was serialized over a decade or so, and has now been compiled into a thick, single volume that’s being touted as a magnum opus. The deluxe hardcover edition of Big Questions, which is signed by Nilsen and has supplemental extras, is very beautiful, expensive, and hefty (over 600 pages long). The designers at Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal deserve real credit for being able to make a book look so dignified and serious.

Unfortunately, Big Questions, despite its page count, its august packaging, and its toiling-cartoonist origin myth, is no grand thing. It’s a very quiet series of events—it doesn’t even feel right to call it a story—that take place on a desolate plain and involve disaffected birds wondering about a plane and the pilot that has crash-landed in their territory. There’s also an ambivalently helpful snake, devious crows, an insect-grubbing man-child, and a quiet old lady who’s killed by the plane crash.

The birds, which are drawn so simply as to be pretty much indistinguishable, talk to each other as if they’re exhausted, suggesting androgynous hipsters lounging around all day at a café. Some of them ask basic philosophical questions such as, “Well, like, to what extent are we responsible for the fulfillment of our destinies?” Others get very paranoid about the plane crash and come up with strange hypotheses for what it means. Some of the birds get involved in curious little scenarios, which at times become threatening and dangerous. As for the pilot, he pops a tent, has some bizarre dreams, is annoyed by the birds, and then freaks out and goes on a rampage. In general, not very much happens.

Comics Column #4 Mapmaking and the Hoi Polloi (Dylan Horrocks)

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Comics Column #4: Mapmaking and the Hoi Polloi (Dylan Horrocks)
Comics Column #4: Mapmaking and the Hoi Polloi (Dylan Horrocks)

XXIII. “There is only the past.”

Jordan Mechner, creator of the long-lived Prince of Persia video game franchise, released a graphic novel inspired by his games earlier this year through First Second books. A publisher swiftly becoming known for high-quality literary works, First Second usually releases imported works from beloved European cartoonists like Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, as well as prestige projects from already-known talents like Eddie Campbell or Jessica Abel—the idea of a video game adaptation coming from their publishing house, even a particularly well-marketed book like Prince of Persia (celebrating a major new game release), seemed something of an anomaly. However, unlike most adaptations of a video game into any other particular media—cinema having notably had trouble with the product so far—this book turned out to be surprisingly well thought-out and often gentle in its storytelling. While hardcore gamers who came to the book out of curiosity may have been disappointed at the minimal level of swashbuckling—or, really, any of the superficial elements inherent to the “platform game” video game mechanics—the book is a rewarding, if disposable, bit of fairy tale confection.