Thursday, November 04, 2004

Soul Fire, I Ain't Got No Water

Well, I just don't have the strength to talk about anything political. All the hope, rage, fear and pain has been beat out of me. I have to say, however, that of all the things I've read today, the two best were my friend Slote's succinct encapsulation, and our good buddy Composite Superman's more involved and emotional response.

Quite frankly, I could have lived without that whole World Series thing if I knew there'd be a downside...

Don't forget to enter the Hurting's first ever contest here. As of now, there have been only three entries - so if the contest closed today, everyone who entered would get a prize. As it is, I know more people want to enter - I mean, for God's sake, aren't those some cool prizes?

Just one thing: I can assure you that we're in no mood for political entries. I think yesterday's events proved quite succinctly that a majority of Americans already think I'm quite full of shit politically, so I don't need help on that issue. Thanks.

Because I care:

And lo, there was hope.

Arrrg, its a pirate sketchbook! Oh, wait, no it isn't.

The Acme Novelty Datebook - Part Two

The Acme Novelty Datebook is the most intimate and revealing work in Chris Ware's bibliography. Although there can be no denying the brilliance of Jimmy Corrigan or Quimby the Mouse, the Datebook is, for me, a much more satisfying work because of the multiple layers of emotional rapport available to the reader. Quite frankly, this book reveals a lot more about Chris Ware than he is probably comfortable with revealing, and because of that it is an absolutely invaluable work for the insight it gives to the cartoonist's mindset.

Formal considerations are intrinsically more valuable to the field of comics criticism than that of literary criticism. There is, for instance only one correct way to spell the word "hand" in the english language. There are, however, as many different ways to draw the hand, or to paint, sculpt, or carve the hand, as there are artists. Every artist draws differently, and the way that every artist draws, as any student of fine art will tell you, is the key to understanding how the artist thinks, feels and comunicates. This fact is infinitely important in the world of comics, where we are not dealing with one static image in a painting, but a series of images in a narrative. Every line, every distinct visual element, means something, and the astute reader can learn how to read all of these infinitely subtle visual cues in such a way as to give them a deeper understanding of the medium. Even mediocre or poor artists betray quite a bit through their deficiencies - and if you don't believe me, just look at any recent issue of Rob Liefeld's X-Force revamp. The comics medium is quite powerful, and the cumulative force of a thousand tiny lines can add up to a devestating totality.

Although Ware's typically monomaniacal hyper-realized style can sometimes seem as willfully sui generis as an airline safety brocure, browsing through his sketchbook will easily shatter that perception. He's a chameleon, easily able to approximate just about any style he comes across, from Crumb-esque manic cross-hatching to Byrne Hogarth's dynamic figurework to Rube Goldberg's floppy, energetic Vaudeville line. As the years progress in the pages of the book, and Ware becomes more assured (at least on a subconscious level - his self-loathing never abates). he becomes far more adept at taking what he needs from the styles he appropriates. Every journeyman artist copies the work of their influences. It is through tracing and copying the work of one's betters that the artist begins to understand how and why these things work the way they do.

New characters are introduced throughout the book, such as the Walt Disney-influenced Quimby, Jimmy, and Ware's semi-autobiographical stick-limbed bean person, and they become the stock performers in Ware's nascent exepriments into comics structure and design. You can see a hunger in his constant formalistic experimentation, a palapable desire to lay bare the raw mechanical underpinnings of the cartoon form in order to understand how things work. What emotional impact does a thin and shaky ink line have, as opposed to a strong and bold line? How does the eye react to the mixture of dichotomous styles, such as a hyper-detailed drawing of a monstrously unrealistic figure, or a jolly cartoonish drawing of a pitiful old man? You can see the echoes of Ware's affection for the shaky, impressionistic figure work of the early Golden Age on display in his evolving style, as characters such as Jimmy and the Superman/God proxy take on definitive forms and distinctive lives on the page. The untapped emotional potential of these simple ideograms is flayed by Ware, exposed and exploited as grist for his ever-more ambitious mill.

Of course, irony is the most useful tool in Ware's repertoire. The disassociation between content and image is one of the strongest motifs in his work, be it the rounded, pleasing figurework of the despair-filled Jimmy Corrigan, or the manic invention of the melancholy and existential Quimby stories. These are some of the most sophisticated and effective uses of deceptive imagery in modern cartooning, and a deep understanding of the medium's visual vocabulary is absolutely necessary to understand and appreciate the application.

The Acme Novelty Datebook is perhaps the most essential book to date from one of our most essential cartoonists. Don't be fooled by the fact that this is a "mere" sketchbook: this book is nothing more and nothing less than a complete master class in modern cartooning. The medium's recent evolution can be traced through Ware's evolution: the story of the art in finely-crafted miniature.

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