Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Ten Best Comics of the Aughts:

8. Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth
by Chris Ware

The collection of Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan marks, to my reckoning, the first true comic publishing event of the decade. If any one book can be labeled as catalyst for our current era of prolific change, creative dynamism and commercial acceptance, this is it.

With that said, we're at a loss to actually describe the thing. Probably because it's so important, even though it's been out a decade (and existed in its serialized form throughout the nineties), we still haven't quite digested what Jimmy Corrigan means. I think it's a good rule of thumb that it's difficult to judge the significance of a work of art until it ceases to be a primary document and becomes a historical object. In this respect, JC's significance can't be measured because there are still cartoonists using it and Ware's work in general as a direct template for present innovation and pastiche, keeping the work alive in the present. You can't really say that for Maus or even exactly contemporary works such as David Boring. (Personally? I had David Boring in the race for which millennial comics magnum opus had the biggest crossover potential. Boy howdy did I miss that call.)

You can see Ware's style and substance pasted across an entire generation of cartoonists - without any fear of contradiction, he is the most influential cartoonist of the last twenty or so years. His work - and certainly, JC is a perfect example of this - arrives in a mist of artificial nostalgia and studied self-embarrassment. This has the intriguing effect of making what is in actuality very difficult and formally adventurous work appear old-fashioned, even hokey. The reader knows its a put-on but buys the conceit anyway, sort of a clinically depressive inversion of Stan Lee's supremely confident, knowing huckster. Ware's constant self-effacement insulates the work from criticism on the grounds of willful obscurantism or needless intellectualizing - self-defeating traps that have swallowed up many lesser cartoonists. In essence, we have major work from a major, medium-defining talent, presenting with such bashful earnestness and almost painful attention to historical precedent that it is perceived less as a challenge to conventional notions of canon than the quiet rediscovery of a forgotten keystone.

Ware writes very sad stories which are then placed in a stifling matrix of technical mastery, the total effect of which is to create an atmosphere of uniquely claustrophobic dread and metaphysical helplessness. Ware's trick - if it can be called a trick - is to understand the comics page less as a series of static images mashed together in order to create a continuity of action or effect, and more as a technical diagram. This allows, in his cosmos, for an information-rich narrative style to instill constant intimations of a deterministic universe. Maps, catalogs, encyclopedias, game boards, advertising, newspapers - all broken down into their essential elements as information vehicles, repurposed into serving as the templates for new kinds of comic book pages. There is nothing intuitive about the way Chris Ware structures his page: they don't flow like Kirby, they don't stroll like Crumb, they certainly don't express emotion like Kurtzman. What they do, however, is to create a constant awareness in the reader of the act of reading a comic. There are no concessions towards ease of reading: it's all deciphering. There is conscientious effort necessary, and this effort keeps the reader's consciousness from ever fully embracing the story on its own terms. This ensures the maintenance of a distance between reader and characters that makes empathetic connection difficult - but not impossible.

This is one of the reasons why Ware's work thrills: it is uniquely comics in a way that seems almost preposterously pure. You can't imagine JC in any other medium, because the medium is so inextricably bound with the message that - shorn of the context - the story itself loses a great deal of its meaning. Jimmy's story is that of a bewildered man-child lost in an uncomprehending world of adult responsibilities and relationships. It is told in a particularly cold manner, which should not be mistaken for misanthropy on Ware's part. The reader has to work to overcome the emotional distance instilled by Ware's heartbreakingly exact technique in much the same way that Jimmy has to work to overcome a lifetime's habits of loneliness. But ultimately Ware wants you to do this: he isn't setting the reader up to be any kind of cruel, unresponsive God over the bewildered Jimmy - he's inviting the reader to inhabit Jimmy's life, to cross through the barrier of the page and see the world as Jimmy sees it. The realization dawns in the final pages that Ware's dizzying technique is itself the final metaphor: he draws Jimmy's world in such aching, dehumanizing precision precisely because Jimmy's soul is so achingly, precisely dehumanized.

Jimmy Corrigan's triumph is the triumph of a soul reborn - in halting, painful half-steps, but forward progress nonetheless from the heart of very dark terrain. For all the bad things that happen in the book, Ware's final sequence is one of hope. After struggling through the wreckage of his family history for hundreds of pages, after coming up short for so long, Ware refuses to allow Jimmy to end his journey without some glimmer of rebirth. That is why the book lingers long after the final pages have been turned, and that is why Ware is more than merely a consummate craftsman or dedicated antiquarian: he possesses an insight into human character that would serve him well in any medium. That he has chosen comics is our deepest pleasure.

10. X-Force by Peter Milligan & Mike Allred
9. Schizo #4 by Ivan Brunetti

This list is composed of English language comic books originally released between 2000 and 2009.

Jimmy Corrigan was first compiled in 2000 by Pantheon in what was up to that time one of the most beautifully-designed hardcover collections ever produced. (If it doesn't appear quite as singularly impressive now, it's because we've been spoiled with the ensuing decade's worth of fantastic book design, much of it by Ware himself, as seen in his fantastic work for Fantagraphics' Krazy Kat and Drawn & Quarterly's Walt & Skeezix series.) Although there was a later softcover release (attesting to the book's real-world success), the initial hardcover - with its gorgeous gatefold book jacket - is still the preferred means of experiencing the story if you haven't already. Interestingly, the hardcover is still available from Amazon whereas the softcover appears to be out of print.

Ware has never been a particularly prolific artist but he is amazingly consistent: his work is time-consuming and painstaking, but he keeps to a steady output. His next major narrative, Rusty Brown, is currently being serialized in almost-yearly installments of Acme, although another, more ambiguous but potentially more rewarding serial, Building Stories has also been published throughout the same period. I admit I have become, in reference to Ware, that most execrable of specimens: he who waits for the trade. I know I'm missing out on a lot of great unique design work and features that will almost certainly not be found in the inevitable collected editions - but life just sort of works out that way sometimes. Honestly, the Rusty Brown "prologue" printed in Acme #15 kind of put me off the current project - so amazingly depressing, like Jimmy Corrigan only with the added benefit of self-flagellating, pitiless recriminations over childhood nerdiness. (Which, as long-time readers of this blog should be aware, hits a bit close to home.) I'm sure my unformed opinion will be proven wrong by my exposure to the sure-to-be-remarkable collected edition. His new work can also be seen in the pages of the New Yorker, where bits and bobs of Building Stories occasionally surface, as well as frequent appearances as featured cover artist for that august publication.

If I had to recommend the next step for any curious reader already familiar with Jimmy Corrigan, I would go with Fantagraphics' collected edition of Quimby the Mouse: yet another beautifully designed volume, this one devoted to the strange adventures of the titular mouse as he makes his way through a melancholic, occasionally menacing world of tight formal grids and impeccably paced physical movement. Whereas Ware's more "serious" work (all things being relative) is occasionally overwhelming in its bleakness, Quimby manages to remain a thoroughly fun reading experience despite its similarly bleak subject matter. (Might have something to do with the inherently comical nature of a cartoon mouse vs. the inherently tragic nature of a cartoon human.) Somewhere in the middle of the decade Ware also curated the thirteenth issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, another tour de force of book design that also doubles as one of the best "alt"/"art" comics anthologies ever published. If nothing else, it offers a fascinating insight into Ware's personal understanding of comics and cartooning history, and can also be seen as a kind of companion to Brunetti's Yale anthologies, albeit one designed with a more idiosyncratic and less consciously pedagogic agenda. Finally, my own personal favorite books of Ware's are his sketchbook compilations, of which two have been published under the Acme Novelty Datebook rubric. I love sketchbooks and personally believe that a well-organized sketchbook reveals more about an artist's insight and craft than a thousand well-conceived critical essays: so far, Ware's sketchbooks bear out my opinion.

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