ACME Novelty Library No. 11
by Chris Ware
I once worked in a silkscreen shop which, despite all the fine inks and printing equipment, was a cultural void. (One of our “special-T’s” was printing “Materna-T’s” with the words “Baby Firefighter On Board” and such.) The place was a ’round hundred, hot’n’sweaty nightmare, perpetually reeking of oil-based ink and methylethylketone. Truly a Hell on Earth. For the first few weeks, I did my best to keep my nose to the screens and avoided taking in deep breaths, but after a month or so, I took the opportunity to look around and take a visual inventory of my surroundings. It was then I noticed, stapled to the drywall, overlooking the eight-color press, stained and curling copies of Chris Ware’s tragic fake ads from ACME Novelty Library #1, including “Throw Your Life Away.” Mere glimpses could evoke a chuckle or two, accelerate time, and make this most oppressive of jobs a tad more bearable. Real irony.
But ACME Novelty Library is irony incarnate. The initial impression of what a comic book should be, first and foremost, is it should be action-oriented. Guys in their underpants, duking it out over some Earth-threatening technology, etc., etc. A.N.L. is anything but. For the atypical comic book reader, reading a copy of A.N.L. is like watching paint dry. (A comic definitely not designed for them.) Ware dedicates pages to his characters eating fast food, with as much indifference and detachment as real people eating real fast food. What the reader comes away with is disturbingly distinctive sense of time passage, mood, and a few chuckles to boot — although you won’t be quite sure what it is you’re laughing at.
ACME’s mutating and experimental format along with Ware’s excellent understanding and execution of traditional graphics (particularly from the first half of this century) makes A.N.L. one of the most collectible pieces of eye candy available to date. Having collected A.N.L. for over five years, one would still have yet to fully assimilate every bizarre detail Chris Ware has crammed into each of his eleven issues. Each one demands to be re-read, flipped, spun the comic, or squinted at. Reading A.N.L. is an engaging and involving process, to say the least.
But who resides in this most pristine and eye-pleasing printed environment Ware has created for them? Don’t hold your breath. Ware’s characters are so insufferably and pathetically human as to initially repulse the reader. Main character Jimmy Corrigan, presented in various states and ages, is afflicted with a neurotic mother, who may or may not be dead, and various step-dads he may or may not want to get to know. ACME does flirt with the idea of breaking its cast as a “Non-comic” (“anti-comic”?) with its Superman character — a frumpy, self-obsessed, middle-aged superhero/loser, who might be Jimmy’s Dad. Then again he might just be porkin’ Jimmy’s Mom.
Nothing’s ever truly certain in A.N.L., apart from his characters’ indecisiveness. (Ware’s characters are the types who, when they’re actually able to make a decision, cannot fully function with the consequences of those decisions. Sound familiar?) The sequence (if one could call it that) of A.N.L. is, at best, confusing. Unlike most comic books, which require you read a succession of issues, readers can grab any issue of A.N.L. You’ll be lost anyway. Lost AND entertained.
In interviews, Ware expresses his sense of astonishment when readers accost him with questions regarding why the pages are so “depressing.” The fact is, Ware’s genius is that he finds and elicits the humor in the pathos of his characters and their predicaments. So few can do this. ACME ‘s too-slick-for-words comic book format should be enough of a “wink and a nod” to readers that it’s all in good fun. When art’s truly great, it skates a fascinatingly fine line between comedy and tragedy — so fine in fact that it presents its audience an enigmatic dilemma of “magnetic confusion”. A.N.L. is definitely a fine example of this.
For the past five or six years, I’ve attempted to explain to myself as well as others why Chris Ware, with his overt passion for Chicago history, and this comic, loaded with anti-climaticisms, are so goshdarn great, and why it’s won him so much critical acclaim, including multiple Harvey and Eisner Awards. The closest comparison one could make is reading A.N.L. is like looking at an Edward Hopper painting. It just gives you a really earnestly peculiar feeling. Not many books, let alone comic books, could make such a claim.
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