Comic Ulysses 

Chris Ware makes good on graphic novel's promise

Have you noticed how cynical most movie astronauts became once we actually started launching people into space? I recently watched Alien again and another Alien knockoff that reportedly kicked around Hollywood for two years before somebody decided it was bad enough to release, and in both movies I was struck by how grim the characters are. Contrast this with the experience of watching the old Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s, when everyone zipped around from planet to planet looking thrilled and uniquely suited, personality-wise, for space adventures. Or well before that, even, when Georges Méliès’s Voyage to the Moon made the first lunar landing look like one hilarious cabaret act after the next.

I like gritty realism and at least some measure of plausibility in most space movies, but I love retro-futuristic space kitsch, which is why I think Méliès, by 1901, knew most of the special effect nee-ded to make my kind of space movie. It’s also why “Rocket Sam” in Chris Ware’s mind-bending Acme Novelty Library series is one of my favorite comics ever. Every episode of “Rocket Sam” is a gothic space novel in miniature, an elaborate mosaic of panels and tondos illustrating the adventures of the titular hero as he explores uncharted planets with classic comic book names like “X-38.” Ware’s innocent style—heavy on Art Deco spaceships and hand-drawn period typefaces—is an amazing complement to the despair, angst and frequent brutality of the subject matter. The quaintly-worded narration supplied in selected panels serves the same basic function as intertitles in old silent or part-talkie movies, and also makes a good fit with the’20s-era graphic design, even as it establishes an ironic distance from the era Ware clearly adores.

If this explanation doesn’t seem especially edifying to you, it’s because the complicated intersection of stylistic and thematic unlikelihoods in every panel of a Chris Ware comic are extremely difficult to convey in words. In one memorable installment of “Rocket Sam,” our hero adopts an orphaned “indigenous tree-dweller” that looks like a cross between a dolphin and a lima bean with a beak. “Things grow fast on planet X-38,” intones the narration, until one day, when the tree-dweller is about the size of Gentle Ben, Rocket Sam learns, as the expository title puts it, “the awful truth!” As Sam is feeding his pet its daily ration of space kibble, it suddenly turns and bites his leg off, then soars away, leg in mouth, on ridicul-ously tiny wings over crenellated treetops as exquisite as the silhouettes in a Lotte Reiniger movie.

For all its charm and striking originality, though, “Rocket Sam” is a pretty traditional comic from a structural point of view. It reads mostly left to right, top to bottom. Other strips in the Acme Novelty Library series are less conventional. One single installment of “Big Tex,” for instance, spans 66 years on a single oversized page—a single picture, even, divided up into 15 panels that cannot simply be read left to right, top to bottom. The feeble-minded Tex, with his stovepipe legs and peanut face, lives a life of misery interrupted only by moments of acute anguish and terror. The comic occupies at least four dimensions simultaneously and requires at least three readings to fully grasp the causal and temporal relationships that hold it together.

In a way, like everything else Ware has produced so far, “Big Tex” has been leading up to Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, a milestone in the relatively short history of the graphic novel. Just published in paperback, the original hardcover edition has already been compared to Ulysses (by The New York Times) and lan-ded on yearly Top 10 lists of books at a number of prestigious publications. Spanning four generations of failure and abandonment, and culminating in a lonely 36-year-old introvert who wants desperately to be liked, Jimmy Corrigan is amazing to look at and, like Ulysses, exhausting to read for more than a few pages at a time. The winsome spaceships and love-struck robots of “Rocket Sam” are gone; in place of fantasy, Ware provides comic realism that’s beautiful in its execution and bleak in its content.

There are two Jimmy Corrigans in the book, the first one abandoned by his father in 1893, and the second his grandson, who receives a letter from his own long-absent father wanting to reconcile. Nothing is about all that ever happens to the present-day Jimmy, another defeated Corrigan with a blank peanut face (after Big Tex), who inexplicably wears knee-length breeches and nurses a painful, unrequited crush on a co-worker. But the depth and relief that Ware brings to the nothingness make it like no nothing you’ve seen before. Nothing never looked so beautiful—Ware finds melancholy in the most mundane details of everyday life.

Jimmy Corrigan makes you work, and work hard, to extract meaning, or even stay with the basic storyline, which jumps crazily back and forth between the Chicago World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 and a small Michigan town in the early ’70s. The narrative rarely returns to where it left off, and never explains itself. It’s like a dream: fleeting, perplexing, and with few answers forthcoming. Like stepping into someone else’s dream, more like, and suddenly finding yourself the super-permeable conduit for all their memories, and their father’s memories, and their father’s father’s memories, and so on.

Comparisons to Ulysses might be pushing it, but something in the Faulkner library (As I Lay Dying, maybe) seems about right for the sake of comparison. No mistake, though—Jimmy Corrigan is literature, because Chris Ware has the graphic skill equivalent to a great novelist’s musculature. The term “graphic novel” as a description for comic books has often seemed generous in the past, but here is a work that deserves the distinction.

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