The Acme Novelty Library No. 16
by Chris Ware
Published by Fantagraphics Books
64 pages, 2005
The Return of Chris Ware
Reviewed by David Abrams
Those of you who have been holding your breath waiting for Chris Ware's next great graphic novel can release at least a tiny puff of oxygen. He's back in fine fettle with a new volume of contemporary angst in the signature pen-and-pastel world he's created over the years.
While The Acme Novelty Library #16 may not be as full and complete as Ware's masterpiece from 2000, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, it's at least a satisfying hors d'oeuvre until the main meal arrives. If nothing else, it's more tantalizing and thought-provoking than the majority of contemporary novels out there, graphic or otherwise.
In the time since Jimmy Corrigan came out, Ware hasn't released very much new material. Instead, Fantagraphics Books has been issuing collections of his "Acme Novelty Library" compendiums from the series of the 1990s, which include short vignettes about baby boomers mulling over their troubled childhoods, short gag strips and complex, intricately-worded advertisements which graphically and textually resemble pages from the Sears catalogs of the early 20th century.
This is all well and good, but what die-hard fans really long for is something meaty like Jimmy Corrigan, a deep probe into worlds normally described by the likes of Raymond Carver or John Updike. In an earlier review, I wrote that the 380-page book contains vivid passages of "pain, desire, hope, humiliation and the sweet surprise of forgiveness and reconciliation."
Though smaller in scope and page-length, The Acme Novelty Library No. 16 follows similar suit. The graphic novel is more like a novella with a couple of short stories.
The main narrative follows Rusty Brown, a fat grade-schooler with a halo of orange hair, and his terminally-depressed father, Woody Brown, a schoolteacher who is "sleeping through his life" in Omaha, Nebraska.
On the surface, nothing much "happens" in "Rusty Brown." The kid and his father go to school where they are separately picked on by bullies and plagued by suicidal thoughts. But scratch beneath the pastel exterior of Ware's world and you'll find a universe of raw emotion. This is literature in its finest hour. I just wish the hour weren't so short.
Running simultaneously with Rusty's story, along the bottom of the page we see Alice White and her little brother Chalky getting ready for their first day at a new school which turns out to be the one where Woody and Rusty are already having their bad days. Eventually, the lives of the characters intersect and nearly connect. The rest of their story will have to wait for the full-length version of "Rusty Brown," I suppose.
The Acme Novelty Library No. 16 also contains a one-page episode of a stick-figure version of Ware himself babysitting his daughter while fretting over whether or not readers will appreciate his metaphors and allusions.
And, oh yeah, there's a brief treatise on the life cycle of snowflakes. This is a mixed stew of ingredients, but Ware brings everything to a full, delicious simmer.
The final pages are further proof of Ware's talent as he illustrates the lives of tenants in an apartment building. The entire section is done with nothing more than cutaway diagrams and wordless panels showing the residents going about their daily routines. And yet, his pictures really are worth a thousand words. There are few better chroniclers of contemporary American life than Chris Ware. | February 2006
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.