The Depressing Joy of Chris Ware

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"The nut's a genius," maestro George Szell reportedly said about the eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. The quote describes comix artist Chris Ware as well. Author of last year's critically-acclaimed graphic novel, "Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth," Ware has finally come out with issue fifteen in his comicbook series "The Acme Novelty Library." After a year and a half of waiting, rest assured that his reputation(s) remain intact.

Just look at the size of that thing. A foot and a half tall and over ten inches wide, it reaches the proportions of menus at Italian "family-style" restaurants. It sure doesn't look like a comicbook. But then, Ware has never produced anything that looked like a comicbook. It's part of his aesthetic. Sub-titled "Book of Jokes," it matches the dimensions of "Acme" number seven, from five years ago. It also follows that issue's format of putting a self contained "gag" on each page rather than a continuous story.

But first you have to get past the cover. It must be opened flat to be properly appreciated. A series of concentric circles form the center of a beautifully symmetric pattern. It resembles one of those mystical organization charts that some kook would meticulously work out, including the cycle of seasons, evolution, day into night, birth into death and all of human thought. Look more closely and you see it also involves Ware's particular motifs of stupidity, loneliness and the mundane.

Much of the jokes get their humor from this kind of existential shaggy dog structure. Quimby the mouse eats breakfast, takes a nap, rushes to the video store before it closes, chooses movies he's seen before but knows he likes and, in a jump of fifty years, lies on his deathbed in an empty hospital room. Or else, in a series of gags titled Tales of Tomorrow, an overfed man-child makes instant purchases on his view screen and schlurps product through a tube in the wall. A trip to the moon results in his doing more of the same in a different place.

Empty consumerism becomes the running theme of the book, typified by the series of stories about Rusty Brown, a nasty collector of pop-culture detritus. He lives in filth but owns the complete Summer of '87 Happy Meal toy series. It's the only work by Ware to clearly condemn a character without offering any sort of forgiveness. This gives the Rusty Brown vignettes a certain savagery but with limited scope. The whole book, owing chiefly to its "gag" format, begins to feel like the same note being hit over and over. It lacks the rich development of the Jimmy Corrigan series. Still, Ware's single note resonates like a tuning fork for America. After putting down "Acme" 15 I opened a piece of junk mail soliciting satellite TV that began, "Bring joy into your life." The Wareian "gag" completed itself in my head: the dish on the window sill, and me alone on the couch in my underwear staring at Jessica Alba.

Even if you don't like the jokes, you can always marvel at the design of the thing. "Acme Novelty Library" takes its title literally. You never get just comix. This issue has a special insert on cardstock of a cut-out, constructible miniature nickelodeon. It would probably work too. Elsewhere he fills an entire giant-sized page with a joke treatise, printed in a phone-book-sized font, on the different types of collectors. As always, even the indicia gets the Ware treatment, in that typically fussy prose of his: "Also, please note, should you be a German 'Hip Hop' band, or a Belgian night club, or a student filmmaker with a project due soon and no ideas — the contents of this volume fall under the general copyright…" It goes on.

Those who have never picked up a copy of Chris Ware's "Acme Novelty Library" owe it to themselves to do so. His dedication to the holistic experience of a single comicbook issue has vastly increased the prestige of the medium. Being a stand-alone issue, number 15 will make an excellent introduction. Unlike some past issues he has made it easy to read. Just try not to get too creeped out by the monomaniacal amount of work he obviously puts into it.

"Acme Novelty Library #15" can be found at better comicbook stores and the publisher's website.