A Mouse; A House; A Mystery

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Is it possible to find the key to a life's mysteries or an artist's work? That's the tantalizing question asked both by and of Chris Ware, the lauded comix author of "Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth." The question appears in the form of two new books by Ware, "Quimby the Mouse," (Fantagraphics Books; 68pp.; $24.95) and "The Acme Novelty Date Book" (Drawn & Quarterly; 208 pp.; $39.95). The first collects the author's published works from the early 1990s, while he was still a student. The "Date Book" contains excerpts from the artist's sketchbooks kept between 1986 and 1995. While the hyper-self-conscious formal works use comix as a complex exploration of such fundamental human experiences as loss, loneliness and love, the sketchbooks offer a tantalizing enrichment of the author's themes through his un-self-conscious doodles.

Chris Ware's "Quimby the Mouse"

"Quimby" is mostly made up of single-page strips that first appeared in "The Daily Texan," the student newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin, and later in a Chicago's alternative paper. Read episodically, these strips must have seemed little more than a mysterious downer. Presented collectively, the themes become much clearer, with narrative threads that tenuously link one strip to the next. Most are mute pantomimes featuring the Quimby character, who, not coincidentally, looks a lot like George Herriman's Ignatz Mouse. (Ignatz and Krazy Kat appear within the first ten pages of the sketchbooks, along with Superman, Batman, some live model drawings and an empty laundry room.) Quimby's nature changes from strip to strip. Sometimes he seems cruel, slapping around his pal Sparky, a cat without a body who moves around in a cart; other times he pines for Sparky's company. In one episode he drags Sparky into the backyard and buries him alive without malice or reason. The next day Quimby wakes up and can't figure out what happened to Sparky. Distressed, he discovers the shovel and, suddenly remembering, begins digging for Sparky in a panic. Quimby retrieves the still-alive Sparky to his great relief and goes to bed happy, though Sparky his bitten out a piece of Quimby's foot as revenge.

Chris Ware's "Acme Novelty Datebook"

The capriciousness of love, the sadness of losing loved ones and the desire for their return become the clear themes investigated by the little mouse. Ware explains why in the introduction: The first half of the book comes from a time when his beloved grandmother fell ill and passed away within a year. The second half of the book's work appeared when Ware left most of his connections behind and moved to Chicago. "During [my grandmother's] steady decline," Ware writes, "I was only able to draw stories of my increasingly littler mouse wandering, alone, through a large, unoccupied house — my grandmother's house." The sketchbooks from around this time contain jotted-down memories as well as a portrait of his sleeping grandmother. The "Quimby" strips turn into "Quimbies," with two Quimby bodies sharing a pair of legs. Over and over one half withers and dies. Other non-Quimby strips from the same period appear in the book and contain straight autobiography juxtaposed to comicbook tropes. One remarkable piece appears to be a superhero story, but all the words, including the onomatopoeia, read together as a short memoir of the author's childhood. But none of it gets lugubrious, since Ware remains at bottom a humor cartoonist. Painfully funny, his sharp wit specializes in an alternative kind of schadenfreude: a kind where we feel we are laughing at our own misery.

Text becomes architecture in "Quimby the Mouse"

Form has always been Ware's forte and "Quimby the Mouse" shows off some of his earliest experiments with it. Ware may be our most committed creator of comix as art. For one thing, he demands high production values for his books. The "Quimby" book must be the most gorgeous graphic novel ever published. It has gold ink embossed in the hardcover, with thick paper and an exquisite mix of color and black and white strips. The "Date Book" likewise has come out as a hardcover with top-notch production, including a placeholder ribbon. A tantalizing sketchbook page from 1995 contains a quote attributed to Goethe, "Architecture is frozen music." Ware adds an addendum, writing, "This is, I think, the aesthetic key to the development of cartoons as an art form." Indeed, music and architecture play major roles in Ware's aesthetic both explicitly and implicitly. Carefully rendered houses and buildings are a constant motif in both books, including one Quimby strip where the words become part of the strip's architecture. The musical aspects are bit more implicit. With "Quimby," Ware turns his pages into a kind of musical staff. The panels gather in clumps around the page, shifting in size and scale, creating a rhythm that you can both see and read.

A self-portrait from Chris Ware's sketchbook

Where "Quimby" offers a focused examination of some of life's mysteries, the "Acme Novelty Date Book," offers a cloudy, opaque window into the author's personal sensibilities. Sex, self-loathing, loneliness and a sentimental yearning for the past the past fills the pages, often in full color. Preliminary layouts for later polished pieces show up, as do near-perfectly formed strips that have never been seen before. Any artist or Ware aficionado will find it extremely interesting, though the uninitiated may be somewhat baffled by it. Frankly, this criticism extends to Ware's finished work as well, including "Quimby the Mouse." It takes a very high comix-reading level to appreciate Ware's more ambitious layouts.

Both "Quimby the Mouse" and "The Acme Novelty Date Book" are Chris Ware's search for answers to life's questions, and through his work it becomes our search as well. Though Chris Ware tries to dismiss "Quimby the Mouse" as juvenilia, we should all be so juvenile. Intensely thoughtful, funny, complex and beautiful, both the "Date Book," and "Quimby" do the right thing by asking questions but giving no answers.