Friday 12 November 2010

The ACME Novelty Library, No. 20 – Lint by Chris Ware: Graphic Novel Review

These graphic novellas from Chris Ware have become something of a traditional early Christmas treat, usually appearing around this time of year with such an absence of fanfare that they feel as if they've arrived completely out of the blue. And so it is with his latest.

The ACME Novelty Library No. 20: Lint (Drawn & Quarterly) once again comes packaged as a rather lovely hardback, in a landscape format (see also ACME Noveltys #19, 17, and 16 – but not 18), this time with gold debossing and flock wallpaper-style edging on the cover. And before you take me to task for drooling over the design/finishing, let me just say that design is a big part of Ware's work, from the intricate, tricksy way he lays out a comics page to the look of the final object. And anyway, book fetishism is par for the course here at Existential Ennui, so, y'know: tough.

The thing that's different about Lint has less to do with the design of the book or the now-familiar formal quirks – unusual panel progression; lettering that leaps up and down in case and wanders across the page – than with the qualities of story itself. For one thing, the eponymous star of the book, Jordan (or Jason) Wellington Lint, isn't your typical Ware sad sack character, prone to endless navel-gazing and intermittent weeping (see Jimmy Corrigan, Rusty Brown). He's deeply damaged, of course – you'd expect nothing less from Ware – but he's more rounded a character than previous Ware stooges: he's a jock and a bully, then a stoner and a dropout, then a husband and a father, and finally a grandfather and father all over again.

Which will give you some clue as to the course the story takes. What we witness is nothing less than one person's entire life, from Lint's first abstract glimpses of his mother's face, to his last desperate moments on a hospital gurney. In between those bookends is a story of searing ordinariness, an achingly real account of a life of small triumphs, desperate disappointments, some laughs, some highs (mostly centred around football), some pain, some anger, money made, money lost... all the stuff that each of us go through in our own ways. There are moments of truth that will speak to everyone: for me it was little details like picking at a hangnail in church; teenage venting that no one understands you and that you're "not one of these people"; a closing comment in the hospital – "They keep moving me, you know" – that brought back very recent, traumatic experiences. Yours will be different, but they will be there.

Previously, I've always found Ware's lead characters slightly unbelievable. Jimmy Corrigan was so utterly useless and pathetic that it was difficult to imagine he could have any concrete counterpart in the real world, although I'm not saying that's completely outside the realms of possibility. Rusty Brown, on the other hand (who makes a guest appearance here), while his all-consuming collector mentality was horribly familiar to me, was still more of a parody than anything, and probably intended as such. Lint, however, feels like an actual person. There are awful events that weave through the narrative – the early death of Lint's mother, the slightly later death of his friend – but though these impact on Lint, in ways atypical and eventually quite unexpected, they don't define him overall. The book isn't anywhere near so simplistic. Ware recognises that there's more to a person than the bad things he or she does or that are done to him/her. Our lives are more complex, complicated, confusing and convoluted than that. And so is Lint's.

As happens to so many of us, Lint's youthful dreams – in his case of a career in the music business – are crushed, and he goes to work in his father's financial company instead. He puts his hellraising behind him, gets married, buys a house, has children (there's a one-panel birth scene that reminded me of Miracleman #9); does all those things he spent his formative years railing against, things which, for many, are more important, more worthwhile and more rewarding than the fleeting, facile pleasures of a football game or recording studio. And Lint does begin to comprehend that, but then tips over too far the other way, finds God (a transformation that's foreshadowed at a football game from Lint's youth, and that will have consequences that won't become clear until much later), and ultimately ruins his marriage by shacking up with a younger woman.

He makes mistakes, in other words, the kinds of mistakes we all make (well, maybe not embezzlement...), and regret, and try to rebuild from. There is real depth here, perhaps more so than in any other Ware story. That's helped by some of the most naturalistic drawing we've yet seen from Ware, at least in his comics work – anyone who's pored over the two volumes of the ACME Novelty Datebook will already know what a brilliant draftsman he is. But there are some beautiful panels in this book: the aforementioned birth scene; a portrait of Lint's first wife, seen through a screen door; snapshots of Lint's second wife and daughter. Only Lint himself retains the button-eyed simplicity of Corrigan and Brown, as if Ware can't quite bring himself to let that stylistic choice go – except in one panel, where Lint reads a letter from his son in Iraq, and in a moment of helpless horror develops full cornea.

The transitions from each stage of Lint's life to the next are seamless, apart from one jarring instance where his first marriage slightly inexplicably ends quite suddenly, and on the next page Lint is living in a crummy apartment with his new girlfriend. But that, it turns out, is entirely intentional (if a little dishonest, perhaps, although the withholding of key information throughout the work could be said to be a consequence of lapses in Lint's memory), acting as a set-up for a sting in the tail towards the end of the novella, where a Google search leads to a revelation about that first marriage and abandoned family, encompassing a formalistic switch in the artwork that's both fitting and rather funny, particularly if you know your angsty alt. comix.

And in those final few pages it becomes increasingly apparent what Lint is: a tragedy, on a simultaneously gargantuan and yet human scale. But it's also something more, I believe. Lint represents both another step forward in Ware's development as a cartoonist and, not to be too hyperbolic or anything, possibly even the comics medium as a whole. What with this and David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, I think we're seeing comics that rival the best novels for their exquisitely crafted characters, their resonance, and their relevance. This is a clever and affecting graphic novella.

(All images © 2010 Chris Ware)