Summer officially began this weekend, and for me, it marked a chance to simply relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of work. This included a trip to Cape Cod for my friend E's birthday party and doing my part to contribute to the national decline in movie box office by renting some DVDs with which I have been meaning to catch up (Millenium Mambo, My Wife is an Actress, and Michael Haneke's terribly underrated The Time of The Wolf [which I found to be really moving]). Primarily, however, sun-drenched vacation time these days means one thing for me: catching up with the books that continue to accumulate, unread, in anxiety-ridden piles on my shelves. Not even the breezy sunshine of Memorial Day weekend relieves the unbearable sense of responsibility that accompanies books that stare at you, demanding to be read.
I love to read, and my relationship to books is probably not that uncommon; I devoured books as a curious kid, resented being 'assigned' books to read in school, was bored stiff by most of what I read in college, but was turned on by certain writers. As an adult, I have tended to read books by the writers I discovered in the late 80's and early 90's, and have tracked their influence forward (to like-minded, challenging modern writers) and backward (to the writers and books that influenced my formative favorites). If my teenage years laid the foundation for my musical tastes, my twenties certainly shaped my taste in books.
This weekend, I read two very different books and one of them was the ideal read; McSweeney's Quarterly Concern Issue #13; The Comics Issue. *
I found my copy of the book at the bookstore back home in Park Slope, sitting on a shelf and wrapped in plastic. The old cliché tells us never to judge a book by its cover, but one glance at this book and I knew right away that I would be walking out the door with it. That's because the cover is clearly the work of one of my favorite authors; Chris Ware. Finding an orphaned, unopened copy of the 2nd printing of the McSweeney's book was a wonderful discovery. I hadn't been keeping track of Ware's work in a while, but seeing the cover made me tingle with excitement.
An image from Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Boy on Earth
I discovered Ware's stories when I read some of his short pieces in Raw magazine, and I was instantly captivated by his unique style of drawing and his quiet, intimate approach to storytelling. The details that Ware reveals in his drawings, his perfect panels and incredibly designed pages create a physical response in me; a wonderful stillness that invites me to get lost on the page, guiding my eyes around with arrows, text, and images. Ware's work, collected under his own ACME Novelty Library Company banner, reaches back to classic comic strip styles that span everything from Krazy Kat and Mutt and Jeff to maps, blueprints, print advertising, graphic design and beyond. Some of the great revelations of the McSweeney's book are the articles and historical documents that Ware presents, which begin to explain many of his sources, but also highlight Ware's argument for understanding the language of comic strips; an evolving, self-aware boiling down of human concerns to a simple relationship between image and word, a visual poetry. One of the pleasures of reading Ware's work is the revelation that his gifts are not limited to his intensely detailed artwork; his words and text are as profoundly important to the language of comics as his drawings.
In addition to presenting his own work, research, and historical sources, Ware presents dozens of comics by other artists currently working the in the comics medium. The array of stories is dazzling; from the intensely personal journaling of the wonderful Julie Doucet to the middle-class malaise of Dan Clowes, all the way to essays by John Updike and Michael Chabon. The bookaddresses several of my favorite, pet topics; 19th Century literature and history, childhood obsessions, research, and the long line of influences that lead artists to their own unique visions of the world.
Of course, in Ware's case, the specific influences are those that resonate with me on a personal level. All of these theories, ideas, influences and details culminate in Ware's award winning masterpiece, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, which came out in 2001 and remains one of the great reads of my adult life. Primarily a compilation of Ware's Jimmy Corrigan strips from his ACME Novelty Library Company magazine, the book is a heart-wrenching journey through the experience of being a son, of history and family, presented as one of the loveliest objects ever to be sold as a book. Do yourself a favor and grab a hardcover copy.
This weekend, lying in the sunshine of a warm, breezy afternoon in late May, getting lost in the mind of Chris Ware was the perfect start to the summer, and one more book pulled from the dreaded realm of the unread.
Image from Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Boy on Earth
More fun with Chris Ware:
An on-line comic, posted as part the same program (originally printed in Raw Magazine)
An interview with Ware on the CBC's Brave New Waves program, the radio show that drifted over the Canadian border and into my cheap radio in Flint, Michigan every weeknight while I was growing up.
Ware's work, once available through the Gallerie Lambiek (Oh, to be able to afford to buy art!)
* Before the lit-snobs make fun of this choice as being non-literary, I encourage you to read the book and then tell me what you think; It's really a wonderful read.