Perfectly lonely

This spectacular and lavish volume from Chris Ware is the second of his beautiful large books that I’ve read. Rusty Brown is apparently an ongoing character that he’s been drawing for some time, a rather selfish and manipulative man-child nerd who takes advantage of his nerd friend Chalky White’s good nature. Rusty Brown the book, however, features these characters only as children (apart from one very brief appearance from Rusty later on), and is devoted largely to the lives and experiences of people they come into contact with: Chalky’s sister, Rusty’s dad, Mr. Ware the art teacher (clearly the author’s avatar, although the story is set at a time when he would have been a small boy), a privileged kid (and later middle-aged man) who bullies Rusty at school, and the long-suffering middle-school teacher Ms. Cole.

What’s front and centre in this book, as in all of Ware’s work that I’ve seen, is his technique as a cartoonist, which is highly stylised and diagrammatic. His pages bear as much relation to graphic design as they do to illustration, comics’ usual kissing cousin. Many of the spreads are actually labelled up as diagrams, although most of them simply take that approach to layout. These are intricate constructions, sometimes with dozens of panels—the first part of the book features two parallel narratives, one of which runs along the bottom of the pages in tiny squares. Some interior shots are perspectives, for the sake of clarity, but Ware’s preferred method for rendering space is the isometric projection. There’s something about his identical arrays of suburban houses and institutional furniture that nails the experience of living in the age of the simulacrum—but at the same time, such pages are also uniquely beautiful.

The design of each character in the book is both representational and iconic—he crafts his figures, and indeed all the other objects in his work, like perfect corporate logos. There is no stray line, no sketchy, gestural mark, no unfinished surface: every square millimetre of his pages is perfectly rendered, and any one of them embodies as much effort and creative thought as work of gallery art. His is as meticulous and painstaking as any work in the history of the medium. And yet, he uses this hermetically finished technique to represent people and lives which are flawed, fragmented, messy, and undesigned. The contrast can hardly be a coincidence. By so diligently aestheticising lives which to most of us will appear lonely and unfulfilled he alerts his reader to fundamental dissonances between appearance and experience. This is not a glib or too-obvious insight that ‘all is not what it seems’, but an attempt to hold those two contradictory experiences, of seeming and being, in view simultaneously, like the two interpretations of an optical illusion.

Ware’s subjects are not happy or fulfilled people. The character who seems most empathic, most socially capable, still finds only one guest attending her banjo recital party. The only one who has the trappings of material success ends his life as a pariah, exiled from his family. These are the outcasts and misfits of society, people for whom Ware appears to have a special regard and care. He seems driven to excavate and represent the kinds of life experience that are rarely given a spot in the light, and which rarely incite much sympathy when they are. His characters are not overt outsiders, the kinds of people who might find their own communities of refuseniks and pariahs, but the socially and emotionally inept—the irrevocably lonely.

Rusty Brown doesn’t contain a single narrative, but a series of overlapping and interlinked vignettes, sharing the kind of subjectivity and internal story that will never be shared by those that live them. This careful and diligent work of imagining the inner life of those least able or prone to articulate their own experience operates in parallel to the incredibly painstaking craftsmanship with which Ware constructs his imagery. This book contains some of the most beautiful, and some of the most poignant comics that you are likely to see, and it is also, in common with all of Chris Ware’s mature work, among the crowning technical achievements of the medium of comics.

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