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Chris Ware is indubitably one of the most important cartoonists, and arguably the most important cartoonist writing and drawing today. He is also a key figure in what we might think of as the broadly conceived field of contemporary literature—a notion that was underlined when his 2000 Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth won Britain's prestigious Guardian First Book Award, beating out a biography of Anthony Blunt and the acclaimed novel Carter Beats the Devil (it also won an American Book Award). Funny, bitter, and gut-wrenchingly sad by turns, Ware's work, in an Updike tradition, is distinguished by its focus on a specifically American loneliness, and a virtuosic composition in which characters are often stylistically abbreviated while stunningly precise pages exhibit attention to the tiniest details. Ware's pages are spectacular, registering as graphic wholes, and they also present intricate narratives. Ware seems to have it all: without any artistic or editorial restrictions, he has continued to publish his own Acme Novelty Library serial, where the Jimmy Corrigan storyline first appeared. Ware has also garnered mainstream success, showcasing his interest in format and design through complex, moving covers and stories in the New Yorker and the New York Times. As with figures such as Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, and Art Spiegelman, he has always been planted firmly in the comic world, and yet he moves within public discourse, and shapes it, with as wide a purview and command as any of his literary contemporaries working in prose alone.
What the comics field, which has gained traction in literature departments in the past decade, needs going forward is to build its range of critical languages, to produce variegated scholarship that [End Page 758] goes beyond cheerleading for the form or for its most famous figures. The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking, edited by David Ball and Martha Kuhlman, comes at the right time. Ware's comics are enthusiastically taught in colleges and universities, and devotees abound in spaces both esoteric and popular. Yet there is not a large body of academic writing on Ware. (The publications most cited in the collection are Daniel Raeburn's Chris Ware and Thomas Bredehoft's "Comics Architecture, Multidimensionality, and Time: Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth," which appeared in the Graphic Narrative issue of Mfs that I co-edited in 2006.)
Ware's work dazzles in part because it makes forcefully apparent how the comic form is both old-fashioned and innovative at once. It is not only often about the past (the defining moment in Jimmy Corrigan is when James Reed Corrigan is abandoned by his father atop a tall building at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893), his work also models the past in its attention to early twentieth-century drawing styles, typefaces, and page layouts. While some think of comics as "new" because it is only recently accepted by literary scholars as serious, it is a form, at least in Ware's case, with strong attachments to traditional print culture. Ware's is a body of work (as Jeet Heer details dutifully in the volume) deeply concerned with replicating the integrity and appeal of early comics history.
But Ware is not merely a mimic. He is a formalist who takes his cues from comics history; and yet how his panels of all different sizes and shapes interact with each other on the page, how they gesture at eye movement and narrative meaning, is complex. His oeuvre has created new grammars for comics. And his work has a distinctly contemporary feel when it wants to: he draws an almost life-sized vagina at the center of a double-spread in his 2007 Acme Novelty Library 18, bisected by the seam of the book. It's a startling and stirring image with gravitas in a volume about the life of a girl that feels very current without being fashionably so.
Although at moments it focuses on...