Rusty Brown by Chris Ware
It’s not fair, but one expects perfection from Chris Ware. Author of Jimmy Corrigan, Building Stories, and the recent Monograph, he is one of the most celebrated living cartoonists. Ware transformed the literary comic into an entirely new art form, transcending both its visual and written elements into something uniquely experiential. As he explains in Monograph, “there is no other visual medium as of yet which takes the uniquely human ability to read an image and then turn it into an esthetic experience.” His artistry is surgically precise, his lettering a finely-calibrated wonder, whether in block or script. His pages are laid out in a delicate balance, and even at his most cluttered he exhibits a masterful control of his reader, in tune with how an untrained eye might navigate his whimsical pages. Ware’s prose is bleak but beautiful, and often grapples with devastatingly relatable themes.
While Rusty Brown is indeed another exceptional work from Ware, it’s not a perfect book, at least not yet. It’s half of what could possibly be his masterpiece, but it might be another twenty years before readers are able to make such a claim. Rusty Brown ends with a two-page spread that reads “INTERMISSION” in multicolored lettering over snowy static, leaving readers with a somewhat fragmented and occasionally uneven collection of interconnected biographies. The four threads of Rusty Brown don’t yet gel into a cohesive story but they do end in alignment, pointing towards incidents to come.
Self-deprecating as always, Ware anticipates this frustration: in tiny print on the book’s jacket, he describes the work:
“This experimental picture-novel-in-progress by artist-writer-cartoonist F.C. Ware (1967-2050) congeals over a decade and a half’s futile attempt at graphing the fleeting, uncertain sensations of childhood, love and the ineffable but indispensable apparatus of human empathy.”
Inside, Ware describes the book as a “sad, inexplicable work” and explains its initial serialized release. While he began writing this story in 2000, Ware published three of the four sections of Rusty Brown in his Acme Novelty Library series between 2005 and 2010.
Rusty Brown opens with the story of Chalky and Alice White and their first day at a new school. Alice quietly drifts through a tenth grade morning while Chalky, in third grade, finds a friend in Rusty Brown, a frequently-bullied, superhero-loving redhead. Alice is taught by Rusty’s miserable father, Woody, and a smarmy art teacher named Chris Ware (ha). Although she keeps to herself, her new-girl-mystique seems to bring out the worst in those around her.
The next section focuses on Woody Brown’s past. He was once a science fiction writer, but at some point that ambition and wonderment left him. In a long, excellent aside, Ware draws Woody’s entire story “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars,” and pairs that heartsick fantasy with past troubles in his lovelife.
Jordan Lint, a bully in Alice’s class, is the focus of the next segment, and Ware boldly tells his story from birth all the way to his death, over sixty years later. The early pages of Lint’s life are some of Ware’s best work yet: until he reaches adulthood, Ware’s artwork parallels Lint’s age and mental development. When Jordan is an infant, Ware works with primary colors and block shapes on pages that feel like a children’s board book. When Jordan is a horny, ADD-addled teen, Ware clutters his pages with sequences of quick visual memories, often overlaid with stuttering, ambling thoughts. Lint’s life story flows as one might expect for a high school bully, but Ware handles his pathetic existence with staggering empathy.
Finally, Ware provides a counterpoint to Woody’s history and tells a parallel story about another teacher, the banjo-playing Joanne Cole. As a black woman teaching at a predominantly white academy, Joanne frequently struggled to persevere. But she loves her students and loves what she does; she’s a kind person and although she appears to be losing track of her years (decades at the same job will do that), she finds a mooring of sorts in her third-grade classroom. While Jordan’s life plods onward from start to finish, Joanne’s jumps around from memory to memory, creating a biography in fragments.
These four stories contain lifetimes, multitudes. But until they can be read in concert with the rest of Ware’s saga, it’s difficult to consider them more than a collection of backgrounds of supporting characters, or a series of beautifully-realized tangents. There is no doubt that there’s a fine follow-up to come, and that, as a whole, Rusty Brown is going to be spectacular, but for now, this first volume is a great and promising start.