Chris Ware

Acme Novelty Library

Franklin Christenson Ware (b. 1967), known professionally as Chris Ware, is an American comic book artist and cartoonist, notable for his ‘Acme Novelty Library’ series and the graphic novels ‘Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth,’ and ‘Building Stories.’ His works explore themes of social isolation, emotional torment and depression.

His works tend to use a vivid color palette and are full of realistic, meticulous detail. His lettering and images are often elaborate and sometimes evoke the ragtime era or another early 20th-century American design style. Ware often refers to himself in the publicity for his work in self-effacing, even withering tones. He is considered by some critics and fellow notable illustrators and writers, such as Dave Eggers, to be among the best currently working in the medium.

Although his precise, geometrical layouts may appear to some to be computer-generated, Ware works almost exclusively with manual drawing tools such as paper and ink, rulers and T-squares. He does, however, sometimes use photocopies and transparencies, and he employs a computer to color his strips.

Born in Nebraska, Ware currently resides in the Chicago. His earliest published strips appeared in the late 1980s on the comics page of ‘The Daily Texan,’ the student newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to numerous daily strips under different titles, Ware also had a weekly satirical science fiction serial in the paper titled ‘Floyd Farland: Citizen of the Future.’ This was eventually published in 1988 as a prestige format comic book from Eclipse Comics, and its publication even led to a brief correspondence between Ware and psychonaut Timothy Leary. Now embarrassed by the book, which he considers amateurish and naive, Ware is reportedly purchasing and destroying all remaining copies.

While still a sophomore at UT, Ware came to the attention of Art Spiegelman, who invited Ware to contribute to ‘RAW,’ the influential anthology magazine Spiegelman was co-editing with Françoise Mouly. Ware has acknowledged that being included in the prestigious RAW gave him confidence and inspired him to explore printing techniques and self-publishing. His Fantagraphics series ‘Acme Novelty Library’ defied comics publishing conventions with every issue. The series featured a combination of new material as well as reprints of work Ware had done for ‘the Texan’ (such as ‘Quimby the Mouse’) and the Chicago weekly paper ‘Newcity.’ Ware’s work appeared originally in ‘Newcity’ before he moved on to his current ‘home,’ the ‘Chicago Reader.’ Beginning with the 16th issue of ‘Acme Novelty Library,’ Ware is presently self-publishing his work, while maintaining a relationship with Fantagraphics for distribution and storage. This is an interesting return to Ware’s early career, when he self-published such books as ‘Lonely Comics and Stories’ as well as miniature digests of stories based on Quimby the Mouse and an unnamed potato-like creature.

Ware’s art reflects early 20th-century American styles of cartooning and graphic design, shifting through formats from traditional comic panels to faux advertisements and cut-out toys. Stylistic influences include advertising graphics from that same era; newspaper strip cartoonists Winsor McCay (‘Little Nemo in Slumberland’) and Frank King (‘Gasoline Alley’); Charles Schulz’s post-WWII ‘Peanuts’ and the cover designs of ragtime-era sheet music. Ware has spoken about finding inspiration in the work of artist Joseph Cornell and cites Richard McGuire’s strip ‘Here’ as a major influence on his use of non-linear narratives.

Ware has said of his own style: ‘I arrived at my way of ‘working’ as a way of visually approximating what I feel the tone of fiction to be in prose versus the tone one might use to write biography; I would never do a biographical story using the deliberately synthetic way of cartooning I use to write fiction. I try to use the rules of typography to govern the way that I ‘draw,’ which keeps me at a sensible distance from the story as well as being a visual analog to the way we remember and conceptualize the world. I figured out this way of working by learning from and looking at artists I admired and whom I thought came closest to getting at what seemed to me to be the ‘essence’ of comics, which is fundamentally the weird process of reading pictures, not just looking at them. I see the black outlines of cartoons as visual approximations of the way we remember general ideas, and I try to use naturalistic color underneath them to simultaneously suggest a perceptual experience, which I think is more or less the way we actually experience the world as adults; we don’t really “see” anymore after a certain age, we spend our time naming and categorizing and identifying and figuring how everything all fits together. Unfortunately, as a result, I guess sometimes readers get a chilled or antiseptic sensation from it, which is certainly not intentional, and is something I admit as a failure, but is also something I can’t completely change at the moment.’

Quimby the Mouse was an early character for Ware and something of a breakthrough. Rendered in the style of an early animation character like Felix the Cat, Quimby the Mouse is perhaps Ware’s most autobiographical character. Quimby’s relationship with a cat head named Sparky is by turns conflict-ridden and loving, and thus intended to reflect all human relationships. While Quimby exhibits mobility, Sparky remains immobile and helpless, subject to all the indignities Quimby visits upon him. Quimby also acts as a narrator for Ware’s reminiscences of his youth, in particular his relationship with his grandmother. Quimby was presented in a series of smaller panels than most comics, almost providing the illusion of motion à la a zoetrope. In fact, Ware once designed a zoetrope to be cut out and constructed by the reader in order to watch a Quimby ‘silent movie.’ Ware’s ingenuity is neatly shown in this willingness to break from the confines of the page.

Ware’s ‘Rusty Brown’ is ostensibly about an action-figure-collecting manchild and his somewhat-troubled childhood, but which, in Ware’s fashion, diverges into multiple storylines about Brown’s father’s early life in the 1950s as a science fiction writer and his best friend Chalky White’s adult home life.

Ware is an ardent collector of ragtime paraphernalia and occasionally publishes a journal devoted to the music titled ‘The Ragtime Ephemeralist.’ He also plays the banjo and piano. The influence of the music and the graphics of its era can be seen in Ware’s work, especially in regard to logos and layout. Ware has designed album covers and posters for a number of ragtime performers.

In 2010, Ware designed the cover for ‘Fortune’ magazine’s ‘Fortune 500’ issue, but it was rejected. Ware had mentioned the work at a panel at the ‘Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo.’ The cover, featuring the circle-shaped humans common in Ware’s more broadly socially satirical comic-strips, turned the numbers 500 into skyscrapers looming over the continental United States. On the roofs, corporate bosses drink, dance, and sun themselves as a helicopter drops a shovelful of money down for them. Below, among signs reading ‘Credit Default Swap Flea Market,’ ‘Greenspan Lube Pro,’ and ‘401K Cemetery,’ a helicopter scoops money out of the US Treasury with a shovel, cars pile up in Detroit, and flag-waving citizens party around a boiling tea kettle in the shape of an elephant. In the Gulf of Mexico, homes are sinking, while hooded prisoners sit in Guantanamo, a ‘Factory of Exploitation’ keeps going in Mexico, China is tossing American dollars into the Pacific, and the roof of bankrupted Greece’s Treasury has blown off. A spokesperson for the magazine only said that, as is their practice, they had commissioned a number of possible covers from different artists, including Ware. Brady wrote in his blog that Ware said at the panel he ‘accepted the job because it would be like doing the [cover for the] 1929 issue of the magazine.’

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