Quimby The Mouse
Cartoonist Chris Ware achieved mainstream respectability two years ago with his century-spanning, harshly poignant graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, which translated Ware's feelings of alienation as a man who grew up fatherless into a great leap forward for the comics medium. Prior to Jimmy Corrigan, Ware found an equally personal application for his innovative graphic design in weekly comic strips about a thoughtless mouse named Quimby and a put-upon, disembodied cat-head named Sparky. Ware made Quimby a superhero at times, or a kid, or a traveler returning to his boyhood home, and sometimes he gave the character two heads (one of which was sickly) and renamed him "Quimbies The Mouse." Meanwhile, Ware experimented with form, laying out pages with tiny square panels and simple gags, or creating complicated diagrams with panels connected up like cities on a map. In the tradition of George Herriman's Krazy Kat–which worked a single joke about a mouse smacking a smitten cat in the head with a brick into a decade-long meditation on love and cruelty–Ware repeated shtick from week to week, drawing scenes of dismemberment, storms, and the callous indifference of friends and lovers. The individual Quimby pages are captivating, but can be naggingly obscure; the accumulation of images and themes from page to page is what gives Ware's work its uncanny power. His detailed art encourages the kind of close reading that most comics fans haven't tried since childhood, but Ware's obsessive explication of loneliness creates an emotional depth that keeps the act of poring over his work from becoming an exercise in appreciative-but-removed nostalgia. Fantagraphics' two folio-sized collections of Quimby comics have been out of print for a while, and are now available again as the single-volume, hardcover Quimby The Mouse, an attractively laid-out and packaged book with a physical charm reminiscent of the toys and sculptures that Ware often designs. In addition to the two sets of Quimby pages, the new collection adds other Ware strips from the early '90s, including the formally daring superhero/memoir juxtaposition "I Guess" and the beautifully colored two-pager "Every Morning," in which he describes the trouble he's having getting over the death of his grandmother. The riskiest addition to the book, a lengthy introductory essay that extends the direct address of "Every Morning," explains how Ware's grandmother inspired the first set of Quimby comics. (The second set was inspired mostly by a collapsing romance, and is less overwhelming.) Knowing the exact connection between the decaying "Quimbies" head and his grandmother diminishes some of the comics' mystery, but Ware restores its impact by pointing out that the house shown repeatedly in the strips is based on his grandmother's house. The cumulative effect of scanning page after page of drawings of the same old house is like submerging into an artist's inescapable mourning.