As both a weekly strip and a periodical, Chris Ware's ACME Novelty Library presents a world devoid of excessive optimism (to put it mildly) by combining iconic drawings, dizzyingly intricate layouts, and a pastiche of past styles carried off with the skill of a master forger. Ware first drew attention with a strip he created while attending college at the University Of Texas in Austin, Floyd Farland, which was nationally distributed in comic-book form during the black-and-white comics boom of the mid- and late '80s. Ware resurfaced again in the early '90s as a contributor to Art Spiegelman's influential comics anthology Raw, at around the same time he moved to Chicago to attend graduate school at the Chicago Art Institute. ACME Novelty Library was launched in 1993, and with it a cast of hapless characters including Quimby The Mouse and Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth, whose glorified moniker does little to mask his status as a worst-case-scenario everyman. The issues also featured detailed, retro-styled paper models and advertisements for items such as irony. ("Strange way of seeing the world which is completely alien to animals, insects, and all other forms of life.") Last year, Ware released Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, a novel-length Corrigan story that helped cast his talent in new light. Gathered together, the multigenerational saga—inspired in part by Ware's own relationship with the father he first met in his late 20s—revealed a writer adept at handling grand themes of history, family, and thwarted hopes. Since then, Ware has moved on to, among other endeavors, the story of collector Rusty Brown. Via e-mail, his preferred interview method, Ware recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club.
The Onion: You received a lot more press for the Jimmy Corrigan book than for anything else you've done. How was that experience?
Chris Ware: I guess mostly it just confirms that there really are people I don't know reading my stuff. Mostly, I try not to think about such things, as it's rather paralyzing. I prefer to imagine that my wife, a few friends, and occasionally my mom are the only ones who read what I do, though I realize that this is somewhat unrealistic.
O: What do you think is the most common misconception about your work?
CW: I guess I've read once or twice that people think I'm "trying to bum them out," which certainly isn't the case. I'm only trying to present as honest a portrayal of the grimness of human ambition as I can. I'd hope it's rather uplifting, actually, since I find the sort of blind optimism and empty laughter of a great deal of "contemporary culture" to be more depressing than something that admits to a potential for disappointment and a gnawing sense of existential mockery. I don't trust art that promises a 24-hour joyride. In fact, there seems to be a modern sense of entitlement for such constant "ups," which is a repugnant attitude any way one chooses to look at it. I definitely believe in the possibility of happiness, though; it's just something that I think, rightfully, is rare in its genuine form, and that it can't be counterfeited.
O: You first surfaced nationally with Floyd Farland in 1987. When you reappeared in Raw in the '90s, your style was completely reworked and much closer to what you do now. What happened in the meantime?
CW: I will send a letter of thanks and a drawing to anyone who mails me their copy of the aforementioned "early work," as I'd like to eradicate any trace of its ever existing, if possible. Anyway, during my Austin years, I was drawing a regular strip for the University Of Texas newspaper, going to school, delivering blood, and trying to change my approach and "style" as much as I could, since I knew that I'd calcify as I got older. Sometimes I'd improvise a story directly in ink, other times I'd carefully plan, script, and pencil. Just yesterday, I cleaned out my closet of a bunch of this juvenilia, willing it to the City Of Chicago Waste Management Department. It was a thoroughly humbling experience.
O: You were in college from 1985 to '93. Why so long?
CW: The "second half" of the years you mention was taken up by graduate school, which I didn't, embarrassingly enough, finish.
O: How was the transition from Texas to Chicago?
CW: Fairly pleasant for the first two or three weeks, until I realized I'd made a terrible personal mistake by leaving behind a very nice and much-too-tolerant woman, who then, wisely, saw how much better things were without me around.
O: How much did that move affect your shift in style?
CW: I seem to have a limitless capacity for self-pity, so I began, naturally, to do stories about how lonely I felt, which became the beginnings of the Jimmy Corrigan story.
O: How long does a single strip of ACME Novelty Library take to create?
CW: The weekly strip, which is generally two pages of story stacked on top of each other, takes about 20 hours to write (draw), between eight and ten to ink, and about four to color. I work on it from Monday through Thursday, and the strip, once finished, takes about 12 seconds to read. I guess that's about an hour and a half of work per second of reading time, and the story, being broken up into such small pieces over many weeks, is likely impossible to follow as a result. I've heard comments that lead me to believe that readers may think I'm being deliberately obtuse, or "haiku-like," when actually I'm simply working ridiculously slowly. Lately, I can't shake the feeling that I've been living a dream for the last 10 years or so; I can't account for most of my 20s, and I have to continually remind myself that certain people are dead now and many of my friends have children. I think this is one of the (many) reasons Charles Schulz warned that "cartooning will destroy you; it will break your heart."
O: Your style is, obviously, influenced by old magazines and old comics. How many of these did you encounter as a kid, and how much did you research as an adult?
CW: Mostly, I was only interested in television as a kid, and the majority of reading material I collected was an adjunct to that central concern, comic books and magazines included. Since 1985, though, I've given up that youthful diversion. I like the implicit respect and dignity that older periodicals, writing, and art seem to extend to the reader/viewer, rather than the "erotic challenge" that modern culture offers, as if it's an exclusive dance club to which only a few attractive people are admitted.
O: You also publish The Ragtime Ephemeralist. Did your interest in turn-of-the-century culture arise out of your affection for ragtime, or was it the other way around?
CW: Probably the former. I know very little about actual "history"; I find that I can't keep general facts about disagreements between nations straight, as it all seems too abstract to me. For some reason, though, I can remember useless flummery about the banjoists and composers of the turn of the century, and my idea of a good time is reading old copies of S.S. Stewart's Banjo And Guitar Journal after I'm done working. It's sort of fascinating how focused and myopic that culture was—a trait, I suppose, I'm exhibiting, as well.
O: As someone deeply immersed in the culture of the past, do you feel alienated from contemporary culture? If so, does your alienation stem from your immersion in the past, or is it the other way around?
CW: I don't know if I'm alienated, really, or even immersed. It's all nonsense, anyway—new or old—just stuff to amuse us while time passes, to "pretty things up," or to lend a dead sympathetic ear here and there. Sometimes I really wonder about the efficacy of any art at all, but that's probably because we live such privileged, genuinely rich lives as Americans. If I were imprisoned for any amount of time, I'm sure it would all become much clearer. The thing I don't understand is why so often one hears discussion of the fruits of human labor as if it's all the creation of some alien race. I grind my teeth flat when I hear someone on the radio hypothesizing about the stock market as if it were some lumbering animal with its own will. It's just an outgrowth of the unsightly, spiteful desires endemic to us all, and nothing more. It didn't just spring out of nowhere. Same thing with the "adult" view of adolescence: Researchers try to "establish a dialogue" to "understand teenage frustrations," but don't these researchers remember that they were teenagers, too? I'm likely just missing something fundamental about it all, though. I certainly don't have any answers.
O: As a somewhat famously shy person, is it difficult to answer questions about the relationship of your personal life to your work?
CW: I guess I just don't like being physically in front of people I don't know very well, because I expect to be "seen through," or, even worse, instantly hated. Luckily, though, my wife is very encouraging.
O: Do you read reviews of your work? If so, do they influence you?
CW: I seem to really only remember the mean stuff, and it can stay with me for years, I suppose because I was used to being disliked as a kid. Not that I didn't deserve it: I was a pretty sad and unappealing creature, and still am, I guess. It's sort of simplistic to think that one tries to make stuff that accounts for one's repulsiveness as a person, but there's some truth to it. So, when I read something unfavorable, I always take it deeply personally. It's as if my efforts have been in vain, and I should just quit.
O: What kind of letters do you receive from readers?
CW: Generally favorable, though I haven't been able to answer any in a while, about which I feel terrible. I don't really get too many "weird" letters, though lately I seem to have received a number in which my stuff plays only a peripheral role: requests for artwork from indifferent girls for their boyfriends' birthdays, and one from someone who thought I might have served in Vietnam with him.
O: Has Jimmy Corrigan been retired?
O: If Jimmy Corrigan's origins are autobiographical, what are the origins of Rusty Brown?
CW: Also autobiographical, if not more so.
O: You collect all manner of things. If you were forced to give up every item in your collection except for three, what would you choose?
CW: Probably my grandmother's daily diaries, family pictures, and our cats.
O: What do you keep near you at your workspace?
CW: An electric pencil sharpener. It's the most labor-relieving thing I own. Also, the phone, a dictionary, and a banjo.
O: Do you listen to music as you work?
CW: I can't listen to music when I'm writing or drawing, as I find that it influences my perception of what I'm doing. But, when I'm inking, I listen to books on tape or music, or I talk on the phone. Come to think of it, if I ever was imprisoned, I guess I wouldn't be too bad off, since I seem to be practicing up pretty effectively.
O: Do you get along well with other comic artists?
CW: It depends about whom you're speaking. There seem to be a few I've never met who don't like me at all, calling me all manner of names, yet I have no idea what I've done to them. I find it deeply upsetting, actually, and sometimes even start letters to them, since it makes my legs feel weak and my chest hurt to think of people whom I've never met out there, hating me. It reminds me of walking down the school hallway and hoping that I won't be yelled at or jumped on by the "big kids." I thought I'd be over all that by now, but I guess I'm not. I don't think there's any independent cartoonist whose stuff I don't like or respect in at least some way or another. We're all marginal laborers—we're practically medical oddities—so I don't see why we can't all be nice to each other.
O: You've been extremely selective in choosing projects outside of the ACME Novelty Library. What are your criteria for outside work?
CW: Mostly, I try to do stuff for "concerns" in which I'm interested, like good music or books, though of course the money for such things is quite small. Fortunately, I'm able to make a living from comics, so I'm privileged enough to be quite choosy, though most cartoonists can't afford to be. It's really an uncomfortable situation, since I'm not an illustrator, though I do get calls from morally indefensible businesses offering me money to decorate their ambitions. It's extremely rare, almost unheard of, in fact, that I am asked to do a comic strip. Do writers get calls to pen Toyota advertisements? Do composers get asked to write chamber pieces about exercise machines?
O: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth was published almost simultaneously with Daniel Clowes' David Boring. Both received a good deal of attention in outlets that don't normally cover comics. Do you feel that comics have come to be taken more seriously, or are moments of acclaim like that still aberrations?
CW: Most likely, I'm sad to think, it's the latter. I thought that the one big hurdle for comics was getting out of the embarrassing arena of the comic-book shop—which is really just one step away from a pornographic bookstore to a lot of people. But I didn't realize that all the junk that companies like DC and Marvel have been selling under the rubric of "graphic novels" has created a new shelf in bookstores, and that's where our stuff ends up: torn and soiled, next to Batman: Firestorm At Midnight. Recently, I was in Barnes & Noble here in Chicago, and found a copy of my book in the role-playing-games section. I had to choke back a sob. It's a reminder of how little respect this sort of endeavor garners.