Just finished reading the 16th issue of The Acme Novelty Library, which marks the beginning of Chris Ware's long-gestating "Rusty Brown & Chalky White" graphic novel, presented here in 64 hard-bound pages. Ware's one of those upper-tier comics artists–like Dan Clowes, Seth, and a handful of others–whose each new effort I read and re-read almost as soon as I get my hands on it. They're like the musicians whose records I buy and listen to as soon they get released, or like the directors whose movies I see on opening day. It's an event when Ware puts out a new book, and one of the rare times I get to take off my critic hat and just immerse myself in the experience, like a fan.

As such, my only real complaint about Acme 16 is that it's too short. The new book covers about half a day in the life of two middle school nerds and their families and teachers, and given the chronological range of the Rusty Brown and Chalky White stories that have appeared elsewhere, I worry about how long it's going to take Ware to complete this magnum opus. Then again, Jimmy Corrigan started life as a series of snarky one-pagers, then became a minimalist serial, and then expanded into a graphic novel that spanned the Civil War and the Columbian Exposition, with a lot more humanity and depth then those early, jokey strips hinted at. (And it only took about seven years from start to finish.) The Rusty Brown and Chalky White strips that appeared in Pantheon's Acme Novelty Library collection earlier this year showed an evolving meaning, starting as cruel digs at comic book collectors and developing into another of Ware's poignant examinations of two-headed creatures: one thriving, one dying. So it's fair to say that I've got high hopes for the new story, however long it takes to finish. The first installment has whet my appetite.

At the same time, I can't help but ponder what it is about Ware's work that impresses so many people. (That critic hat doesn't stay off for long, I guess.) Ware certainly has his share of detractors, who complain that his diagrammatic style is both overdone and shallow, that he just writes about and draws the same subjects over and over, and that his persistent pessimism amounts to one played-out note. I can see those points, to some extent. Certainly Rusty Brown/Chalky White is back on familiar ground, in the same Omaha landscape where much of Quimby The Mouse took place, and featuring the same kind of cast-offs and emotional cripples that populate Ware's comedic one-pagers. And though the work has a surface visual appeal and an air of sophistication, it's also true that some comics creators get too much credit for achieving effects that any halfway competent indie filmmaker or prose novelist could pull off. (See: Strangers In Paradise, Stray Bullets, My Uncle Jeff, and almost every title in DC's Vertigo line.) Do we overpraise comic book artists because their work is so painstaking? Is it any kind of real triumph that Acme 16 is attractive, cohesive and structurally complex? Shouldn't that be the least we expect from art?

These are questions worth asking, though not necessarily worth dwelling on. I was talking this over with my wife, and she countered those who say that Ware's subjects stay the same by pointing out that Ware changes, and approaches the same material from fresh perspectives. Specifically, Ware's status as a new father seems to have made him more sympathetic to the callous father/Superman/God figures that have been a motif in his work from early on. The new book contains a fairly touching intermission between the Rusty Brown/Chalky White story and the back-up feature, "Building Stories." In a single page, which doubles as an indicia, Ware relates a dream he had about his infant daughter, and shares a moment of family warmth with his wife. It's warmth driven by panic and fear, certainly. But it's there.

And I'd argue that the warmth is there in Jimmy Corrigan and Quimby The Mouse, too. I remember the experience of reading Jimmy Corrigan in serialized form, and hitting that stunning installment that takes place in and around the World's Fair, where the book really stops being a comedy of melancholy and acquires a kind of grandeur. And then of course there's Jimmy Corrigan's hopeful ending: a connection made in the snow.

The new book also begins with snow—specifically some data on snowflakes—and it ends with a haunting image of individuality being dwarfed and consumed on a massive scale. Is it an easy emotional punch at the end of a facilely elliptical half-story? Maybe. But it knocked me flat.