Along the long edge of each of the two thin covers of Chris Ware's latest collection, The Acme Novelty Library, runs the world's smallest comic strip, an anti-heroic journey from conception through reproduction to interment. Inside, enormous full-page strips from Ware's run in the Chicago Reader lavishly illustrate simple, stark ironies wrought by short attention spans and neglect. Ware's distinctive work has always been about contrast—the cartoony flip-book panels of Quimby The Mouse followed by the architectural realism of Jimmy Corrigan followed by his current circle-template style of near-stick-figure reductionism. Here, in his first collection for Random House (which published his prize-winning graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth), a decade's worth of contrasts jostle for position in an awkwardly elongated, ridiculously gilded hardback.
Ware must have Pantheon over some sort of contractual barrel. This crazy-quilt volume comes in an unwieldy size and doesn't feature a continuous story. The endpaper faux advertisements (an Acme staple) are copious and crammed with infinitesimal text. Even old staples like Big Tex and Rocket Sam, characters Ware relied on for the large-format Reader strips, come off in this setting less as existential howls than sadistic jokes.
Yet within the deliberately market-unfriendly packaging lies a luminous pearl of a story. Rusty Brown, Ware's cruel collector geek, and Chalky White, Brown's unwitting victim, spin their minor episodes of mint-in-box figurines and advertising ephemera into a heartbreaking family drama. Leaving Rusty to marinate in his foul basement, Ware turns the spotlight on the sidekick, as Chalky's beloved daughter rebels against her father's simplistic middle-American values. In a split-panel masterpiece, Chalky whitewashes his family life for the annual Christmas letter ("as always, there have been ups and downs, but we have trusted in God's love to get us through both"), while bisexual Brittany lambastes him in her diary ("anything to get away from my fucking parents… I can't stand them anymore") and pines for a cooling lover ("God I don't think I can write her name again without crying"). It's the first time Ware has shown a contemporary, plugged-in teen culture, and not surprisingly, he nails its core of isolation and inchoate disappointment.
And for the truly diligent and patient, Ware weaves a long, wordless story across the tops and bottoms of pages, onto the back cover, and back around again to the beginning. His Superman/God/Father figure mopes through millions of years about the girl he kidnapped and raised—then, trying to recapture some idyllic moments with her, he creates the universe. As usual, Ware's Celtic-knot plotting and layout somehow morph into a Möbius strip. In an "apology and souvenir" strip wrapped around the book, Ware flagellates himself for making cheap jokes, taking forever to finish anything, and working in comics at all. "Do you suppose that God, if he existed, would work in a similar way?" he asks his longsuffering wife while feeding their infant daughter. Finally, Ware has grasped the obvious equation: He is God.