Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is Rusty Brown. Written and illustrated by Chris Ware (Building Stories, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth), this sprawling graphic novel pushes the visual language of comics to break your heart over and over again. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
Reading a Chris Ware graphic novel means committing to a cycle of excitement and fatigue. I’m weary before even taking off Rusty Brown’s plastic shrink wrap, knowing that this brick of a book will be jam-packed with tiny panels chronicling life’s never-ending stream of disappointments. But then the plastic is ripped away and the excitement sets in. Ooh, there’s a two-way foldable strip along the side of the dust jacket with teasers and little activities! That’s cool! Wait, the entire dust jacket unfolds? There are four different dust jacket configurations? This is going to be fun! Then I dive in, and it’s page after page of childhood trauma and the creative, professional, and sexual frustrations of adults. The subject matter is far from fun but the creative choices are invigorating, driving the book’s momentum to prevent it from becoming a miserable slog.
The thrill of Ware’s innovative graphic storytelling always has a comedown, typically via a gut punch that reinforces a character’s isolation or despair. This feeling in the reader echoes what these characters experience as they are enthused by life’s opportunities and crushed by inevitable failure. A romantic encounter turns into a destructive pattern of sexual manipulation. A lucrative business proposition leads to financial ruin. For Ware, the high of graphic experimentation hooks people, then he drags them through the dirt of existence.
The narrative content on its own is heavy, but when paired with Ware’s intricately designed artwork, Rusty Brown becomes flat-out overwhelming. Reading a 351-page Chris Ware graphic novel won’t take me as long as reading a prose novel of the same length, but it can feel like an even bigger commitment because there’s so much happening on each page.
In graphic novels, every page turn brings a new wave of visual stimuli that hits before the text. Layouts, panel compositions, coloring, and lettering are all changing, adding new layers that give creators more authority over the reader’s interpretation of the story. There’s always a reorientation that occurs when you turn the page and immediately encounter new visual information. And with Chris Ware, you are getting a lot of information.
Rusty Brown contains four interconnected stories, each one expanding the scope of the narrative. The first introduces the main cast of characters by focusing on a single day at an Omaha school in the ’70s, following a brother/sister pair of new students as they meet their classmates and teachers. The book then flashes back to explore the life of one of their teachers, William Brown, detailing the young adult heartbreak that inspired him to become a sci-fi writer. Teenage bully Jordan Lint gets the most comprehensive narrative, tracing his entire life from birth to death through visuals that ingeniously depict his mental development over time. This first book (of two) ends with a spotlight on Joanne Cole, a Black teacher at a predominantly white school who cares for her elderly mother and laments being pulled out of the classroom to do administrative work. Joanne is the only adult lead who can be considered a decent, compassionate person, making her humiliations and rejections all the more dispiriting.
Created over the course of 18 years and published in increments across various publications, Rusty Brown deepens as Ware’s storytelling priorities change over time. For most of the first three stories, Ware focuses on desperately horny straight white men, a fascination for many alt-comics pioneers. The introduction has two male teachers who leer at their underage female students, and the titular character’s infatuation with his Supergirl toy is tied to the mysterious feeling he gets in his groin when he plays with it. William Brown becomes obsessed with his female coworker after losing his virginity to her, stalks her until she pays him to stay away, and continues to lust over other women after getting married and starting a family.
Jordan Lint regularly torpedoes his life in search of the next high, advancing from bullying to sex to drugs to corporate crime. He’s a despicable character, but Ware creates sympathy for him by tracing how his life was shaped by traumatic circumstances. The opening 16 pages of Jordan’s story, originally published in the anthology The Book Of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith, is a high point in Ware’s career, breaking from naturalism for an abstract breakdown of human development from birth to adulthood. The first moments of consciousness are depicted with simple geometric shapes, which gain more form as baby Jordan takes in the world.
Language is presented as sequences of empty boxes, indicating that Jordan recognizes a sound is happening but doesn’t have the vocabulary to interpret it. The first word he recognizes is his name, but that moment of joy is quickly replaced by panic when he hears his name shouted in anger for the first time after he watches himself defecate on the floor. Just as he’s beginning to delineate identities, he witnesses his father hit his mother, creating the first feelings of resentment that will eventually poison Jordan’s life. As his awareness expands, Ware’s visual storytelling changes. The simplicity of childhood is replaced by the complexity of adolescence, where Jordan’s internal monologue is presented with gigantic block letters.
In Jordan’s story, Ware pushes his boundaries the furthest, and toward the end, he embraces a completely different visual style for a deeply upsetting sequence where Jordan reads his gay son’s memoir. Ware presents the excerpt with scratchy, wild art reminiscent of Gary Panter’s uninhibited work, and changes the orientation of the page to accentuate what a major moment this is for the now elderly Jordan, who recalls a moment of such severe guilt that he had buried it away. We experience the son’s memory through Jordan’s interpretation, which reveals a monstrous side of himself with which he cannot reckon. He’s an apathetic bully until the end, choosing to fight his son’s claims rather than atone for his sins.
With the final segment, Ware makes a drastic shift by focusing on a Black woman’s experience in the environments we previously saw through a white male perspective. Larger sociopolitical issues are touched on in earlier stories, but with Joanne, Ware focuses on systemic problems like racism and misogyny as he recounts her uphill battle to become a respected teacher at her school. Joanne is spat on when she walks through her college campus. She’s treated like a prostitute in the white neighborhood where she teaches. She’s the most senior, hardest-working employee at her school, but still makes less money than her white male coworkers. Joanne also carries trauma inherited from her mother, who grew up in the Jim Crow-era South.
All of these histories overlap on a page that shows Joanne paying one of her mother’s bills, an act that takes her back to when she was a child hearing tales of the past from her mother. Along the bottom of the page, full-color images of the mother’s memories are mixed with Joanne’s pale blue mental images. At first, Joanne imagines the carefree lifestyle of her mother’s youth when she thinks about playing along the river, sleeping under trees, and cooking up the fish she caught. But then comes the work in the cotton fields and lugging giant bags of cotton for a single coin.
Joanne’s story is the best example of how Ware uses the little things in life to get to the core of relationships. Licking the bill envelope sends Joanne on a journey into her own past as well as her mother’s, giving the reader valuable context for their complicated present-day relationship. This is an especially important relationship to establish given the ending of Joanne’s story, which leaves readers with a completely unexpected feeling: hope.
This Wednesday, the MacArthur Foundation announced the recipients of its 2019 “genius” grants, a group of 26 individuals that includes comic book icon Lynda Barry. A strip from Barry’s What It Is popped up in the wave of online praise, a comic that concisely describes the appeal of cartoonists like Ware who focus on the minutiae of everyday life. “The ordinary is extraordinary,” writes Barry. “The ordinary is the thing we want back when someone we love dies. When someone dies or leaves or falls out of love with us. We call it ‘little things.’ We say, ‘It’s the little things I miss the most.’ The ordinary things.”
Barry had a huge effect on Ware, who told the Chicago Tribune in 2008, “I say with absolute conviction that, just as Charles Schulz created the first sympathetic cartoon character in Charlie Brown, Lynda was the first cartoonist to write fiction from the inside out—she trusted herself to close her eyes and dive down within herself and see what she came up with. We’d still be trying to find ways into stories with pictures if she hadn’t.” It’s this interior excavation that makes Ware’s comics so powerful and so draining.