Tuesday, September 27, 2016

obstacles to critiquing chris ware's shitty political new yorker covers

I. For this post to be of any interest to you, you’re going to have to clear the first and foremost obstacle to critiquing Chris Ware’s shitty political New Yorker covers, which is: who cares? And what exactly do you expect from a New Yorker cover, anyway? For me, the answers to those questions (apart from a baseline of constantly caring about dumb unimportant things) are that the person who edits them, Francoise Mouly, is an interesting person whose work is worth watching and also that, at their best, New Yorker covers can be totally great. Maria Kalman and Ivan Brunetti covers, for instance? Totally, totally great.

II. While I think it’s safe to label Chris Ware’s politically inclined covers, as a category, shitty--and keep in mind this isn’t about the covers that are more oriented towards formal concerns (i.e., comics-y instead of cartoon-y), which tend to be better--that category consists of many covers that tend to be shitty to different degrees, in different ways that overlap in different combinations. Here are just a few prominent categories in their purest forms with examples off the top of my head.

Plain stupid”

These are the covers that are obvious, trite, and heavy handed (admittedly a large category).

“Fear of the computer”

I like to think that Ware refers to all technology as “the computer,” always with the article.

“Thinks it’s progressive but is dubious, regressive, and/or confused”

"This Mother’s Day, it’s all about the daddies."

This cover reminds me of when my mom asked me if “one of them always looks like the boy” (re: lesbian couples).

For more on this shitty cover see section VI (below).

Mapping these different forms of badness--which I’m inevitably asked to do when I make fun of Chris Ware’s New Yorker covers--is a somewhat involved process.

III. Yesterday I was making fun of his latest cover for the New Yorker, which happens every so often when I forget that’s not allowed. However casual the comment, however specific the critique, making fun of Chris Ware’s New Yorker covers is always interpreted as flagrant dismissal of Chris Ware’s entire long and storied career--the history of which will be explained to you if you even gesture to the blatant hack nature of these covers. These comments are inevitably perceived by white middle-aged Ware fanboys (cf. the Comics Journal) as a groundless assault on middle-aged white male humanity.

If you make fun of a bad Chris Ware cover, it doesn’t matter if you’ve written actual criticism about the Chris Ware work you like (Jimmy Corrigan or Building Stories, let’s just say)--you’re a hater now. And you know how it is with haters: they’re just like every girl who rejected you in high school they don’t know a goddamned thing about master cartoonists.

IV. Let’s talk more about Chris Ware’s whiteness (and maleness), which I was joking about, but also not joking about, yesterday (w/ regard to his latest shitty cover, which is about race). Maybe you noticed I did a similar thing in that crossed-out part in the paragraph above, which is very much a joke that’s also sort of kind of rooted in something true. When a man writes about comics stuff, he can do that: make a joke about something that he’s also not joking about. There are men in comics who are (rightfully) celebrated for doing that very well! Me, I get weird passive-aggressive (and sometimes aggressive-aggressive) comments about how no one gives a fuck what I think, rank amateur that I am, and whatever else you may think about that I can tell you it’s surely an obstacle to critiquing Chris Ware’s shitty political New Yorker covers, even in passing, because it’s really not worth watching myself get put down by a bunch of people who think that getting paid $50 by the Comics Journal for their opinions invests them with some sort of…what? Credibility? Moral authority? Expertise? I suppose if you’re the kind of fellow who believes that, like Samson and his hair, all your critical prowess emanates from your Game of Thrones tattoo, that’s the sort of argument that makes sense to you.

I mean, if anyone wants to discuss the whiteness of Chris Ware comics with me? Knock yourself out. Meanwhile I just watched a documentary that featured Chris Ware riding a tandem bicycle. I rest my fucking case.

V. Here’s the part that’s less of a joke: Chris Ware’s comics are about white misery, which people (including him, including me) tend to talk about in terms of universality. I don’t even mean this as a judgment of his work. The comics of his that I know at least--Jimmy Corrigan, Building Stories--are about miserable white protagonists who live in miserable, mostly white, worlds. That’s not my opinion; that’s the text. (And isn’t it also the text of Rusty Brown? I’m not a completest, but I’m pretty sure this is Ware’s thing?) You can say Ware’s comics are about human misery, and that’s not wrong exactly, but it’s not the whole truth. To tell the whole truth, you’d have to acknowledge that the worlds Ware builds, and particularly Ware’s Chicago, are pretty dang white.

What I hear people praise Ware for--and what I’ve heard Ware himself describe as his project--is his depiction of the human condition (“what it means to be alive”). But in his work, there aren’t that many different kinds of humans. Yes, Jimmy Corrigan’s sister is black. But flip through Building Stories, a story that unfolds across decades in and around the city of Chicago. All the characters, except for I think two very minor ones, are white. Talking animals have much bigger roles. A talking building has a much bigger role. Even the big crowds of people milling around in his backgrounds are white. And it seems to me that this artist who consistently sees the human condition (in Chicago!) as almost always (if not totally) this default shade of white…I’m not even critiquing the comics themselves; it just seems to me that’s not the cartoonist you want to be your go-to guy for topical New Yorker covers about race in America.

I think you can see the problems that arise in using white misery and other kinds of human misery interchangeably when you look at Ware’s latest cover.

Someone on Twitter described this as “Old Bobby Hill and Black Bobby Hill share an awkward silence,” which is perfect.

While this cover is sort of confusing, I think what we can say for sure is that Ware is emphasizing sameness. These guys’ features are nearly identical. Their facial expressions are identical. The white cop is driving (get it? do you get it??), but otherwise the differences are literally skin deep. All lives matter? Cops have feelings too? We’re all worried about police brutality here in America? I don’t know, all I’m getting is “basically we’re the same and are united in how we’re freaking the fuck out,” and that just seems like a really unhelpful and misguided statement when it comes to the particular topic at hand. I’m just going to hazard a guess that Chris Ware riding his tandem bicycle over to Ira Glass’s place for dinner is not having the same thoughts and feelings about police brutality and race in America as…I don’t know. Anyone?? Certainly not the same thoughts and feelings about police brutality that a black man, police or otherwise, would have. One last clue: the title of the cover is “Shift.” Are we to imagine that we’re in Charlotte, where the latest episode of police brutality affected the special friendship of Old Bobby Hill and Black Bobby Hill? Are those the stakes of this cover? Just…what. why.

I’m sure good old Ken Parille is going to trot out the seven types of ambiguity for this cover any day now, to which I say: This is a political cartoon. By Chris Ware.

VI. And Chris Ware is very bad at political cartooning, particularly when it comes to issues surrounding identity. Whenever I state this obvious point, some white middle-aged dude who fancies himself an impartial scientist of comics (e.g., Tim Hodler) will encourage me to make my case, which is not only difficult and unpleasant for all the reasons stated here (plus boringness), but also because I suspect it’s totally futile. If you can’t admit that these covers are bad, I really doubt there’s anything I can say that will change your mind.

I’ll cop to some actual bias: I think political cartooning mostly sucks, and furthermore find that Ware, for all his greatness, can be a bit heavy-handed on a good day, the combination of which undoubtedly makes these covers especially bad in my eyes. But--at the risk of sounding like I have the delusions of impartiality I was just making fun of--I actually think it’s possible to deem a given (political) cover unsuccessful, even on its own terms.

Quick example. Remember this?

It was accompanied by an animation (of This American Life, another thing I find loathsome, just on a personal level) and an essay (in which Chris Ware describes makeup as something “women are doing just to accommodate men”--yikes!) that has a totally different and even conflicting message from the still image. The animation (and the essay) are about a parent’s worry for their kid. The cover reads more about bemoaning the passage of time (notice the snapshot taped to the mirror) and the anxieties of an aging woman (notice the tired-looking mother stares at herself, not her child, in the mirror). When I look at that cover, I see a mother’s distress at losing her own youth and beauty--which, if you’ve read Building Stories, you might recognize as Ware’s central idea of womanhood. The discrepancies between the cover and its accompaniments were not intentional.

By definition, political cartooning is about messaging much more so than most art. When it’s done well, I think it’s capable of shouldering some amount of ambiguity or multiple meanings, but what we are talking about here is not the magical ambiguity of art; it’s just a clear cut case of an artist who has missed his own mark. Ware meant anxious parent and he drew a woman who looks anxious about her own situation. Admittedly, that’s just the shittiness of that particular cover. Other times, like with his most recent police cover, Ware’s message is just inscrutable. Still other times, it’s hokey (with somewhat redeeming art):

And other times the message is hokey with art that’s just…bad:

All to say that Chris Ware, who is truly a great cartoonist, is very bad in a whole spectrum of ways when it comes to this particular kind of work…a kind of work that, by the bye, Francoise Mouly has described as “the best-paid job as editorial in that field.” And I don’t know, maybe there are tons of female cartoonists and cartoonists of color doing New Yorker covers, but I can’t say that I’ve noticed very many over the years. I think of the comics personalities I have recognized--Ware, Daniel Clowes, Ivan Brunetti, Adrian Tomine, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Charles Burns, Roz Chast…this is an unscientific, off-the-top-of-my-head survey of cartoonists (many covers are by other kinds of artists, and my limited knowledge of the field means there’s cartoonists I didn’t recognize, or plain forgot), so take this for what it is (a guess, not a claim)…but to me that looks like a fairly homogenous group in more ways than one: mostly white, mostly men, most of whom exist within a close-knit circle of friends. And that’s how jobs work, and how comics especially works, but my tentative conclusion is that the art editor of the New Yorker should maybe make a little more effort to give someone who’s not her white male friend the chance to depict experiences that are not, in fact, universal--experiences that in fact hinge upon not being universal.

VII. Which brings me to the last annoying thing about criticizing Chris Ware’s New Yorker covers: The woman you criticize along with him will be conveniently erased. A critique of a Chris Ware cover for the New Yorker is also a critique of Francoise Mouly. And that’s tricky. I can’t offer much substantive critique of her role in this because (a) she’s juggling a lot of variables, including the availability and interests of the artists she works with and (b) I’m too lazy to look into her stable of cover artists for a deep-dive demographic breakdown and examination of who tends to cover what. I guess also (c) I’m not prepared to say white artists should never do New Yorker covers on police brutality (though, also: I don’t think that’s crazy!). But here’s the thing: this is Ware’s second cover on police brutality in 2016. And he’s had at least three covers I can think of off the top of my head (all appear above) centered on (white) feminism. That’s not a Chris Ware problem. That’s a Francoise Mouly problem.


  1. I don't follow the New Yorker or its covers, so this is my first exposure to these covers. And I have read only Ware's Jimmy Corrigan. Some of these I find humorous, most don't do much for me. I don't hate them. But that's just my opinion.

  2. You seem hyper aware of the race and gender of the artist, and whenever I hear someone focusing on that, I always wonder what the artist is supposed to do about their race or gender. I mean, they can't change it. And since they don't hire themselves, is the idea that they should refuse the assignment, step aside, and let someone of a different race or gender have their job? Who in their right mind would do that? Is the idea that they should only draw comics about their own race and gender? If they do, they get ridiculed for it. If, instead, they do comics incorporating other races and genders, they get ridiculed for inauthenticity. I understand your more subjective criticisms, but I guess I just don't understand the ultimate point of the race and gender part.