Sunday, April 21, 2019

select writings on chris ware

My Twitter reading group for Marc Singer's Breaking the Frames convenes tomorrow night (April 22, 7p central) to discuss Chapter 4. It's about Chris Ware, so I have some opinions! I've written about Ware quite a lot over the years, so I collected a few things that seem most relevant to the discussion.

For your consideration, a few points:

1. Chris Ware has a lot of trouble writing about himself.
Much of Singer's chapter is about Ware's cheerleading for autobio (in his capacity as an editor for McSweeney's and Best American Comics) and his commitment to narrative realism in his own comics. In discussing Ware's relationship to his protagonists in Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories, as well as Ware's "cameos" in comics like Rusty Brown, Singer gestures to Ware's complicated relationship with autobio. But I don't think Singer quite conveys how tortured that relationship palpably uncomfortable Ware is in writing about himself and even discussing himself in public. I talk about Ware's fraught relationship with self-expression in my review of his quasi-memoir, Monograph (2017), a short section in a much longer article about the State of Comics. Here's an excerpt:
Some critics have characterised Ware’s aesthetic as emotionally cold. But Monograph, with its preponderance of mechanical drawings and photographs of painstakingly handmade wooden automata, makes for a revealing psychological portrait. There is clearly something about these objects with which Ware identifies; there’s something moving, too, in the concept of an autobiography told mostly in picture captions. The way in which Ware narrates his life story is often more revealing than the writing itself. 
One of the best features of the book is its pasted-in booklets, many of which replicate Ware’s original mini-comics. The most interesting of these, which is not much larger than a postage stamp, describes the last few months in the life of the artist’s grandmother. Ware’s caption admits that although the booklet, which bears no resemblance to his distinctive style, is “of no aesthetic value,” it “allowed for something to come out on the page which [he] otherwise would not have permitted.”
(Read "The New Age of Comics" at Prospect magazine.)

One of my central opinions on Chris Ware is that his comics would be a lot better if he either committed to writing about himself or committed to writing truly fictional characters.

2. Chris Ware expresses some stunningly sexist attitudes in his work and his comments.
Singer discusses Ware's sexist attitudes in his capacity as an editor (an argument that was first laid out by Bart Beaty in Comics Versus Art). But this attitude isn't just limited to Ware's work on two anthologies (which I think Singer places way too much weight on anyway); it's also a frequent theme in Ware's own work and his interviews. I think a lot of it comes down to Ware's inability to write about himself, coupled with his tendency to impose his own point of view on other people instead of truly empathizing with them. I wrote about a truly incredible video where Ware talks about his ambivalence on writing female characters:
Ware’s fundamentally incapable of imagining a convincing character or even another actual human who isn’t, on some level, Chris Ware. That isn’t because he’s white, or because he’s a man, but because he mistakes all human experience as interchangeable in a way that would only ever occur to white men. In his hands, exploring difference is the project of locating other people’s inner Chris Ware.
You can read the full post right here on the blog.

Ware's #MeToo cover for the New Yorker
A misogynistic comic he did for the New Yorker
Another one 
Ware on makeup
Ware on his wife

3. The whiteness of Ware World
Given that Singer delves into Ware's sexist attitudes, I'm VERY surprised he doesn't go down a similar line with race. (I'd just about bet those anthologies that Singer talks about are as white as they are male.) A few years ago Ware wrote a real humdinger of an essay on George Herriman, whose work Ware has edited for Fantagraphics' infinite Krazy Kat series. I thought it had some problems:
Pegged to a new biography on kartoonist George Herriman (1880-1944), a black man who passed as white, Ware writes about the merits of the comic and how they deepen and multiply when considered through the lens of black identity. He has a Maya Angelou epigraph and everything. Which is all fine and good till, inevitably, Ware comes around to the universality of Herriman's (really rather particular) predicament. You know, because " its finest form" isn't just about articulating black identity--it's about transcending it.
You can read my full post on Ware's Herriman essay here.

Ware and Spiegelman get real racist in conversation
Ware's unfortunate blurb (on the Tisserand book)

4. Why are people so reluctant to criticize Ware?
People seriously get SO MAD when you criticize Chris Ware. It's a whole thing, and I took it to be the subtext of this chapter given that, as someone who has written about Chris Ware on the Internet, Singer has surely experienced this phenomenon firsthand. Behind people's anger there's a real reluctance to criticize Ware in his capacity as an artist, an editor, or a historian. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ware's absolutely terrible work as a cover artist for the New Yorker. (My complaint on this was actually the first post on this blog.) While I think the New Yorker covers are probably outside of Singer's scope, they represent the true convergence of all Ware's bad takes on sex and race, which I consider central to his "real" work:
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.

You can read the full text here.