Acme Novelty Library #17 (Acme Novelty Library)

rustyChris Ware, one of comics' modern masters, continues his winning streak with a new story starring Rusty Brown, the friendless young daydreamer.



64 pgs. FC; $16.95
(W / A: Chris Ware)


Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware began making waves in the comics industry in 1993, when venerable underground publisher Fantagraphics released the first issue of his semi-annual Acme Novelty Library series. Ware's detached, some might even say cold, style of graphic cartooning was perfectly suited to depicting the mundane adventures of his awkward, self-loathing cast of characters, and his continuing experiments with regards to form — ranging from color to the physical dimensions of individual Acme issues — remain peerless. By the time Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth strips were collected and published to unanimous acclaim as a single hardcover edition by Pantheon in 2000, he had proven himself to be one of the modern masters of comics.


The cover to Acme Novelty Library #17. Click thumbnail for a larger image.Ware chose to follow Jimmy in the pages of his ongoing comic book with another long form serialized graphic novel, Rusty Brown, a story which began in the sixteenth issue of Acme and deals with quite similar themes, ranging from preadolescent unpopularity to the search for meaning within an insular adult life. Ware has not yet offered to answer the question of Rusty's eventual length, but judging from its self-described "glacial" pace, it is a story the author will be occupied with for some time to come. Set against the backdrop of a snowy Nebraska winter in what appears to be the 1970s, it focuses on a number of key characters: there is the titular Rusty, a friendless boy of about 10 who daydreams of having superpowers; his quietly imposing father figure, a wishy-washy teacher at Rusty's private academy who wishes only for a life filled with personal meaning; the new kid in town Chalky White, a fellow nebbish boy about Rusty's age; and Rusty's teenaged sister Alice. Interestingly, Ware has also chosen to cast himself as an art teacher at Rusty's school, a playful deus ex machina who offers self-deprecating remarks and guidance of a sort to the students with whom he feels more at ease than his own co-workers.


Acme #16 leisurely introduced readers to "Rusty's" cast of characters and chronicled only the morning of Chalky and Alice's first day at their new school, and the seventeenth issue gently picks up right where the last one left off. Rusty is distraught over the fate of his beloved Supergirl action figure, which he chose to abandon when forced to switch desks, and is paralyzed by the fear of facing the taunts of his classmates. Ware's withdrawn sense of storytelling, all extreme close-ups and chilly long shots worthy of Kubrick, manages to convey a surprising amount of gravitas, attaching a significance to Rusty's fear of embarrassment that only a school-aged child could reasonably be expected to sympathize with. When Rusty's more popular classmates find out about his "doll" in the book's final pages, the little guy's shame is almost palpable. Even through adult eyes, it's a mortifying sequence to behold, and Ware deserves much credit for having so painstakingly orchestrated its impact. Similarly squeamish is a scene in which Alison, feeling overwhelmed by a bossy new school friend, escapes to the ladies' room with a bad case of the cramps. Ware's pared-down, elementary take on perspective makes the school bathroom seem cavernous and clinical, an effect which serves to amplify Alison's discomfort and isolation.


The most potent scene in the book, however, involves lunch hour, during which little Chalky White is taken under the wing of his and Rusty's teacher. She leads Chalky to a table where a number of other boys are sitting and seems so resigned to the student body's status quo that she doesn't even appear to register that a sullen Rusty is sitting at a table by himself in the otherwise crowded lunchroom. A guilty look etches itself into Chalky's face as he watches other children pelt Rusty with straws and assorted refuse; in spite of his tormented existence, he clearly wants to befriend the boy with whom he has so much in common. I've regarded Ware as the Edward Hopper of comics for some time, and scenes like this one are a perfect illustration of his ability to depict loneliness and ennui in instantly recognizable and quite painful fashion.


Rusty Brown may be unfolding slowly, but by taking the time necessary to deconstruct his characters' insecurities, Ware is making absolutely sure that his story is anything but boring. Although only time will tell, I suspect he may have an even better and more deeply affecting story on his hands than Jimmy Corrigan. This is definitely one to watch. | Paul John Little


Ware plans to publish Acme twice in 2007; the eighteenth issue will offer a brief detour in the form of a collection of his Building Stories strips, while the nineteenth will catch up with Rusty Brown.

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