So reading the new issue (293) of The Comics Journal, one thing that caught my eye was fellow HU blogger Bill Randall’s review of a couple of new Chris Ware titles, the Acme Novelty Date Book and Acme Novelty Library #18. Bill’s review begins with a discussion of Ware’s penchant for self-critique in the Datebook, which is basically a sketchbook/diary. Bill says:
Among its snippets of comics and drawings, it contains diary passages of unrelenting self-criticism…. I hesitate to do more than note that these passages record, with bald honesty, a portion of Ware’s inner life. They are complex, conflicted and self-obsessed. They likely mix honesty with self-deception. Having never met the man, much less related to him over time, I can’t say for certain. nothing in these passages, however, strikes me as particularly unusual. Such feelings are common; only the bravery, or foolishness, of making them public is not. Some readers, especially fellow cartoonists jealous of his success, will grow impatient with them. Others will likely feel great sympathy.
I don’t think you have to be jealous of Ware to think that his constant whining is stupid. I mean, it’s incredibly self-absorbed and just indecent to be going on and on all the time about how bad your art is. Newsflash here — nobody cares if your art is bad or good. It just doesn’t matter that much. We’ve all got our own troubles. Do the best you can and fucking move on. Really, wailing on and on…it’s not a whole lot different than constantly talking about how great you are. It’s in horrible taste, and it’s boring and it kind of suggests that you don’t care about anyone but yourself.
I want to make clear here — this isn’t about Ware’s personal life. As Bill says, all artists have moments (or more than moments) of self-doubt, and really, how you relate to your own art in the privacy of your own home is strictly your business. But Ware’s self-flagellation is a central part of his public persona. It’s tied up in his presentation of himself as an honest, deep artist; it’s a central theme in the work and aesthetic of the sincere, deep-feeling, alt-cartoonist mafia which he more or less helms. Basically, it’s how he fetishizes tedium and selfishness as aesthetic goals. It’s pernicious, and it deserves to be hooted.
Of the latest Acme Novelty, Bill writes:
Scott McCloud’s criticism in Reinventing Comics that “Ware’s outrageously complex pages often do no more than deliver a single morbid “gas” as payoff,” off-targe then, now applies not at all. The pages remain outrageously complex, like the task of sorting through one’s life. Though difficult to read, the overall effect is neither morbid nor a gag. It is simply a wish that this young woman would see the good in herself.
I disagree with the McCloud quote too, but for almost opposite reasons. A lot of Ware’s early work was, at least somewhat, gag driven; a lot of it was morbid. Gags and morbidity were what gave it a lot of its energy and appeal; it was darkly, blackly funny, and often mean-spiritedly satirical. Now, though, it’s much more about lit-fic sincere meaningfulness. Oh, the complicated sadness…. Oh, the humanity…. As a result, where Ware used to consistently delight me, my reaction to his work over the last few years has ranged from loathing (the horrible Branford the Bee series) to more sedate disappointment and mistrust (which is pretty much my reaction to the Building Stories series, which Bill discusses in his review.)
I’m not sure I’ve told this story before, but…several years ago I was at a party/art event thing to see my friend’s work. As it happened,I’d just purchased an issue of TCJ. I didn’t have anywhere to put it, so I was carrying it. A woman saw me with it and asked what it was, and I told her, and my friend then outed me by telling her that I wrote for the magazine. To which she responded, “Oh…so that means you write about whether you like Chris Ware or not, right?”
The truth hurts.
Update: More on TCJ 293 here.