I found myself reading this essay by Gorjus about Chris Ware’s Halloween New Yorker cover recently. In case you missed it, this is the cover:
And here’s what Gorjus has to say about it:
The children are literally masked, yet still engaging the world—going forth into that terrible night, mashing down on the button at the house they don’t know, mumbling and punching each other to you go first. They are open to the world; the masks are meaningless, the toys of children, soon to be ripped off to suck in the sweet Halloween night…..
The parents of the children wear a different mask; while there is nothing physical upon their faces, the reflection of their email and RSS feeds and status updates smear across their features, shutting them off from the world more than any Wolverine® latex ever could. It is, in one still image, a surpassing and comprehensive look at American society in the 21st century: we send our children out with masks to play-act traditions that were shaky and hoary when we were young, forcing them to play outside and make friends with the neighbor girls, while shutting down ourselves via 3G and electrons and Cymblata and whiskey more then even our own parents could manage.
That Mr. Ware has evoked this without showing us a single costume, or a single face, or truly, anything other than basic shapes coupled with a flat-matte color palette, again validates the dozens of honors that litter his career.
I’ve been reading a lot of comics criticism recently, as it happens, and one thing I’ve noticed is that writing about super-hero comics is almost invariably better than writing about art comics. That’s because writing about art comics tends to be really unendurably sententious. I mean, “going forth into that terrible night”; “traditions that were shaky and hoary when we were young”; “Mr. Ware”; “again validates the dozens of honors that litter his career”…I mean, come on. It’s like we’ve stumbled into the back cover blurb of a volume of contemporary poetry. The stink of reverence is suffocating.
Again, I don’t blame Gorjus personally. This just seems to be how folks write when they write about art comics. It’s particularly unfortunate in this case, though, because…jeez is that cover a drearily cliched piece of crap. I mean, Chris Ware sure goes way out on a limb there, using the pages of the New Yorker to sneer at contemporary technology and those who use it! Boy, I bet that was a hard sell to Francoise Mouly, huh? Imagine…the stodgy old New Yorker being old and stodgy! Really shifts your paradigm, huh?
Obviously, Chris Ware is a talented designer…but I have to say that personally my patience for his antiseptic blocky buildings and antiseptic toy-like people is pretty much exhausted. And, just out of curiosity, where exactly are the Halloween decorations here? Oh, right…if you included those, the picture wouldn’t be quite bland enough. Yes, yes I know that he’s showing the antiseptic emptiness of contemporary life…to which I say “feh,” and also, “yawn.” The bourgeoise literary tradition where you excoriate the bourgeoisie for their empty, lifeless culture by creating empty, lifeless culture — it’s been going on for generations, and I presume it’ll continue as long as two bourgeoisie are alive so that one can sneer at the other, but I don’t see why we (bourgeoise or otherwise) need to pretend that it provides some deep and humane insight.
Because it doesn’t — it’s just glib. Which is what this cover is; overwhelmingly glib, with the self-satisfied glibness that is the inevitable adornment of a real New Yorker cartoon. You could get the same level of insight from the crank at your local bar. “Damn it, cell phones…they’re ruining the world! People just don’t talk anymore like they used to!”
You want to know the technology that actually affects the Halloween ritual? As somebody who went trick-or-treating in the quite affluent neighborhood of Hyde Park, I can tell you that the mechanical device at the end of everyone’s fingers was not the cell phone, but the digital camera — except for the moments when people were using their cell phones as cameras, I guess. Because everyone was taking pictures of their kids in their cute costumes, for even in this soulless, technology-ridden age in which we sadly toil, taking pictures of kids in costumes is still the sort of thing that parents do more or less constantly.
Gorjus finishes his essay by saying, in reference to both the cover and Ware’s interior story, “It’s bleak, this world; it’s rife with cynicism and misanthropy, as can be said of much of Mr. Ware’s work.” But this image, at least, isn’t bleak or cynical. It’s nostalgic and suffused with easy sentiment and easier moralism. It’s a big slab of maudlin hooey concealed under a thin veneer of urbanity. And it, and its critical enablers, deserve to be hooted.