Acme Novelty Library #20 by Chris Ware

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Acme Novelty Library #20: “Lint”
By Chris Ware
Drawn & Quarterly

chrisware_acmenovelty20“Man’s misfortune lies in being time-bound.” That’s Sartre on The Sound and the Fury. The philosopher then turns to an excerpt from the book, “…a man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune…”

Time, it seems, is Jordan Lint’s misfortune, as well. And so “Lint,” then, is the story of a man made victim of his own limited time, whose present, like Sartre’s take on Faulkner, is victim to an ever-existent, always dominant past. The further Jordan Lint presses on in his increasingly unfortunate existence, the more powerful his past becomes—lines are blurred and time, an ever-increasing source of confusion, grows all the more antagonistic.

The connection between The Sound and the Fury and the 20th issue of Acme Novelty Library is, perhaps, tenuous at best, but it’s one I couldn’t bring myself to abandon, as I read and re-read the first several pages of Chris Ware’s new story. There’s something familiar in the book’s opening struggle to make sense of the world.

For Ware, however, it is a tale told by an infant—a young human thrust into this world, surround by a disconnect of colors and shapes, splotches of single colors formed then into patterns and overlapped into Ben-Day dots. Ware is always cautious, but still playful with the form, as unassociated images of mother and father and Jordan himself emerge in some primitive attempt at communication, cobbled into something resembling the Pioneer plaque, a valiant, but absurd attempt to focus in on reality, congealing into panels and then, eventually, into full comics pages.

One emerges with the sense that it is segment of life Ware has longed to illustrate, but thankfully has waited until he possessed the right storytelling skills. The result is startling and confusing and then breathtaking—a study in measured abstractions that demand multiple passes before moving forward.

And while the images ultimately congeal into a more standard linear storytelling, it’s a confusion that never completely dissipates, with moments—the overtly traumatic, in particular—breaking down the walls between past and present, or, at the very least, poking holes in the now to let pieces of the past flood through.

And Jordan Lint’s is a life defined by sporadic—but powerful—trauma. Some are more standard fare—falling off bike, the loss of a love—and others, are thankfully rare, like the loss of a parent at a young age. It’s the latter event that causes a clear and deliberate shift in the character, most tangibly in the adoption of a new name: Jason—a nod, perhaps, to one of Faulkner’s more antagonistic protagonists. We see flashes of Jason with red dialog boxes, but it is not until this shift that the concept fully formers. Ware is not quick to point it out. The artist is clearly content to let much of the story fall between panels and pages—a necessary tool, perhaps, when attempt to tell the story of a life in 72 pages.

Ware states on the inside front cover that “Lint” is, “one chapter from an ongoing, ridiculously long work,” something of an aside from the on-going “Rusty Brown” storyline (with the characters from each playing a role in the stories of the other), but “Lint” can easily be regarded as a self-contained story in its own right.

Above that aforementioned disclaimer is a family tree, plainly spelling out the beginning and end of the eponymous character’s life: 1958-2023. (Between this two, Ware offers up his own timeline for the benefit of historians: 1967-2056—we can only hope that such a distant expiration proves accurate.) Sixty-five years in 72 pages.

Of course, Ware’s pages should be regarded as exponential in number—even as the cartoonist longs for the cultivated simplicity of a Gary Panter (to whom he pays homage first in a brief image of a notebook paper Frankenstein drawing of a young Lint and later in a multi-page spread), the cartoonist’s work has grown ever more complex over the years. Each page is loaded with a million important details, intense cross sections of the human experience. Ware, it seems, is lingering longer on character detail, as well, more careful than ever to illustrate the gray lines that have accumulated on this characters’ faces with age.

But if compulsive detail is Ware’s nature, succumbing to such instinct is against his better judgement, and when the time comes to paint the most pivotal moments, he does so with controlled abstraction. With “Lint,” Ware has found a healthy balance between the two, largely working with the complexity that has come to define his work with Acme Novelty, but dabbling in simple symbols and stripped down images at the height of intensity.

It’s a struggle (albeit a rather rewarding one—#20 is quite probably Acme’s strongest single issue to date) to follow Lint through the chronology of his oft-spiraling life. Ware knows enough about the human experience to understand that that no life is truly defined by a clear arc, and Lint’s story is populated by great numbers of stops and starts (more stops than starts, it seems, for poor Lint). And while early in his life he struggled to have those around him define him as Jason, it is as the purer original form of Jordan in blue background panels that Lint happily declares, “I have found myself,” only to declare three pages later, “I’m coming apart again.”

It is an ever-present struggle that Lint finally, predictably, loses, succumbing to the finite nature of time. When it finally runs out, he has lost, and the ever-increasing past he’s spent a lifetime on the treadmill outrunning has finally broken through, the tenuous bonds built up late in life (constructed upon countless failed relationships) are snapped with ease, and all that remains is fading regret.

And we learn, as we’ve known from the beginning, that Jason (née Jordan) is but a bit player in someone else’s life. But while, as Ware admits right off of the bat that “Lint” is “one chapter from an ongoing, ridiculously long work,” the life story in which the protagonist has a walk-on role is, perhaps, a different one than we were initially led to believe.

–Brian Heater

3 Comments to “Acme Novelty Library #20 by Chris Ware”

  1. Box Brown | November 24th, 2010 at 8:49 am

    This book was probably THE best book I’ve ever read. The actual design of the covers plays a part in the story. Mind-blowing.

  2. Tom Hart | November 26th, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    Better than the PREVIOUS issue of ACME? Oh, I seriously doubt it.

  3. Madinkbeard » Best Print Comics of 2010