To put it simply, Chris Ware's The ACME Novelty Library Volume 20, leveled me. As I finished its final page and closed the beautifully bound cover, I had a lingering, buzzing pain in my chest. A pain that felt like guilt, regret, loss, love, emotion. Everything that Ware's main character, Jordan "Jason" Wellington Lint, felt as his journey ended. The impact of the images, the complexity buried within each word, the layout of the pages, and the raw human intensity of the story affected me deeply.
The ACME Novelty Library Volume 20 is part of Ware's epic graphic novel experiment, "Rusty Brown". Jordan Lint was the school bully in previous volumes of Ware's examination of the life of a geek named Rusty Brown. But, as we learn in Volume 20, Lint is not a simple thug or a goon. There are reasons for his behavior, as there are reasons for everything humans do. Some kids are the geeks and some are the bullies.
The ACME Novelty Library Volume 20, is not an easy, nor a happy tale. Though it isn't necessarily unhappy, or dark or nihilistic either. It's the tale of a single man's life, told through a series of gloriously illustrated snapshots that feel as if we're peeking into Lint's own memories and perhaps, Ware's subconscious thoughts.
The story can at times feel chaotic as panels overlap and collide into a melange of images and text. But isn't that how it feels sometimes? Every second of every day, a thousand thoughts fire away and fight for our attention or distract us. We make the right choices and the wrong choices. We let fears overcome us or we neglect our instincts to create new, dangerous paths for ourselves. Lint is a man like any other man. He makes choices that frustrate and choices that ruin. But he's a man, and I believe that's what Ware's intentions are for this story. We're looking at a life, from birth to death. A life like a million others. A life that might feel empty, but yet a life that's been lived.
The story begins as Lint begins. We see a series of dots as his first visions are formed during his birth. We then follow him, year to year as he grows. We see him begin to understand words, first seeing gibberish text, then words like "Momma" "Dad" "Car" "Tree" "Ball" and "Jordan" as they are attached to their real-world counterparts. We see Jordan's thought processes form as he learns about violence, fear and death. We see his first experiences with hate. His first experiences with sex. His first experiences with drugs, music, love, marriage, childbirth, separation, work, money, corruption, and eventually his own mortality.
Lint is not excessively neurotic nor excessively dysfunctional. He's not excessive or extraordinary in any way. But that's exactly why this book works. When we really boil it down, none of us are excessively anything. We're all just trying to live, to breathe, to love, and to do what's right, even when it amounts to wrong.
You are this book.
Whether you're Lint, his wives, his children, or simply, a human being trying to live one day to the next, The ACME Novelty Library Volume 20 will dig into you and speak to that part that may not have the ability to speak for itself. I'm thankful for artists like Chris Ware, who have the courage to seek and display those parts of themselves, so we can see them in ourselves.
This comic is chaotic, disorganized, deeply layered and deceptively simple. It's an important work and should be read and read widely.
I highly recommend it.
Check it out at Drawn and Quarterly.