You know that feeling when you’re left alone in a car? The door shuts, time stops, and suddenly there’s a humming silence; all you can hear are the clicks of the engine cooling down. You can see people milling about in he parking lot outside but you don’t know what they’re saying, you don’t know who they are, and you don’t want to be seen by them because somehow it’s weird to just sit in a car on your own? That beautiful, dusty synthesis of awkwardness, tranquility, and sheer loneliness is what I feel when I read a novel by Chris Ware.
You may already know about Chris Ware. Chances are, if you know your stuff about graphic novels or illustration, or you hang about with kind of quiet introverts who listen to Elliott Smith or wear glasses, you already worship him. To the rest of you: Chris Ware is a cartoonist who makes graphic novels that are as big and as small as the world around you. But even that is not saying enough.
I first came across his books when I was staying with my then-boyfriend in Nottingham, UK, a town I really didn’t know. The boyf was at work all day and I was left, quite happily, to wander the streets and explore. I felt a little lost and a little bored, and so when I came across an amazing comic-book store called Page 45, it was a big relief. I’m usually nervous about just hanging out in bookshops without looking like I’m actually going to buy something, but I had a lot of time to kill, so I went for it. I read, cover to cover, pretty much every book in that place—no kidding—without spending a dime. I was crazed, consuming probably two books per minute, and then carefully sliding them back on the shelf, careful not to crease a dust jacket or bend a spine. During one of these binges, I randomly picked up a slim, tall hardback that has, I guess, changed my life.
It was a graphic novel entitled The Acme Novelty Library, Number 18, and it was like nothing I had ever, ever seen. I was hooked from page one: You’re in the bedroom of a young woman. She’s alone, except for a cat, and in bed.
You watch her shower, put on a shirt, stroke the kitty, open the fridge, feed the kitty. All the mundane, banal activities that we all do every day, but somehow it feels like a story, and like real life, and you’re captivated. She seems very solitary; for a long while there’s almost no speech or narration. Then she makes to leave the house and must descend the stairs and suddenly you see that she has a prosthetic leg, masked cleverly by a long white sock that will soon become one of her defining features and one of the many things you love about her. This girl conjures in me a protective instinct that I’ve never experienced with a fictional character before. I feel like if anyone were to say a bad word about her, or anyone with half a leg for that matter, I’d be tempted to knock them out.
We follow her for a little while. To the market, down the road, through dappled sunlight, pausing only when she pauses—usually to look at the sky or stop at a flight of stairs in the most stomach-churningly lonely way you can imagine. Ware manages, in just a few quiet panels, to make us know this girl, and feel what she is feeling—and it hurts, a lot.
Occasionally he gives us permission to read the girl’s innermost thoughts. For example, as she sits on the subway watching a couple canoodle nearby:
How many dinners have I eaten? How many showers have I taken? Every day runs together…everything runs down the drain… And all I’m left with is just the vaguest sense of it all…a general “jist”…and then, even that dwindles away…
Her stream of thought whilst working in the florist:
Occasionally, I’m almost reluctant to hand flowers over to people I don’t like, fearing they won’t take care of them…or worse, that the plants will resent me for it…
And, the clincher, the line that rocketed Chris Ware straight into my heart, and the hearts of many others, forever:
I am entirely, 100%, horrifyingly, alone.
Because Ware has let us inside this girl’s head, and shown us her daily routine, and we’ve seen her underwear on the floor, we entirely believe what she’s said, and all we want to do is jump into the book to keep her company.
Mix that kind of instant, deep empathy with seriously the most overwhelmingly beautiful and original artwork you may ever see, and…hopefully you can understand why this book was a lifeline for me during my lonely day in Nottingham. When you’re feeling lonely and a little sad, sometimes what helps you the most is dipping into someone else’s melancholy. You feel less alone—which is everything.
After Acme No. 18, I bought and read every Chris Ware book I could find. I wish I could properly convey to you the experience of reading them, how Ware is able to capture and record such private and delicate feelings as yearning and unrequited friendship and hidden loss, and how he seems to fully understand emotions that we haven’t yet found words to explain to ourselves. But I can’t, of course—you’ll have to go out and find his books yourself. They’re all magnificent, and since they’re not chronological, you can dive in anywhere, and read them in any order. Try Acme No. 18: life-changing. Or No. 20: tear-jerking. No. 17: crushing heartbreak.
The Acme Novelty Datebook, a hardback edition of Ware’s sketches, includes insanely detailed drawings of buildings (and you will never see buildings the same way again after reading Chris Ware), people asleep on the subway, and his wife—with ludicrous annotations in the margins apologizing for his terrible draftsmanship.
But if you’ve never read any of his books and you want a little guidance, start with the new one, Building Stories. It’s an enormous box full of books, newspapers, and leaflets of all shapes and sizes (some of which include the girl we met in Acme No. 18). A staggering amount of work has gone into this collection, and words cannot express the joy of receiving it in the post.
Or you could begin with The Acme Novelty Library, a big, gorgeous red book that collects select pages from the comic-book series of the same name.
But I really don’t want to tell you what to do—Ware wouldn’t want me to, anyway. Go to your local comics store or independent bookstore, preferably when you’re feeling a little bit lost and alone, and pull the books off the shelf. They were made for you to discover in your own way. (Lucky you!)
For a long time, I enjoyed Ware’s work in private, and foolishly believed I was the only one who knew about him—and I didn’t necessarily want to share the very pleasantly solitary feeling of poring through his books and discovering new details and wrinkles each time. But eventually and inevitably, I met other people who knew about Chris Ware. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel like an intrusion. It felt like a revelation: other people feel like me! When you meet someone else who loves Chris Ware, you instantly know that they’re on your level in such an enormous way that you can’t really go back from there, only forward, into what will probably be a long and gratifying friendship.
And you know, even if you don’t find anyone to share them with, you’ll still have the books. There are so many of them, and each one will make you feel less alone every time you open it. ♦
Liv Siddall lives in London and writes for the art and design magazine/website It’s Nice That.