Existential Graphic Science Fiction

The Acme Novelty Library
Number 19
ISBN: 9781897299562

$15.95 US / $15.95 CDN

Published by and available from

Drawn and Quarterly

Angela and I both like comics.

From super-heroes to Carl Barks’ ducks, I have a keen appreciation of classic comic art in all its forms. While I don’t read a lot of current titles, there are a few that I especially look forward to – anything by Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore, Ed Brubaker’s innovative storytelling, and Jason Lutes’ amazing Berlin. But one comic is a true treasure when it shows up – never more than once or twice a year.

There really isn’t anything comparable to the Acme Novelty Library.

Chris Ware has been gracing us with the Library for over 15 years now and the 19th “issue” was released just a couple of weeks ago, a trim little hardcover volume that is one of the best in years. One never knows what a number of the library will look like – some issues have been comic book sized while others have been smaller or gigantic, near tabloid size. The production and packaging is always meticulously detailed and artistic.

Judged merely as design pieces, the Library is impressive, but Ware’s art and writing are equally masterful. His drawings are often tiny but beautifully rendered in the style of early 20th Century cartoonists, with a modern touch, and his stories are elaborate, dark internal landscapes of pathos and little triumphs of the human spirit, tinged with just enough surrealism to keep them from being mundane.

Issue 19 tells the latest chapter in the life of middle aged schoolteacher Rusty Brown, a character who has appeared in a gradually shifting state in Ware’s universe for many years. Originally introduced in a series of strips that poked loving (if brutal) fun at grown-up toy collectors, Brown has evolved into a fully  realized person, continually trying to come to grips with the indifference of the world and his continuing sense of wonder that usually fails to provide any protection against the slings and arrows of life.

The first half of 19 is a science fiction story, told in a kind of retro, vaguely Braburyian style. In the story of a tragic attempt to colonize Mars, we follow the narrator through his training and into the dangerous tedium of space, one of four humans and three dogs sent to the Red Planet in a polite terraforming scheme that goes terribly awry, with episodes of unspeakable violence and horror and, ultimately a metaphor for loneliness that may define the human condition.

The art of Ware’s tale is in the telling, the detail that captures and satirizes the culture of late 50s America, much as a sensitive piece of sci-fi from the era might have, but skewed.

Mdway through the book, we learn that the comic we have been reading, “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars,” is actually Rusty Brown’s imagining of an award winning science fiction story by his father, a failed journalist and unsuccessful author who has left behind a body of work for his son’s appraisal. Through Rusty’s eyes, we see his father’s life, love, and hope unfold as a projection from the story, sad and wistful through the filter of a son who shares the same fatal belief that life should be better than it is.

Darkly funny, heartrending in places, and astonishing in its layers of feeling and meaning, Ware’s narrative is visual poetry.

In a world that was as good as it should be, he would win the National Book Award.

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