I just finished reading the latest installment of Chris Ware's ongoing comic series, and it's my favorite thing from him in quite a while. I've been enjoying the single-day-of-school narrative, "Rusty Brown," that the last two books have focused on, but No. 18 returns to the one-legged anti-heroine of the "Building Stories" cartoons that ran last year in the New York Times Magazine. I'm glad for it. This installment deepens the character enormously, and brings real pathos to a series that I was worried might be a little too cute for its own good.
The front endpapers are devastating--a swirl of text and images, set against a black background, which represent the narrator's contemplation of suicide. You have to turn the book around and around to read it, and it's a big book--the result feels like driving the death bus. We read her fragmented thoughts, and watch her imagine who might discover her corpse: her parents, her landlady, her cat. It's terribly sad and real, as are the back endpapers, which depict her lying awake in bed, over and over, at different ages. The last drawing in the book shows a sleepless night at perhaps age three; her leg is not yet missing, but she is still sad.
In between we get some back story--a boyfriend, an abortion--but the real strength of the work comes from the Ware's stunning illumination of workaday detail. He shows us, over two pages, the evidence of time passing at a florist's: the light changing, the gradual droop of a rose. There's a wonderful bit where the protagonist tosses a pair of stained underpants into a washing machine, and I can't quite explain why it's so moving. And several pages are dedicated to stripping away the layers of her body, like the acetate pages in the encyclopedia she read as a child. We see her frumpy clothes, her flesh, her muscles and bones, while all around the panels tear away the layers of her misery. Ware's ability to move the eye around the page is unmatched; he continues to experiment with the architecture of comics in emotionally satisfying ways.
I wasn't as wild about Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings, the story of Ben Tanaka, an insufferable prick who nevertheless is always surrounded by beautiful women. Reviews of this book have praised its addressing of the politics of dating among Asian-Americans, but really, if you've been to college in the past twenty years, you've heard it all already.
What I do like about Tomine is his drawing style--he's great at depicting the bland details of urban living so that they seem wonderfully alive. His characters are also hugely expressive in their faces and body language--so much so that the best bits of this book are the panels where nobody's saying anything, and nothing's going on. This is why I love Tomine's New Yorker covers--they pack a lot of story into one picture. Special props for the look on Ben's girlfriend's face when she discovers his cache of white-girl porno, and he lamely points out that there's a Latino chick in there somewhere. It's perfect.