Monday, January 28, 2008

Acme Novelty Library No. 18

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.


5 Red Pandas said...
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5 Red Pandas said...

Perhaps Tomine's take on the story is flawed, and should be criticized, but just dismissing it because there have been yearly
Asian-American studies conferences at certain colleges, well, that seems a bit unfair. I wouldn't say that stories like this have saturated the American media to the point where the issues at the heart of the story are old hat. And believe me, I've been keeping tabs!

Maybe Tomine made Ben a prick because he didn't want to write an idealized character. I get the feeling that he wanted you to criticize Ben just as much as he wanted you to empathize with him.

I'll grant you that Tomine does tend to dwell on the lives of young people.

I'll also say that he could have been more subtle. One reason I think his book is still interesting to me is because those issues are very American. If our parents or grandparents hadn't emigrated, we probably wouldn't even think about what it means to date someone outside your race. Judging from conversations I had with some Asian American women at a party this weekend, these issues still matter. If I thought that it was a story that had been told to death, or was done in an exploitative way, I'd probably agree with you.

Hey, these things might be talked to death on college campuses, but I still have kids trying to talk to me in Ching-Chong-ese, and they act surprised when I tell them that they're being ignorant. These campuses should do some outreach in the Bronx!

jrlennon said...

I hear ya, Pandas, and I didn't mean to seem to belittle these issues. I know they're important to people. And I have no idea what you mean about those studies...all I meant is that, if you've been in a situation, like college, where there are lots of Asian people and white people who are friends or lovers, you're pretty familiar with these issues, socially.

I guess my real complaint about Tomine's book is that it's a flat, unnuanced narrative about twentysomethings dating. It's hugely unadventurous, in my view, and while there's a bit of frisson about its being the first comic to deal with Asian-white interracial dating, that's not enough to make it good literature. It is just not a compelling story, in my view.

Like I said, though, I'm actually a FAN of Tomine's illustrations. I've never actually read his graphic fiction, and I was really excited to do so. I hoped the book would satisfy me more as literature, when really I think it succeeds only as visual art and political commentary.

jrlennon said...

Also, having reread your comment, I should add that I don't inherently object to "issues" stories...I only felt the issue in question was the only thing this book had going for it. I don't doubt that, especially for Asian-Americans, the book might have a powerful political and social purpose--but I'm really only inclined, or qualified, to judge it from a literary standpoint, where I believe it falls short.

5 Red Pandas said...

I understand the argument you're making that the art doesn't succeed as much as the ideas. I can definitely see that and I think it's important to criticize the work if it falls short on the story side of things.

From what I've read, Tomine has been trying to become a better story teller and if he really does want to be one, he'll need to go much more in depth with characters and story. I also get the feeling that he might have been getting this particular story line out of his system. I've read him for a while, and I'm interested to read what he does next.

I guess from my pov, even if the book is flawed, it still matters that it's visible, because I can't help thinking that books and movies being visible would go some length to change the way people think about Asians and Asian Americans. I do think it's annoying that I'm compelled to feel this way because I had hoped that things would have changed by now. It's frustrating how ignorant people still are. Which is a separate issue, but you're right, I feel like Tomine's book is important to me in that respect. I do agree that it's flawed, though. My critical faculties haven't been completely blinded by politics.

jrlennon said...

I think your argument here is sound...and I don't think you're the only one who's disappointed that race still has to be explained to Americans.

If Tomine's hoping to improve his literary side, I suspect he'll be up to the challenge. There's a ton of potential in his work I think.