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CR Holiday Interview #8 -- Robert Clough On ACME Novelty Library #19
posted June 20, 2010
 

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Robert Clough was an Internet discovery for me. CR readers and comics-interested friends started sending me links to his reviews at something called Sequart. When that site went down -- taking Clough's reviews with them, I believe -- I followed him over to his modest but vital, content-driven blog High-Low. It's been a go-to on-line destination for me ever since. Clough is a fearless reviewer as comfortable talking about a tiny, handcrafted mini-comic as he is a lavishly produced coffee table book. He is a lottery pick of the new on-line iteration of The Comics Journal, and I hope they use him well.

When I saw ACME Novelty Library #19 on Clough's diverse list of possible discussion topics, I jumped at it. I thought that issue of ACME one of the great stand-alone books of the last five years, odd only in that it's also part of the longer Rusty Brown narrative. I knew I wanted to hear from someone about it, and was certain Clough would be up to the task. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Rob, I know so very little about you. How did you end up reviewing comics? At what point in your life as a comics reader did you begin to look at works more as a critic than a reader maybe?

ROB CLOUGH: I'm the typical life-long reader of comics, moving from children's comics to superheroes to alt-comics as I grew older. I've also been writing since I was about 18: first apazines, then about music, then about basketball (which is my other current professional writing gig) and finally comics when I decided to submit some reviews to the now-defunct Savant (the online mag that Matt Fraction started). A couple of years after that ceased publishing, Julian Darius of sequart.com contacted me, having remembered my Savant work, and asked me to start writing a review column for him. For both of those sites, my tastes leaned far more heavily toward art comics than most anyone else writing for them, which is why Julian sought out my point of view in particular.

Art comics became an increasing obsession of mine when I started to hit shows like SPX in the late '90s and became exposed to the world of mini-comics and more interested in the broad history of the medium. Like all things I become obsessed with, I start to think about them constantly, and writing is a way to focus those thoughts. Art comics give one the opportunity to really sink one's teeth into the material in a way that more genre-oriented comics don't necessarily allow, and I especially like the way in which so many of them challenge the reader to face the work on its own terms. I think it was at that point, when I fully engaged works in a sort of phenomenological approach, that I became more of a critic and less of a reader. That would be about four years or so ago. Now I'm writing for The Comics Journal, which became a goal after I felt I started to develop a distinctive critical voice.

SPURGEON: How long have you been reading Chris Ware? How did you discover his work, what was your initial impression and how might that impression have changed over time? Have you ever read him in serialized form in whichever Chicago free weekly published his work at the time?

CLOUGH: That relates directly to what I mentioned about engaging works. In the mid '90s, when I was really starting to branch out and try a number of new titles, I had heard about Ware and picked up the latest ACME. It was the tiniest issue (#10?), one of the Jokes issues. It felt like I was reading a different language, and I found myself unable to engage it. There was a viciousness to some of the fake ads that took me by surprise, and at a superficial level the tininess of the print made it difficult to get through.

When the Jimmy Corrigan hardcover came out a few years later, I bought it and sat down one afternoon a couple of months later to engage it. His figures and page construction were still difficult for me to process at first (especially since I was used to either a more naturalistic style or more exaggerated gag work like Peter Bagge). After about 50 pages, something clicked and everything he did made sense. I've had a similar reaction to other cartoonists, most notably Ron Rege' Jr., where my initial attempts to read their works wound up in my eye falling off the page. I could sense that there was still something there and that I needed to keep trying, until finally the visual language being "spoken" made sense to me. I often use the word "immersion" to describe such comics that demand this sort of reader interaction, and the play on immersive language classes is quite intentional.

I've only ever read Ware either in collected form (Quimby The Mouse, The ACME Final Report To Shareholders, Jimmy Corrigan) or in individual issues of the series (starting with Rusty Brown). It's hard to imagine reading his work a week at a time, yet it's clear to me that he structures every page to both act as a single, readable unit and as something that has all sorts of connections to prior and future episodes. The fact that each page is improvised and that he still manages to do that is what continues to blow my mind.

SPURGEON: One thing I thought was interesting about your initial review of ACME #19 is that you kick off by saying you'd avoided writing about Chris Ware "in part because so much has been written about him." Can you unpack that notion a bit? Were you intimidated by some of this writing, didn't feel you had all that much to add?? What did you mean by that?

CLOUGH: I suppose I meant two things. First, I make a point of reviewing slightly more obscure works, especially by young artists in whom I see a lot of promise. Part of that came from being the comics editor for yet another defunct publication, Other. I was always on the lookout for young artists that I thought were interesting who would be looking to publish for little to no money. Secondly, Dan Raeburn had done such an amazing job in discussing Ware's work up to that point that I really didn't feel I had much to add. In fact, Raeburn's Ware-focused issue of his much-missed The Imp (#3) proved to be extremely valuable to me when I was ready to really tackle Ware's comics. His book on Ware was good too, but didn't have quite the same flourish as The Imp with the old-timey newspaper feel, complete with a comics section by Chicago-area cartoonists singing Ware's praises. I was very disappointed that he never got around to publishing the Ivan Brunetti-focused issue of The Imp.

My feelings about writing about Ware changed when Rusty Brown and then Building Stories started in ACME. When #19 came out, I had already given a lot of thought to immersive comics in general, and this issue was so powerful that I felt compelled to immediately respond to it.

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SPURGEON: As we've been talking about, Ware publishes in a variety of ways. The manner in which most devoted comics fans read him, I think, is in individual issues of ACME -- like the one we're looking at in this piece -- with an intention to then read the collections as well. How did your knowledge that this was part of the Rusty Brown serial have an effect on how you regard this particular part of that serial? Are you really able to read it solely as a stand-alone? This isn't exactly a new circumstance with Ware in that a lot of folks read the World's Fair segment of Jimmy Corrigan as its own, satisfying thing.

CLOUGH: I mentioned earlier that every page of Ware's is a complete unit in some sense but also carries other connections. One can understand the page without knowing about one oblique reference that he happens to make, but a reader also gets a richer, deeper experience if they're paying attention and make the connection. Ware is not the least bit ambiguous as a storyteller. He lays out every clue for the reader necessary to experience the full impact of the narrative's emotional power. That said, he doesn't always make these clues obvious. The reader is asked to do a lot of work in making these connections that sometimes don't become apparent until after multiple readings The thing to remember about Ware is that every panel, every word and every line is important. In every panel, he's either establishing mood, tone, emotion, plot or characterization (and sometimes several at once).

As a reader, I jumped into #19 not having recalled some details of the first two chapters of Rusty Brown. It didn't matter much, because the way this issue was structured (as a one-character showpiece) made it easy to read as a stand-alone. I remembered some key plot points (like Woody Brown being Rusty's dad, and that he was horrible to his family), but I didn't put together Woody's stunned reaction to meeting Alice White until after I went back and re-read #16 and #17. Doing that gave just a bit more context to what set Woody off on this nostalgia binge.

SPURGEON: You wrote a very long and interesting essay on the work. One thing I thought you blew past a bit is the three-pronged approach to story structure, and what you were seeing and when because of that structure. Can you get into that a bit, how Ware structured the book in overall terms and to what effect, because I think his ability to nail that specific series of effects is a key to understanding the wider work.

CLOUGH: Sure, and you're right that I didn't quite tie those together as I should have. One of the things I love about Ware's work is that his formal flourishes are always part of a greater emotional narrative gestalt. In ACME #19, it's designed to look like one of Woody's old sci-fi pulp magazines, complete with the brightly-colored cover and the font of the table of contents meant to ape such a magazine. The thing about the way the issue is structured, with three "chapters" is the way they relate to each other in time. The first chapter (the actual sci-fi story), as I noted in my essay, is not the story that Woody wrote. Rather, it is Woody rereading the story that he wrote, and the visuals in some sense are his mind's eye processing his story. That's why there's frequently such a disconnect between word and image on the page. The second chapter takes place literally seconds after he's read his life's greatest achievement, and he tries to process just what happened to him.

Ware gets across that Woody's been living in a fog since his heart was broken. His wife Sandy saved him from madness and destitution, but he not only resented her for showing weakness and allowing him to dominate her, I think he also resented her because the life he started as a teacher was one that essentially deadened his desire to create. Reading the story, the sense of accomplishment, of being a capable man, that he got from writing a story and then getting it published was not unlike the feeling he got when he lost his virginity. When Rusty was foisted on him, the fact that his son was even weaker and more awkward than he was wound up making him hate himself and this family he didn't want even more. Rusty was a painful mirror of how pathetic a human being Woody actually was, that his inability to write had everything to do with his own flaws and little to do with his family. The sneering hatred that Woody exhibited as a way of never having to confront his own pain, the pain he inflicted on others, and the pain suffered by others that he didn't understand ossified his ability to feel -- and hence, as Ware argues, to create.

That leads to the third chapter, which Ware plops down with little explanation right after the comics portion of the issue ends. This was a story that must have been written by Woody right after this reverie in an effort to recapture his spark of creativity. Another way to look at it was it was his reaction to opening himself up to recalling so many painful events in his life, even if he wasn't capable of processing the hows and whys of the experiences. When his heart was broken the first time, he wrote a story that was published. When he was able to finally sift through some of those memories, his reaction was to write out that pain, even if it was in a genre ill-equipped in many respects to capture the sort of emotional resonance he was trying to create. The final, sad punchline of the issue was that this story likely didn't achieve greater fame because he had chosen an obscure astronomical metaphor for the story's payoff line. While the story was written in the late '70s (the era in which Rusty Brown is set), the notes regarding the story reflect that it was published here long after the fact by some hardcore sci-fi fans trying to figure out what the complete works of a favorite, obscure author were. It's the sort of fan that Woody himself once was. What's heartbreaking is that it seems clear that Woody never tried to write again after this second rejection.

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SPURGEON: Ware's comics are so precise and the arguments within his works as to how things function or how people behave are so smartly made that I have some sympathy for readers that at times feel bowled over by his work, almost intimidated by what he's placing in front of them. Can you perhaps talk about the -- for lack of a better word -- power that Ware achieves with his work? Is there a formal basis for that, do you think, or is it just the effect that great art can have?

CLOUGH: It's an interesting question, and it might be useful to compare Ware to what David Mazzucchelli just did in Asterios Polyp Mazzucchelli created a new language for comics that to me leaned heavily on Ware in terms of inspiration: the use of color as a narrative shortcut, the almost architectural design of his characters, the construction of a world where the artist is in such total command of the page (and hence, a whole world) that it's easy to bowl over the reader. The difference between Ware and Mazzucchelli is that with the latter artist, I can see the artifice of what he's doing. I can see the puppet strings. There are pages that fairly shout, "Hey, I'm creating a new language for comics!" The problem is that seeing the strings, no matter how enormously complex his narrative was, makes the experience feel a bit stagy and artificial. As a result, I never felt any emotional connection with any of the characters.

With Ware, the process always feels organic. The way he draws comics is simply his delivery system for expressing emotion. It really seems to be the only way he knows how to do it at this point, and it seems largely intuitive. It requires a leap from the reader to understand and appreciate his comics language, unlike the way in which Mazzucchelli made it simple for the ideal reader to get what he was doing right away. Ware's ability to express emotion on the page in such a way as to let the event reveal itself to the reader is one of the things that makes him, in my opinion, our greatest living cartoonist.

SPURGEON:That last part, "Ware's ability to express emotion on the page in such a way as to let the event reveal itself to the reader is one of the things that makes him, in my opinion, our greatest living cartoonist." Can you unpack that a bit? There's a notion with Ware's work that at times his presentational style slips into the baroque more than it stays on track in terms of communicating very specific ideas, very specific moments. How does Ware allow the event to reveal itself?

CLOUGH: I realized after writing that sentence that it was probably a bit vague, but the greater answer to that is somewhat complicated and ties directly into my personal aesthetic theories.

In brief: the philosopher Immanuel Kant, in discussing ethics, noted that we should treat others as part of a "kingdom of ends"; that is, without regard to what they can do for us but instead where each person embraces each other according to the categorical imperative (do not do anything you would not want to become a universal maxim). Martin Heidegger took that idea and noted that the way we constructed the idea of Being prevented us from being able to treat others in that sense, and it started in the way humanity created language. Language, by its nature, creates an understanding of others as objects at hand -- means to an end.

The only exception, in his view, was the work of particular German poets. The language in these poems defied being able to be "handled" as an object and instead demanded that the reader patiently allow the poem to reveal itself. In other words, the poems could only be read by engaging the work directly on its own terms, through the use of phenomenological observation. What I mean by that is engaging a work outside of one's own previous understanding and prejudices related to it and forcing oneself to engage the formal properties of art directly. The reaction of the reader to art like this, to go back to Kant, is the experience of the sublime. The sublime experience of art is mystical in the sense that it is not strictly an emotional or intellectual reaction (though those elements can be present as well) The experience can be talked about and around but it is so intensely personal that it's impossible to directly relate the experience to another person. (I don't necessarily agree with everything that Kant or Heidegger is saying here, but I mention them as a springboard to my own thoughts on the issue.)

Bringing this back to Ware, his skill gives him the framework to create an experience that forces the reader to either engage it or turn away. There is no breezy reading of Ware's comics, and I've seen many a dismissive review of his work that either completely misunderstood what he was doing as a cartoonist or focused on certain shallow emotional qualities of his work. His visual strategies and structure, combined with him leaving so many "rest points" in his comics, cohere to create a work that allows the reader to enter into the world he creates and feel what the characters are feeling. At the same time, it allows the reader to understand the ways in which each character is self-deluding. Ware is not exactly a revolutionary in doing comics about loneliness, alienation and the search for connection. Like a great poet who grounds mystical ideas in the physical weight of words, so does Ware create a sophisticated poetic structure that resonates on so many different levels. He's trying to communicate something powerful and personal and has found a way to do so without being obvious or twee.

SPURGEON: In one segment in your essay, you point out one of the themes apparent in ACME #19 as the search for connection and how that gets thwarted in any number of deeply funny and pathetic ways. I agree with that, but I thought that observation was a bit obvious in terms of the structural issues on which you focused. Is there a theme that Ware develops that you find surprising, one that works in a minor key as opposed to tied directly into structure and form.

CLOUGH: Ware's relationship with teaching and teachers is a pretty important part of the story that's not directly tied to any formal elements. I'm aware that Ware hated his experience at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and while Ware has expressed his appreciation for certain teachers he's had, there's an element of contempt of the profession to be found in his comics. It's the old dichotomy of teaching vs doing. Woody Brown initially was a doer. He was part of a bustling newspaper, in a job he was surprised to get that might have gotten him somewhere. He looked out over the big city and felt connected to a certain energy that he had never experienced before. Woody had this fantasy of accomplishment that was directly linked to his dream girl, one where love and success went hand-in-hand. After failing at his job in the most pathetic manner possible, he was shunted into a teaching job he hated.

Ware's jab here is not so much at teaching per se, but at teachers who hate their jobs. Students pick up on this sort of thing right away and often get turned off from subjects for life because of the lack of enthusiasm of a particular teacher or teachers. Ware writing himself into the story as an art teacher (in earlier chapters) is sort of the ultimate arrow fired at such teachers, because he writes from a perspective of knowing that this could have been him. There are any number of failed artists who become art teachers, and instead of trying to instill a love of art in their students, they only get across a sense of bitterness.

It's hard to separate Ware's themes from his use of structure. The ways in which he explores connection always tend to flow through a set of motifs: the emphasis on visceral sensation (touch, sound, feel, taste and smell are always heavily emphasized in his comics), the way time is fractured, and the ways in which he sorts sets of power relationships. Dominance and submission are running themes in Ware's work, especially the ways in which they supersede emotional connections. Ware has a rather bleak view of the ways in which people treat each other, one that's reminiscent of Michel Foucault's cynical take, but it's difficult to argue with his emotional logic. At the same time, Ware is never so cynical as to deny the possibility of hope and genuine kindness, a point that his detractors who claim he's nothing but a miserablist tend to gloss over.

SPURGEON: Can you provide an example in ACME #19 where Ware "is never so cynical as to deny the possibility of hope and genuine kindness."

CLOUGH: There aren't many instances of that in #19 -- though there is Sandy Brown, who takes in Woody despite his indifference toward her. It could also be argued that the most kindness Woody showed to anything was to his dog. That seemed to be another key to Woody's sci-fi story, where horrible things happen to the dogs, warping Woody's grief into something dark and ugly.

Ultimately, I predict that Woody will have a moment later in the Rusty Brown story where he'll have an opportunity for redemption.

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SPURGEON: One of the reasons that I think people may have trouble seeing the positive aspects of humanity in some of Ware's characters is that his sense of humor -- what I feel is his extraordinary sense of humor -- can be pretty bleak, if not outright savage. Would you agree that for some people that sense of humor can be difficult to process?

CLOUGH: I would agree, especially since so many of his drawings are "cute" in so many of his comics, and clash so drastically with the bleakness of his humor that it can be easy to overlook. There's a humor of awkwardness and cruelty that's similar to what Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant do in their TV shows, only done with much more restraint and greater emotional resonance. The segment where Woody accidentally breaks his glasses while he's lurking outside his lover's apartment was so funny it hurt. Woody's utter cluelessness with regard to the nuances of human interaction combined with his self-image of truly being the hero of his own story made for a wince-inducing story -- especially when the depths of his own cruelty were revealed.

SPURGEON: I know that we've been discussing this a bit all along, but I think for a lot of people this story segment was notable because of its sexual component. I think I know how you're going to answer this, but do you feel that had a significant impact on the way themes played out within the story?

CLOUGH: Sex was pretty much the most important aspect of Woody's story: what it meant to him, the ways in which the reality of the experience grossed him out, the way in which he thought it gave him purchase to Manhood in a way that would be obvious to everyone, and most especially the way sex and power quickly became wrapped up together. One of the running themes in the whole Rusty Brown saga is the ways in which even the most oppressed person can use whatever tiny modicum of power they find themselves possessing to dominate someone weaker than they are. That power that they do wield doesn't make them any happier, however; it only makes them crueler.

It was sad to see poor Woody, who had this lifelong idea that sex and intimacy were exactly the same, have his notions regarding intimacy destroyed by someone who undoubtedly faced the same kind of shattering experience much earlier in her life. The question that still lingered for me regarding Woody is whether he was really capable of sharing intimacy, or if his lack of empathy (or perhaps tone-deafness regarding empathy) made that impossible.

SPURGEON: This may be kind of a minor aspect to you, I'm not sure: were you extra-impressed at all with Ware's ability as a picture-maker in this book? I thought it was a strong book visually, the quality of the art and the line. Because of his skill with design and narrative construction, I wonder how much he gets appreciated as an artist. Did his ability to portray certain events in unblinking fashion play a role in ACME #19? Do you see ACME #19 as an emblematic work above and beyond how very good it is? Do you think Ware continues to influence his peers and cartoonists-in-making?

CLOUGH: Regarding the actual pictures in the book: there were a lot of "wow" pages and panels in ACME #19. Some of the recurring visual motifs (like the snowflake and the large circle) were both clever and aesthetically pleasing. Ware seemed to really enjoy cutting loose on a genre story that, despite the fact that a lot of its elements were being subverted by his storytelling, was still a genre story. There was a brightness to his palette that isn't always there in his work. The way he recapitulated those images in the reverie portion of the story was equally clever and beautiful. The panels where Woody's glasses are broken and we see images of people jaggedly torn between clear and big-dot fuzzy were enormously striking, walloping the reader with their impact.

I elevate ACME #19 above his other work because it felt like something that had built on all his previous comics and added layers of nuance and complexity. The character of Woody's lover may be my all-time favorite of Ware's, a truly tragic and disturbed woman whose pain Woody was completely oblivious to. I don't think Ware was capable of writing such a character ten years ago. In some ways, Jimmy Corrigan felt like Ware's PhD in comics, running through the ideas and feelings that he had been grappling with for years. Once that was done, it felt like Ware was ready to move on to something different and more complex. Given that this was just one chapter, and the first of what appear to be several chapters given over to the main individual characters of Rusty Brown, the final result some years from now will likely be a candidate for book of the next decade.

Finally, Ware is a pretty clear inspiration for the current generation of cartoonists, either directly or through the works of artists who were influenced by Ware. For example, Ivan Brunetti's stripped-down style was inspired in part with the way Ware was able to get such a depth of emotion from characters drawn in such a geometric style. Ware's use of color has been imitated by any number of cartoonists. Ware is also a nurturing presence to young cartoonists, offering inspiration and advice to any number of such artists, with Jeffrey Brown and David Heatley being notable examples. Any cartoonist who uses that geometric or diagrammatic style has been influenced by Ware, whether they know it or not.

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* ACME Novelty Library #19, Chris Ware, Self-Published, hardcover, 80 pages, 9781897299562, October 2008, $15.95

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This year's CR Holiday Interview Series features some of the best writers about comics talking about emblematic -- by which we mean favorite, representative or just plain great -- books from the ten-year period 2000-2009. The writer provides a short list of books, comics or series they believe qualify; I pick one from their list that sounds interesting to me and we talk about it. It's been a long, rough and fascinating decade. Our hope is that this series will entertain from interview to interview but also remind all of us what a remarkable time it has been and continues to be for comics as an art form. We wish you the happiest of holidays no matter how you worship or choose not to. Thank you so much for reading The Comics Reporter.

* CR Holiday Interview One: Sean T. Collins On Blankets
* CR Holiday Interview Two: Frank Santoro On Multiforce
* CR Holiday Interview Three: Bart Beaty On Persepolis
* CR Holiday Interview Four: Kristy Valenti On So Many Splendid Sundays
* CR Holiday Interview Five: Shaenon Garrity On Achewood
* CR Holiday Interview Six: Christopher Allen On Powers
* CR Holiday Interview Seven: David P. Welsh On MW

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