Discovering a Chris Ware book is akin to stumbling into the coolest gallery in town.
With Rusty Brown, author and cartoonist Chris Ware offers a stress-inducing yet cathartic examination of American brokenness. Set mainly in a typical post-war suburb in Nebraska during the ‘70s but holding no allegiance to space and time, the story uses a typical day at a private, all grades Christian school to tell the full and partial life stories of three of its characters: English teacher W.K. Brown, bully and stoner Jordan Lint and African American third grade teacher Joanne Cole.
Ware abandons linearity, and his genius for design conveys multiple narratives in a range of detail while examining themes of sex, race, class and bad parenting. It’s an exercise in empathy with the author hoping to express the arc of heartbreak and disappointment that makes people who they are, neither good nor bad but a mass of flawed humanity. This thesis crumbles by the end after the explorations of Brown and Lint, awful men doomed to awful fates of their own making, but the book is an astounding work of art with Ware again challenging our assumptions of his limits, comics as a form and the direction of tales of redemption.
Discovering a Chris Ware book is akin to stumbling into the coolest gallery in town. The book as object and holder of art and narrative is given full consideration. Rusty Brown measures about the size of a brick with a beautiful book jacket folded around the hardcover like a paper bag over an elementary school text book. Ware employs several layout strategies and often reduces words and images to the size of thumbnails. Like Jimmy Corrigan, his earlier masterwork, this is a book to be squinted at, turned, rotated and held at arm’s length in an effort to absorb the details. The author’s intent is to forever make passive consumption of art an impossibility.
Ware opens the book on that fateful day, the first at school for third-grader Chalky White and what will be the worst in a growing string of horrible days for his classmate, Rusty Brown. Son of the English teacher, Rusty embodies the sort of nerd who lacks the social grace that would tell him to never, ever bring his Supergirl action figure to school. Heavyset, awkward and the constant victim of bullying by Jordan Lint and his crony, Rusty is prone to meandering in his sketchbook during class, thus gaining the polite ire of Ms. Cole. When Chalky arrives in class, she has Rusty give the new kid his desk for the day while Rusty sits in the front to be monitored. Rusty anguishes, knowing that Chalky might discover Supergirl at any moment. As a comic book junkie prone to cliffhangers, Rusty can’t help but wonder if the new kid will turn out to be friend or foe.
This is a book of secrets ranging from overactive fantasy lives to higher personal aspirations that go unachieved. Once Rusty’s bad day comes to its conclusion, Ware turns to his father, W.K. Brown and his youth, offering an ode to the glory and travesty of the era of pulp science fiction and horror magazines. The puerile fantasies of large-chested damsels in need of rescue by fearless adventurers offered in the pulps had an adverse effect on perpetual virgins like W.K. until he stumbled into an obsessive and dysfunctional relationship with a woman at work. Funneling his emotional immaturity through his writing skill, he produces a short story and gets it published in a magazine called Nebulous. It is his great moment, one that he allows fatherhood and responsibility to prevent him repeating.
Next comes the life of Jordan Lint, arguably Ware’s most ambitious artistic achievement in the book, but also its most frustrating narrative element. Imagine if someone offered you a stunning illustrated biography of Stanford rapist Brock Turner from pixelated sperm to pixelating spirit and you understand what Ware is asking of his readers. Lint is an asshole in every regard, constantly self-sabotaging whenever happiness is near. An artist of Ware’s ability must understand that humanizing men like this has been a project of the mainstream press since ink first touched paper and that the effort to do so here feels misguided.
As if a tonic to the exploration of white male privilege, Ware closes the book with a look at Joanne Cole, a deeply Christian woman who has spent her life looking after others, especially her mother. She’s an introvert, a quality that has helped her navigate the overt and subtle racism and sexism that’s a part of her every day. She’s not someone who seeks out joy, but develops a surprising hobby playing the banjo because she finds the sound of the instrument so jubilant. The dealings of her life at school and home, in her youth and old age, are underscored by a mystery that drives her to the library and a microfiche machine. Joanne has a secret, and she’s looking for an answer.
This is more a book of open endings than happy endings for its mostly unlikeable characters, but Ware achieves the empathy he desires from our innate conditioning about how stories are structured. The Lint and elder Brown sections have all the markings of redemption fantasies but turn out much differently while piety suffers most in the story of Joanne Cole. But Ware constantly ups the pressure on each of these characters and you find yourself rooting for them to make the right choices when they are so clearly doing the opposite. Rusty Brown took 16 years to make, during an era of war, isolating social media and a crumbling world. He might be afraid we’d forget to how to care for one another, so he bound an experience together as an emotional instruction manual. If you can care about these characters by the end then there’s hope for them. By extension there’s hope for any of us, no matter how awful we may be.