An apex, a superlative, a community in despair. “Rusty Brown,” “Building Stories,” and “Quimby the Mouse” by Chris Ware

I recently read both Rusty Brown (2019), Building Stories (2012), and The Complete Quimby The Mouse (2003) and reviewed all three on Goodreads an amazon. Chris Ware is a master of the form. This work spans his career, and it shows the breadth and scope of a talent unparalleled in graphic communication; a soul of ennui, gorgeous reality, and striking moments will bring anyone to tears who has enough patience with the form. Ware is a master, and I am convinced he is at the vanguard of voices of our generation. Below, you will find my reviews for the three graphic novels I have embraced in 2020.

A quick shout out to Gil Roth and The Virtual Memories Show for the consistent coverage of Ware and his brilliant career. If you don’t already, subscribe and listen to the podcast.

Rusty Brown (2019)

I just recently read Chris Ware’s Building Stories and decided to pick up Rusty Brown after hearing several people recommend it on podcasts that I listen to – specifically The Virtual Memories Show. Aside from being a subscriber to The New Yorker and the New York Times and seeing his work all the time, I have slowly been working through his catalogue and I am constantly in awe of his ability to capture the human spirit with so few words, so few lines, and so much soul. The book was a decade and a half in the making, but with an engine of progressive immediacy.

Rusty Brown is the story of six people surrounding a midwestern public school. The characters span every generation of a life, and many lenses through which we view a life is also beautifully represented in these pages. Over twenty years, the characters weave in and out of one another’s experiences to build a world of beautiful reality and striking ennui. It was an incredible book I enjoyed diving into and becoming a part of the gorgeous colors and frames that bleed into a diorama of wintry self-reflection. I wish there were words that could capture the truth, but as great works of art often do, Ware uses very little but his vision to capture a community on the edge of desperation in a manner unparalleled by his peers save for the similarly incomparable Seth.

This piece is easily a five-star graphic novel. The epic apex of the form.

Building Stories (2012)

“…this book caught my eye. So I picked it up, and, to my amazement, it was my book. Someone had published my book! It had everything in it…and it wasn’t — I dunno – It wasn’t really a book, either… it was in… pieces. Like books falling apart out of a carton, maybe… but it was… beautiful… It made sense!”

Chris Ware is one of the hardest working and most unique artists in today’s golden age of comic arts, and Building Stories is a spectacular addition to the genre in its scope, intimacy, scale, and adventure. The book is a box of fourteen interconnected (but separate) narrative arcs that follows the story of a three-family tenement and its inhabitants. The design of each pamphlet, book, sheaf, and newspaper in the collection follow the whimsical and deep progression of various parts of the stories in the apartment block. There is no order to read any of these pieces in (although, I felt like the order I approached them was the absolute perfect way to experience it), and Ware is able to use the dynamism of time and space to explore everything from infidelity to puberty to death to aging to childhood to dating to insecurity to body image to abortion to parenthood… There is so much happening in this collection that it is difficult to sum up in any cohesive manner, but what is most important to recognize is how incredibly he captures the human spirit in this piece – and the innovative and beautiful nature of its execution. It really is a masterpiece, like walking into a mixed media gallery so expertly curated that you are changed forever walking out and you carry it with you for weeks.

My favorite portion of the book were three meta-references. I am not going to ruin all of them, but one is the quote I opened my review up with. Another illustrated the interconnectedness between his narrative, the format, and the medium – a reference to the encyclopedia’s A volume with the see-through anatomy pages, and then Ware executes the very technique with one of our main characters. I am not mentioning the third, but it is brilliant. Additionally, I like how I have followed some of these characters for quite some time – one in the New Yorker beginning two decades ago.

Ware is an amazing artist. This impressive work is not to miss if you can get your hands on it.

The Complete Quimby The Mouse (2003)

Quimby The Mouse is the collected indie works of Chris Ware’s early works for The Daily Texan and other small and quirky publications. This piece is misleadingly simple, and the universe requires a quick dive into the early 20th century’s animations, comic strips, and weekly publications. This piece is simple on the surface but involves a striking, heartbreaking, and shocking level of existentialism, loss, death, and disillusionment. The format is tiny cell-based “animations” and extensive, wordy newsprint. The main theme of the piece is that, in the end, we are all terminal, disillusioned, lonely cases. It is an absolutely beautiful book published by Drawn and Quarterly in a very large format I am proud to own. My favorite parts of this collection of the early works was easily the writing – I loved the advice columns and the advertisements. I also love the foil-printed reproduction of the 826 Valencia façade. A beautiful book I look forward to revisiting often. Very happy I picked it up after all of the Chris Ware I have been reading lately.

An easy five stars, and absolutely blown away he achieved this so early in his career.

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