Chris Ware’s award-winning graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan—The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) marked a new era for the genre. Now a contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker, Ware has also been featured in museum exhibitions, including the 2002 Whitney Biennial. The bulk of his recent show at Baumgold consisted of production drawings (all from the last four years) for the latest volume in his ongoing series “The ACME Novelty Library.” The 74-page book relates the story, birth to death, of the character Jordan Lint, of Omaha (where Ware himself, who now lives near Chicago, was born). With some exceptions, each page contains a vignette from a year of Lint’s life, starting with hazy, infant’s-eye views.
Since Ware’s customary bright colors are added digitally when the books are printed, this show allowed viewers to study his spare and precise black-ink drawings (mostly 28 by 20 inches). Multiple frames of varying sizes and shapes are packed into each page; among the bold black contours are startling shifts in scale and points of view. Faint blue pencil lines indicate shading and serve as guides for areas of color to come. There are also penciled notes in the margins: in the sheet representing baby Jordan, for example, there are comments about the formation of identity.
Like many of Ware’s characters, Lint has an unhappy life. His father is a violent alcoholic; his mother dies early. During a dissolute adolescence, Lint accidentally kills a friend while driving stoned. As an adult he philanders, embezzles, and becomes estranged from his children and successive wives, all the while plagued by recollections of his mother and deceased childhood friend. Memories and fantasies—violent, sexual and otherwise—appear in tiny drawings and text that float between and over the frames.
In the most disturbing passage, we learn about a memoir published by Lint’s son in which he reveals that Lint, enraged by his son’s emerging homosexuality, broke the child’s collarbone. This episode is represented horrifically in several pages of red-ink drawings, some remarkably Gustonesque. Even this unlikable character, though, elicits a queasy sympathy (in a testament to Ware’s characterization), because we’ve seen something of what made him the man he is. But only a glimpse. When Lint tells his lawyer, “I don’t think you realize what a bastard my dad was to me,” the reader may feel he’s in the same position as the lawyer—much is left to the imagination.
Other drawings, published in McSweeney’s and elsewhere, depict the punningly named Putty Gray and Sandy Grains. In childhood, only Sandy is nice to the nerdy, bespectacled Putty, who fantasizes about space travel. A four-frame mini-strip under the sardonic title “Laffs ’n Gaffs” shows an adult Putty with his son, who helps him clean up after Putty’s alcoholic father (“God, Dad—there’s bloody puke back here”) and commit him to a nursing home. In the final frame, Putty confesses, “I need a drink.” This taste for intergenerational ironies, along with considerable emotional sophistication, makes Ware’s tragic comics somehow reassuring, even as they explore such dark realms.
Photo: A spread from Chris Ware’s graphic novel “The ACME Novelty Library,” Number 20, 2010; at Adam Baumgold.