Graphic novelist Chris Ware’s most recent effort, Rusty Brown, is a life-giving maze. A massively depressing book – a 356-page monument to modern loneliness and misery – it also delivers a surfeit of life through vivid color, and a rigorous tension between absorbing narrative and postmodern distance. A crystalline but never confusing community saga, Rusty Brown represents a profound and difficult will to animate often disheartening lives.
In comparison to Ware’s previous project, Building Stories – a box containing many smaller books and comics – Rusty Brown is a conventionally constructed, hardback book. Its pages are drawn and structured to lead us through myriad routes of reading and wondering. Storylines and thought lines are sometimes arranged simultaneously on a single page. In this way, the book comes to feel like a creaking house, full of many rooms, closets, attics, and crawlspaces. This effect foregrounds the baffling relationship between self and other, protagonist and ensemble, author and cast.
Though psychologically and socially vast, Rusty Brown takes place in a small American city modeled on Ware’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. The character of this fictionalized Omaha is a kind of non-character. Paper-white snow recurs as a motif, as do white people, who predominate. The book’s jacket, a richly printed fold-out, pictures a gabled house in winter. This house is Rusty’s childhood home. At dusk, a single glowing window conveys domestic comfort mixed with desolation. To those who enjoy relative security, the house will appear unremarkable; to many others it will resemble a palace.
Although Rusty is one of a cast of characters, including his father, the surrounding community, and a high-school art teacher explicitly modeled on Ware himself, an emphasis on Rusty underscores the novel’s complex relationship to problems of autobiography and authorship.
At times, the child Rusty seems to merge with his adult author. While Rusty is shown, in his interior monologue, mapping his everyday world in middle America with fantastical descriptions, Ware uses the graphic novel form to fantastically map a fictionalized adult version of the same middle-American world. It’s as if Ware has distributed dueling aspects of himself between two characters. However, where the art teacher is a pretentious if well-meaning Pop-Art painter, a small town echo of Roy Lichtenstein, Rusty is an artist of his own imagination, not yet blighted by the pretenses of cultural sophistication. In this way, the book comes to feel like a cloaked analogue – a kind of shadow image – of the artist’s own self-perception. Here fiction, with its spectra of characters, enables a more nuanced process of self-reflection, one that is crucially, constantly interwoven with difficult depictions of community.
Evidence of Rusty Brown’s fanciful imagination first appears on the book’s opening page. Three telescoping views into Rusty’s house prepare us for the book’s honeycomb narrative architecture. Written labels accompanying this image’s various details signal that we are in a space of childhood fantasy. A bird’s-eye view of Rusty’s neighborhood is labeled “Rusty Brown Metropolis”; a closer aerial view of Rusty’s house is “Rusty Brown Headquarters”; an interior view of his bedroom (magically drawn as an architectural cross-section) becomes “Rusty Brown Command Center.” White dust flecks the black carpet, and cryptic notes are tacked inside a bedroom closet. A writing desk is labelled “STRATEGIC PLANNING BUREAU,” a bookshelf “RESEARCH LIBRARY,” and so on. Yet even though Ware seems to be rendering the mind of a child, the language of this reverie is distinctively that of an adult.
The complexity of this nostalgia is flagged at the book’s outset. Over a two-page spread, drifting blocks of handwriting describe the scientific magic of snowflakes. The snowflake metaphor is a bit clever, and painfully romantic, overlaid on a snowflake motif of white and baby blue. It grounds Ware’s storytelling method, wherein storylines and histories seem to radiate laterally, as opposed to following a single narrative line. Winter scenes recur throughout, harkening to the melancholic pictures of Caspar David Friedrich, or Thomas Kincaid’s sugary nostalgia. But they also convey the actual, sublime aesthetic of dusk light interacting with snow to transform the world into a scale of blues. When interwoven with the gutting realism that soon follows, these pictures shift from being merely charming to wrenching echoes of life’s internal paradoxes; namely, the coexistence of difficult psychological conditions with sensorial experiences that would otherwise offer tremendous pleasure.
Rusty Brown is at its most difficult when Ware seeks to offer a micro-genealogy of broken and destructive men. There is Jason Lint, whose life goes depicted in an inset autobiography. An older boy who bullies Rusty, Lint is also a high-school student, and a student of Rusty’s father. Through Ware’s repetitive and endlessly recomposing frames, Jason discovers his penis, witnesses domestic abuse, accepts the death of his rockstar fantasy, and accidentally kills his best friend. When adulthood arrives, Jason’s life seems placid. But then his confused emotional needs re-assert themselves. Successive relationships go badly, and Jason receives notice that his son has penned a tell-all memoir that reveals his violent behavior – a closet homophobe, Jason once broke his own son’s collarbone.
Ware’s aesthetic facility transforms his book into an affective chronicle, as opposed to a depressive indulgence (as certain hurried critics have accused him of). Mostly keyed down, with occasional fluorescent exceptions, his color harmonies can be almost intolerably vivid. The feeling is of being shocked awake – no small thing in a book that is largely about depression. Ware’s stylistic range allows him to turn up the volume when necessary, without sacrificing cohesion. When young Jason sees his dad cuff his mother across the face, the scene is rendered in simple shapes and clean lines that describe a child’s inchoate perception. As the much older Jason reads his son’s writing, the pages are overtaken by a hellish nightmare, in scratchy red scores over an unforgiving white. Ware’s swift pitch changes bring the scene from something approaching misery porn to art.
Midway through Rusty Brown, Rusty’s father William experiences the rejection of a woman who enjoys the service of his penis, but could do without his heart. William, who wants love, finds refuge in fantasy comic books. In an embarrassing, squalid apartment, he masturbates to their buxom starlets. Later in life, a chunkier and balder William manifests escape through art, writing sci-fi when he is not busy teaching high school and being bullied by his students. His sci-fi stories, imaginative in their depiction of suffering, play a central role in one of the most excruciating sequences in a book which has no shortage of them. The scene is complicated, a lot to take in and lot to recap, but it also evidences the intricate and inventive moves that allow Ware to cover so much ground.
Rusty, a child of perhaps seven years who attends the school where his father teaches, is set upon by bullies in the snowy schoolyard. The thugs steal and decapitate his favourite toy, a Supergirl figurine who sometimes comes to life, naked, in Rusty’s imagination, where she resembles the powerful fantasy women his father William lusts after. Ware uses a few diagrammatic lines to take us from Rusty’s experience to that of William. The father peers through his classroom window, watching the assault on his son, while simultaneously dwelling on a female student’s leg, described in his interior monologue as “the “downy thigh of a lonely schoolgirl.” As he leers, William also observes a Miss Cole – the school’s sole Black teacher – beckon her students. William then shuffles into the school’s car park, where he fails to notice the school art teacher getting high with two students.
While snow appears often in Rusty Brown, it’s another kind of whiteness – hateful, fearful, shameful – that Joanne Cole has to deal with. Joanne’s overriding mode is caring humility; she tends her third-grade class, dotes on an ageing mother, and teaches herself and others the banjo, all while enduring woefully unsurprising racist attacks. One day, Cole brings some baking to school, as a gift for her students. Under the instruction of their parents, one child rejects the offer on grounds of her skin color. Where righteous anger would be more cathartic, Cole cleverly parries the insult: “Well, that means more for the rest of us, doesn’t it?” But Miss Cole’s infallible kindness has its limits. You’re almost glad when she finally snaps, albeit briefly, in response to her elderly mother’s demands.
Among Rusty Brown’s most fascinating structural conflicts is the tension between the book’s plurality of characters and its autobiographical nature. Ware’s compulsion to narrate life’s miseries is so relentlessly joy-excluding, that the book as a whole comes to feel like a kaleidoscopic reflection of a singular depressive mind. But if Ware’s is a depressive mind, it is devoted to expressing torment through a sublime visual language. The believability of this pressure, between the deadening effect of depressive experience and a will to rescue that experience through art, is what makes Rusty Brown perfectly difficult. Ware’s is a melancholia that should be enjoyed, if cautiously.