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Music to Slit Your Wrists By
Audrey Niffenegger

 

Chris Ware
The Acme Novelty Library Great Big Book of Jokes:
Vol. VII, Issue Number VII, Summer 1996

Seattle, WA: Fantographic Books

Boys and girls, moms and dads, friends, Romans, countrymen: let me begin by saying that this is a damn fine publication. Both in quantity (10 3/4" x 17 7/8" and an exemplary example of horror vaccui) and in quality, Chris Ware's Book of Jokes is nearly perfect. Near-perfection, in this case, is embodied in the form of a large comic book. The potential reader is beguiled by the brightly colored cover, which features a relaxed, amused robot lounging with an Acme Novelty Library publication in a comfy chair, oblivious to the bustle of the many flying objects outside his penthouse windows. A side panel promises "the absolute latest in illustrated entertainments...easily digested little tales of wit aimed at those who have yet to develop the maturity to appreciate our more subtle shadings." And so the reader, like one of those hapless insects in nature programs on PBS which stroll into carnivorous plants in search of a snack, opens the Book of Jokes and finds all the less attractive aspects of the Human Condition laid out for her or his delectation and mirth. Topics include the merciless profit-mongering of large corporations; the misguided and sometimes lethal attempts of imperfect men to befriend small animals, machines, and the simple-minded; the indifference and occasional cruelty of God; the isolation and loneliness which is often the lot of gentle, uncomprehending men; the ridiculousness of Progress; and the dreadfulness of parents, especially Dads. In some ways Mr. Ware's creations remind one of Dickens's; except that in Mr. Ware's hands, Oliver starves to death at the work house, Pip is humiliated by Esmerelda and grows up to work for Scrooge, who exploits his workers mercilessly until they are maimed or drop dead and then fires them while Little Nell dies and is flown to Planet X-9 and eaten by stranded astronauts; and somehow, this is all highly amusing, perhaps because the readers of 1997 are somewhat more perverse than those of 1877.

The format in which this is all presented is a smooth, seamless mix of comic book and boy's magazine, evoking graphic styles from the 1870's to the 1940's. One of Mr. Ware's great strengths has always been his consummate understanding of the interplay between content and form; long passages of admonitions and exhortations on the power and glory of the Acme Novelty Library are presented in nineteenth-century typography and layouts that underline the ominous quality of articles such as "Accidental Death and Dismemberment Benefits Increased at Library; Forward-Looking Policies Greatly Improve Employment Conditions for Workers Mortally Maimed, Beheaded."

The narrative is episodic; the Book of Jokes moves from staple characters Big Tex to Rocket Sam to Quimby to Jimmy Corrigan to God and back again in no particular order, presenting the same little pattern every time: 1) a character attempts to entertain or better himself, or please someone 2) the attempt is frustrated by its own inherent foolishness or the arbitrary hostility of an authority figure 3) the character realizes that things are hopeless. There is great economy and power in this schema; it leaves us expecting that 4) the character will somehow pick himself up, dust himself off, and triumph over adversity, but in the Acme world this never happens. Only the relentless simpleminded optimism of these characters allows them to come back, strip after strip, for more punishment. This is of course a convention of the world of comics and cartoons (viz. the Wile E. Coyote, Charlie Brown, etc.), but in Mr. Ware's world innocence only wins by endurance, and is frequently annihilated just for kicks, not unlike the real world, come to think of it.

 

And of course only an ingrate would quibble with near-perfection, but hey, I am that ingrate, so here goes: the problem with the Book of Jokes is that it's just so unremittingly bleak. Now, as a citizen of the fine metropolis of Chicago I'm privileged to encounter the work of Mr. Ware once a week in the pages of New City. And once a week is a good thing, sort of like getting updates on one's tetanus shots so one can continue to frolic with rusty saw blades. Mr. Ware's work almost invariably conjures up feelings of loss, self-loathing, rue, despair, agnosticism, sexual anxiety, loneliness, fear, doubt, longing, pity, hilarity, and desire, a conglomeration of emotion which, taken on a regular but carefully paced schedule, can function as a vaccination against the disappointments and absurdities of modern life. Readers should be forewarned that the Book of Jokes constitutes an overdose of the aforementioned emotional cocktail and should be consumed in very small doses in order to avoid having to run into the bathroom, heave open the medicine chest (scattering little tonics everywhere), seize Dad's straight razor and hack away at one's wrists, causing blood to spurt cinematically over the shower curtains. If Bleakness were nails and Mr. Ware was in the circus, he would have an act that involved bright, friendly patter while smilingly pounding a 10" nail of solid Bleakness up the nose of an audience volunteer. One of the things that confirms for me Mr. Ware's genius is that it is frequently so enjoyable to be the subject of these little nail-pounding activities. Perhaps it's the perky and subtle colors, the Winsor McCayesque draftsmanship, or the soothing qualities of such phrases as "contemporary aestheconomic theory" and "HUZZAH!" At any rate, very few readers have actually died from the effects of the Book of Jokes, and so I encourage you, the potential reader, to zip right out and lay your hands on this bleak but fun product. Just pace yourself a bit.

 

 

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