Pulp Fictions: Chris Ware’s ‘Acme Library 19’ and C.F.’s Powr Mastrs Vol. 2


Comics come out on Wednesday, and so does Richard Gehr’s Pulp Fictions.

Chris Ware
“Acme Novelty Library 19”
Drawn & Quarterly

Powr Mastrs Vol. 2

Bleak, yet brilliant. The party line on Chris Ware’s ongoing Rusty Brown graphic novel is in no danger of wavering with its latest installment. Following an issue devoted to Ware’s architecturally inspired “Building Stories,” the sad saga of longtime Ware doormat Rusty Brown continues in issue 19 of “The Acme Novelty Library” (Drawn & Quarterly). Ware introduced Brown in his weekly Chicago Reader strips, which were subsequently collected in issues 16 and 17 of “The Acme Novelty Library” and the 2005 book The Acme Novelty Library Final Report to Shareholders and Rainy Day Saturday Afternoon Fun Book, a tome as ambivalent as its title. Don’t worry if you missed the earlier episodes, however: As with all great strip art since time immemorial, every Chris Ware comic is the same just as every Chris Ware comic is different.

The Chicago cartoonist’s operating trope this time around is low-brow -even no-brow – science fiction. Following some typically self-abnegating boilerplate (“The contents of this volume…should not be interpreted as an artistic response to recent criticisms and/or reviews of this periodical”), the book opens with “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars.” Attributed to one W. K. Brown (one F. C. Ware holds the copyright on the “Library” itself), the 33-page faux-SF story demonstrates yet again Ware’s genius for mimicking the mediocre, exquisitely. A study in blues, oranges, and browns, Brown’s “Seeing Eye Dogs” recounts a romance gone savagely wrong during a mission to colonize Mars. (For extra credit, compare and contrast the amputations and failed space mission of Brown’s story with Jonathan Lethem’s heartbreaking and beautiful hard-SF short story, “Lostronaut.”)

Ware’s transformation of his (fictional) character’s fiction into visually stunning graphics becomes almost unspeakably sad. In a biographical chapter titled “Youth and Middle Age,” Ware reveals that “Seeing Eye Dogs” is Brown’s pulp-fiction version of the sexually traumatic melodrama that led to his disappointed marriage. Brown is just a dysfunctional fanboy, in the end, all the more hopeless for having maintained his popcult obsessions far too long into balding middle age. (Mocked by his first girlfriend for reading sleazy SF, Brown depicts his Martian hero as a Proust fan.) With Ware’s own famous fanboy obsessions hovering offstage, Rusty Brown’s world continues to squirm as much for the cartoonist as for the reader. Read it and weep, otaku.

In Powr Mastrs Vol. 2 (PictureBox), the Rhode Island cartoonist known as C.F. upends superhero orthodoxy in a style nearly the polar opposite of F. C. Ware’s rigorous lines and curves. (C.F.’s scratchy, free-associative stories set in “Known New China” do, however, owe a whole heap of debt to Gary Panter’s Dal-Tokyo multiverse.) No fanboy shame whatsoever accrues as characters of ambiguous sexuality undertake mysterious missions in Powr Mastr’s main setting, Oxbow Woods and environs.

The pleasure comes in learning what lurks behind the brown door when blue, pig-nosed Hondo visits the basement of Plex Knowe Crypt, or feel the heat rise as the residents of Lace Temblor castle anticipate the alterations of Transmutation Night, when “orbs, crowns, and scepters will mutate wildly.” The homemade arcane dominates in C.F.’s sexy danger world, and continuity takes a hike. Existing in a constant state of flux (their relationships change as constantly as C.F.’s underground-inspired graphics), the Powr Mastrs provide the perfect pleasure-driven alternative to Chris Ware’s hard-edged neurotics.