Going to the edge with the Acme Novelty Library: Josh Jabcuga explores Chris Ware's Lonely Hearts Club.
THE ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY FALL/WINTER 2008 #19.
"Hide in your shell 'cause the world is out to bleed you for a ride/ What will you gain making your life a little longer?/ Heaven or Hell, was the journey cold that gave you eyes of steel?/ Shelter behind painting your mind and playing joker" "Hide in Your Shell" by SUPERTRAMP
According to recent studies, the leading cause of death in young men is loneliness. Loneliness. Emptiness. Isolation, in a crowd no less. It can drive you mad. It can break your heart. It can make you invent a shorthand language that only you and you alone can decipher. It can even be intoxicating, like any drug that's unhealthy in the long run, and if you have access to the cure, like love, maybe you'd try it, or maybe you'd be too far gone to go home again. Or maybe the key is what keeps you locked up inside your home. Safe in your room. Alone in your head. Hiding in your shell.
THE ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY FALL/WINTER 2008 #19 by Chris Ware could very well serve as the wallpaper inside your padded room of angst, anxiety, and depression. Pick your poison, mates, or concoct your own cocktail of defense mechanisms, excuses, character flaws, chemical imbalances, mental disorders and illness. It all goes down the same.
I hate to compare Chris Ware to filmmaker Charlie Kaufman, since Ware is a unique talent with his own voice, but I believe they are kindred spirits. Kaufman explored the insecure and often insular world of a writer in Spike Jonze's brilliant ADAPTATION. The storytelling was authentic. It was clear that Kaufman had been in the trenches of neuroticism, and perhaps Spike Jonze was allowing him to vent by unleashing his work on the screen with ADAPTATION, the companion piece to the equally mind-blowing BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. Or Jonze was enabling him. Giving him an outlet.
Does the cream always rise to the top? Would Kaufman have found his way to financial success and critical acclaim, or would he have packed it up and settled into some desk job in suburbia, shackled to the mundane and the mediocre, a victim not of "Where are they now?" but of "When did they ever go outside their comfort zone?" When hard work and talent intersect with luck and opportunity knocks, there are those who will be too frightened to answer their calling, who will hide under the blankets, with eyes glazed over from antidepressants and psychotropic zombie nerve gas and Ambien, pupils dialing involuntarily in and out of focus from handfuls of uppers that scream, "Hurry now! Wake up and be exhausted!" They mark their days served by etching them on the walls of their personal vault of horror.
Few manage to escape their self-imposed incarceration. Few, like Chris Ware or Charlie Kaufman, live to tell the bittersweet tale ("More bitter than sweet," to paraphrase a song). Some venture out long enough to get the mail to see if they've won the sweepstakes. It's a hard job, hating yourself. Sorry to rain on your parade of self pity, but you're not alone. You can't be John Malkovich, but ... you're not supposed to be. Kaufman reminds us of this in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and its companion, ADAPTATION. And Chris Ware holds up the mirror, reflecting the light that separates what you are and what you see looking back at you.
ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #19 is very much like a comic-book version of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION, with its themes of loneliness, despair, lust, longing, and eventually, perhaps gradually, over the course of a lifetime, acceptance. The first half tells the story of four cosmonaut planetary settlers, and their mission of colonizing the red planet. There are some genuinely frightful moments here. Indeed, in life, some people go to the edge, and some people go over, and to quote David Lee Roth in VAN HALEN'S "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," "I been to the edge / and there I stood and looked down / You know I lost a lot of friends there baby / I got no time to mess around / ... so if you want it got to bleed for it baby."
Memories are a double-edged sword, and they will cause you to bleed. Most are faded photographs of clichéd poses but honest smiles and echoes of joyous moments. The others that never seem to work their way out of your skin will keep you awake at night, and cause you to sleep away the day. They'll turn your stomach. They'll freeze your face into weird contortions like the branch of a tree that tries its best to grow away from its roots out of self-preservation. And all of them, good or bad, make you feel old. Weathered. Sometimes wise, but mostly lost, vulnerable, scarred, and haunted.
The main character in our first story in ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #19 is all of those things. Perhaps he had a certain lot in life, and he tempted fate. He played with fire and he got burned. He wanted more than his own worth would afford him. What is Chris Ware asking his audience? Learn to be grateful for what you have? Learn to accept what's in your mirror? What's in your bed? What's in your head? Or that sometimes, bad endings can come of auspicious beginnings, no matter how promising they may look when you blast off?
How much control do you have of your life? Very little, you realize, when you begin to lose your loved ones and your pets. If you had any control, any say in the cosmic matter, it'd be you, and not them, you tell yourself. Because they were always adventurous, beautiful, vibrant, full of piss and vinegar, and you, you were locked in your bedroom, listening to your stereo, reading comic books, watching John Hughes movies, looking through your telescope at the stars, skipping the prom because you were too cool for such functions, when truthfully, you were dying to attend. Maybe. But on that weekend, like many that are too painful to recall, you managed to go two straight days without talking to anyone, all of Saturday and all of Sunday, stomping your feet in a world of silent protest, at faraway worlds that you wanted to explore at a faraway (read: safe) distance. The closest you ever got was looking into the mirror.
And so begins the second half of the story in Chris Ware's exceptional ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #19, where he really picks on you, dear reader. He manages to pull you in here, forcing you to realize that because there are others out there just like you, you are not alone, and what connects you to everyone else is the distance between you and your friends, you and your family, you and your lovers. Ware turns the telescope around and it's as if you're looking from the opposite end of the instrument at the same sight. Where once something so far was made to appear so close, now something so close looks to be miles away.
It's the autobiography of an imaginary man. In the second half, Ware tells the story of the writer behind the story in part one of ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #19. And maybe your story, you, of course, being nothing more than the reader. Just because you can identify with this story, doesn't mean it's about you. While you may be lonely, to paraphrase Carly Simon, you're so vain, because you probably think this comic is about you. And it certainly doesn't mean you have any control over its outcome. Odds are you don't have control over the outcome of your own life. The parts in between? You tell me. Will you rise to the top or just get lost in the space?
You ever have that feeling like you stepped out of a PEANUTS cartoon strip by Charles Schulz? You ever feel like this is your life, Charlie Brown? If so, ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #19 will appeal to you, maybe even soothe you. It feels a lot like the adventures of a grown-up Charlie Brown. No happy Hollywood endings here; the cream may rise to the top, but by now you've probably already bottomed out. And that part about loneliness being the leading cause of death in young men according to recent studies? I made that bit up, but it sure feels that way sometimes, doesn't it? Good grief, indeed, Charlie Brown.
Josh Jabcuga has written some comic books. Those aren't about you either, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. He thanks you for your time.