Chris Ware’s spiritual follow-up to Jimmy Corrigan is a marvel. Started soon after Corrigan was completed, the book has been two decades in the making. Sections have been serialised in the pages of Ware’s The Acme Novelty Library, but this definitive 356-page edition adds the final chapter and brings the whole thing together for the first time.
The book follows a handful of characters, based in and around a school in a middle-class US suburb. First we meet Rusty Brown, an unfortunate eight-year-old dork who lacks the social skills to escape his third-grade purgatory. He’s bullied, has sexual fantasies about his Supergirl action figure, and sees the arrival of an equally dorky boy in his class not as an opportunity to find a soulmate, but as a flicker of hope that he can shift attention away from himself.
Rusty inherits his ginger hair and awkwardness from his father, an English teacher at the school. William Brown is as dysfunctional as his son, but we get much greater insight into his character, as Ware dives into his history through flashback. Starting his professional life as an obituary writer, creating science fiction stories on the side, any spark of creativity is soon squashed and his spirit broken by some unfortunate sexual encounters.
After a brief interlude into one of William Brown’s science fiction stories, which itself sheds more light onto his disturbed psyche, we shift to other characters. Ware shifts focus onto Rusty Brown’s bully, Jordan Lint, who gets his entire life tracked at a rate of one page per year. By the time we get to the end, Flint is living in the future.
The last part of the book is the most brilliant and the most tragic. Rusty Brown’s school teacher, Joanne Coal, is a black woman in a predominantly white school, who is quietly but systematically discriminated against, despite being the most functional human on the school’s staff. Above and beyond this, however, she has her own tragedies and no-one to share them with, though her spirit and devotion to her students is as heart-warming as her narrative is bitter-sweet.
All this is illustrated near perfectly in Ware’s inimitable style. The school is central, a character in its own right, the furniture and staff changing over the years and the seasons passing before our eyes, but the structure as solid and fixed in the narrative as the house in Building Stories. The characters age and drift in and out of each others’ stories, but Ware’s clarity and boldness hold it together beautifully. Some of the print is small and begs to be printed in a larger format, but it’s a minor complaint that fails to derail the book as a whole.
A new Chris Ware book is always going to be a rare treat but Rusty Brown truly delivers on the promise. Buy it, and treat yourself to something truly special.