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“Mosaic Thresholds”: Manifesting the Collection and Production of Comics in the works of Chris Ware

By Aaron Mauro

The arcade is an anachronism. The arcade has always been out of time. While reading Walter Benjamin’s great unfinished work The Arcades Project, one is quickly led to believe that the Paris arcades were built solely to house the collected ephemera cast off from society. The arcades (les passages) are a symbol of an elegant futurity already dilapidated, in which both people and things become the structure and contents of its graceful dereliction (figure 1). Throughout Benjamin’s text, pimps and prostitutes are repeatedly envisioned as the iron and glass that house the great collection of memorabilia. And yet, the arcades are also the metaphorical structure that houses Benjamin’s own thought. “Already in a letter of 1930,” explain Benjamin’s English language translators Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, “he refers to The Arcades Project as ‘the theatre of all my struggles and all my ideas”‘ (Benjamin, Arcades x). At the risk of a reductive definition of the scope of the work, The Arcades Project is a collection about collecting. By extension, it might be said that The Arcades Project is about the struggle to collect ideas.

Figure 1: Benjamin, Arcades, 49.

The first edition appeared in 1982 under the title Das Passagen-Werk, over forty years after Benjamin halted the thirteen year study of the Paris arcades; however, “Benjamin abandoned work on it in the spring of 1940, when he was forced to flee Paris before the advancing German army” (Benjamin, Arcades x-xi). This collection of citations, intermixed with commentary, retains an urgent sense of its historical context. As a result of these most dire of circumstances, it may seem strange that the very act of collecting becomes such a powerfully constructive project for Benjamin. Collecting touches upon such disparate topics as scholarship, the nature of our senses, the complex and convoluted character of those who wish to collect objects, and the strange value of these objects of desire.

From this great modern work, I believe an analogy may be found between collecting and the structure of comics, which is the primary topic of this essay. In The Acme Novelty Library: Final Report to Shareholders and Saturday Afternoon Rainy Day Fun Book, Chris Ware offers a comparable and sustained meditation on the nature of collecting. Ware’s comics collection incorporates motifs that relate architecture, consumerism, and comics with a subtly emotional and personal vision of history. Collecting enacts a strictly personal and emotional history in which objects become imbued with an aura that removes both the object and the collector from the steady progress of time. Thus housing this unique space in time, the arcades and comics come to share a position in the history of modern consumer culture. While seeming to mind this strange historical affinity, Ware offers a mock essay with the tone of a biologist entitled, “Collectors: A Guide. Permitting Easy Field Identification and Classification” (Acme 64). For both Benjamin and Ware, determining the drives and desires of a collector is a constant distraction. For Rusty Brown and Chalky White, two of Ware’s major characters in the work, collecting becomes both a panacea and a poison in their lives. If Ware is then the biologist of the species of man called collector, since biology is itself a system of classification and cataloguing of the highest order, Benjamin is the historian driven to compile and collect to near pathological proportions.

For my part in this collecting motif, I am in agreement with Benjamin that “[c]ollecting is a primal phenomenon of study: the student collects knowledge” (Arcades 210). By extension, I believe that Benjamin’s distinction between the types of collectors does well to define divergent critical approaches within literary criticism. He goes to great length to differentiate between the allegorist and the collector. The allegorist, with whom I would count myself, “dislodges things from their context and, from the outset, relies on his profundity to illuminate their meaning. The collector,” with whom I would also count myself, “brings together what belongs together; by keeping in mind their affinities and their succession in time, he can eventually furnish information about his objects” (211). As a consequence of this dual categorization, this essay works to dislodge these two works from their context, while minding their affinities in the historical scope of modern thought. In this context and according to Ware’s definition, I will hesitantly place myself alongside Rusty Brown, who proclaims his status as a “researcher”: “The Researcher fabricates (or, more commonly, ‘is interested in’) a thread of study, generally of puerile popular culture, in an effort to create or otherwise bolster an identity in the face of utter personal worthlessness” (Ware, Acme 65). While researchers and academics benefit alike from a preferred anonymity, Ware offers his readers a glimpse of both the collector and the collection in The Acme Novelty Library.

While I will avoid any distinctions between so-called popular and high culture, puerile or otherwise, I will maintain that to study a text requires one to collect points of understanding on the text at hand. Similarly, the very act of reading comics necessitates the act of collecting. In their original published form, comics demand that the reader collect and assemble a complete narrative by purchasing every issue. Ware clearly uses this motif of collecting as a means of framing his collection. However, before I even open The Acme Novelty Library, I am confronted with a message to collectors, which claims that the work is indeed something to be collected. On the grey band which binds the large ornate red and black cover, just below the price and barcode, Ware includes a note to collectors: “COLLECTORS: This is copy number 143,527 of a total press run of 875,000. Please store in a clean, dry place, away from light, preferably in an acid-free 4m or greater mylar, with backing board.”1 It is with the accidental removal of the grey band, entitled “The World’s Smallest Comic Strip,” that the collecting motif becomes manifest. The removal of the strip is the only means of discovering the “Apology and Souvenir Comic Strip,” yet this act also devalues the comic. The Acme Novelty Library is no longer “O.C.”, or original condition (see Ware’s own glossary for a definition on page 66). The removal of the grey band literally manifests the double nature of collecting. On the one hand, the loss of the monetary value of an object is necessary for one to take pleasure and fulfillment from it. On the other hand, pleasure is taken from maintaining the object’s monetary value. Throughout the comic, Ware pits the fetishization of collected objects against the enjoyment of other people and the objects themselves.

It is precisely this strange association between purchasing an object and happiness that causes Rusty Brown such anguish. The absurdity of relating emotions to commodities is manifested in the false ads in “The World of Novelty.” From pages 64 to 69, Ware provides ads for a baffling number of absurd products. For example, you can purchase atomic weapons—described as “[f]un new technology” and “party poppers”—for a mere two hundred million dollars (Ware, Acme 64). For one thousand dollars, one can even purchase the “magic words” that give a “reason for living” from the Acme Novelty Company (67). While the humour of such parody is surely lost in my retelling, Ware’s overall meaning is clear: fetishized consumerism is absurd and results in a lack of fulfillment. This frustrated sense of fulfillment found in consumerism finds its corollary in collecting. Indeed, purchasing or collecting comics enacts this search for fulfillment. So, for a reader or collector who has just purchased Ware’s comic, this desire for fulfillment from such consumerism is not only the content of the work but is also enacted in the form.

Not surprisingly then, collecting guides and structures the lives of the characters that inhabit the pages of The Acme Novelty Library. Following Benjamin’s dual definition of the allegorist and the collector – “in every collector hides an allegorist, and in every allegorist a collector” (Arcades 211) – Ware’s narrative both breaks with historical context and resituates the lives of characters. Ware offers a clear association between the objects of desire and the emotionally traumatic or banal moments that mark Rusty’s life. An example of the allegorical and historical sense of collecting is demonstrated by Ware’s two page comic entitled “Rusty Brown Souvenir Pull Out Calendar: 1973-2001” (Ware, Acme 58-59). (See figures 2 and 3). While the large twelve-panel comic offers a depiction of a day from each month of a year, these historical moments are divided between 1973 and 2001, though ending the year on December 25th, 2007. This form offers a succinct summation of Rusty’s reason for mistreating his only friend, Chalky: by echoing the first panel with the ninth panel, Ware seems to be hinting that Rusty has turned his own traumatic experience of being called a “faggot” against his intimate relationship with Chalky. In this sad exchange of the victim becoming the bully, the tragedy becomes Rusty’s ability for self-deception and the alienation of his only friend. Finally, Rusty is left in solitary squalor, while Chalky moves on to find fulfillment with his wife Candy.

Figure 2: Ware, Acme, 58, 59.
Figure 3: Ware, Acme, 58, 59.

Strictly speaking, these instances may seem completely unrelated. But, when collected allegorically, these divergent contexts describe a coherent emotional narrative. Using Scott McCloud’s definition in Understanding Comics, these panels represent a scene-to-scene closure (McCloud 63-72). The conjoining of these disparate times distinctly draws an emotional history of a friendship. This ability for comics to close great distances of time and space, while placing them in direct relation, allows them to describe human relationships like no other medium. Yet, strewn amongst this narrative are the objects that both Rusty and Chalky fixate upon for a semblance of emotional fulfillment. In the first panel, Rusty drops drawings of the Superman figure after being hit by snowballs and called names. Despite this initial traumatic event, his desire becomes linked to attaining these childish things throughout the rest of his life. The desire for these objects forecloses any intimate relationship with his friend Chalky. For example, in the fifth panel, Rusty is frustrated by his mother’s interruption of the Star Wars movies; in the sixth panel, we are made aware that Rusty is only kind to Chalky outside of school, presumably so they may share their love of action figures; in the seventh panel, rather than to spend time with his friend, Rusty wants only to trade for Chalky’s toys; finally, in the tenth panel, Rusty is only concerned with gathering more candy, rather than enjoying Halloween with his best friend.

By contrast, Chalky only wants to spend time with Rusty and enjoy his friendship. It is the interpersonal relationships that matter for Chalky and not the collecting of toys. Toy collecting is only a means by which Chalky spends time with Rusty. In the eighth panel, Chalky’s mom buys the same toy for Rusty so that they can play together as equals. In panels four and nine, Chalky only wants to welcome Rusty into his home. Watching television is a secondary concern for Chalky. So, in the eleventh panel, when Chalky gives his doubles to Rusty, he does it out of concern and care for his friend, with whom he knows he will have to spend less time due to his marriage to Candy. Indeed, the echo of Rusty’s desire for candy in the Halloween scene is set in stark contrast to Chalky’s desire for his wife Candy. Finally, Rusty fails to understand the importance of this final farewell between lifelong friends because he is too excited by the material objects he has been given.

While Ware seems to be linking collected objects to the emotional history of Chalky and Rusty, he uses specific objects to tell specific stories. As a result, the collection is not simply the sum of collected and organized objects, but also the material organization and presentation of personal memories through objects. For Benjamin, a collection is a “devised historical system” of a deeply personal nature (Arcades 205). While collecting is a form of personal history, it is important to maintain that collecting does not give the collector access to a broad scope of the passage of time. Chalky may have extensive knowledge about the quality, condition, and price of action figures, but his sale of a box of “Edison Rolls” for a mere fifty dollars reminds the reader of the collector’s potential ignorance (Ware, Acme 87). Similarly, though Rusty’s life is marked by the objects he collects, he is ignorant of his own emotionally dysfunctional history.

“Collecting,” says Benjamin, “is a form of practical memory” (Arcades 205). So, while a collection represents the physical manifestation of history, it is also a physical manifestation of a memory connected to an object. The object is literally memorabilia or souvenir. Indeed, there is a certain sense of the aura of the object for the collector. In other words, the object is surrounded by a sense of essential or singular importance. Benjamin explains that “for the true collector, every single thing in this system becomes an encyclopedia for all knowledge of the epoch, the landscape, the industry, and the owner from which it comes. It is the deepest enchantment of the collector to enclose the particular item within a magic circle, where, as a last shudder runs through it (the shudder of being acquired), it turns to stone” (Arcades 205). While neither Ware nor Benjamin speculates on such a hypothesis, the desire to enclose and solidify the aura of the past may be linked to a desire for stability in the face of traumatic events. Surely, Benjamin’s historical context between and during the World Wars would call for such a conclusion. Though I refuse to draw conclusions about Ware’s psychological impetus for fixating on collecting, his work draws a relationship between the traumatic events Rusty and Chalky face and their collections.

As a means of describing how this relationship to history and objects operates within Ware’s comics, it may be useful to chart the progress of Rusty’s desire for the “Funny Face” drink mix character Looney Lemon (Ware, Acme 63, 85). The value of this object is surely arbitrary, since a collector may choose to collect any number of objects that would fulfill the same function. What, then, is the purpose of collecting a useless and valueless object? Again, Benjamin’s writing is illuminating: “What is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind. This relation is the diametric opposite of any utility, and falls into the peculiar category of completeness” (Arcades 204). For Benjamin, this separation of the object from the world, by placing it into a state of completeness, fulfills a historical function. To have a complete collection confirms the totality of history as the homogeneous passage of time. For Ware, completeness takes on a distinctly emotional and sexual form of fulfillment.

Initially, Rusty’s search for Looney Lemon seems nothing more than a longing of a desperate man-child. “But,” as the large conjunctive panels express, when Rusty fails to find his object of desire, he “later” turns to pornography for satisfaction (Acme 63). “And so,” the final panel depicts his frustrated desires: he is alone in bed surrounded by childhood toys, still lamenting, “I’m never gonna find a Looney Lemon” (63). (See Figure 4). It is, however, unclear whether Rusty or his surroundings are the anachronism. Are Rusty’s possessions out of the correct historical time, or is Rusty himself living the wrong time of his life? The answer seems to point to a synthesis of the two times. Seemingly frozen in time – playing Pong, listening to the Corvette Summer soundtrack, and surrounded by Battlestar Galactica and Happy Days posters (Ware, Acme 15) – Rusty is attempting to, in the words of Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (“Theses” 255). These objects are material manifestations of the chain of events, or “wreckage upon wreckage”, that piles up at the feet of Benjamin’s “angel of history” (257). Wings outstretched, pushed backwards by “the storm of progress,” forever looking back as the past piles upon his feet. Yet an interesting facet of collecting arises from such an understanding of history: collecting memorabilia, objects that signify memories, and souvenirs dislocates both the collector and the collection from the present.

Figure 4: Ware, Acme, 63.

The stunted adult sexual and emotional life of Rusty becomes the greatest symptom of his being out of time. When Rusty swindles Chalky with the fake Super Girl action figure, his repressed desire for friendship comes into conflict with his desire for objects (Ware, Acme 85). So, when Chalky fulfills his desire with the gift of a Looney Lemon figure, Rusty’s fixation on expanding his G.I. Jim collection is mo\mentarily displaced by the honest kindness of Chalky. With his self-deception exposed, he reverts to an absurd refusal of Chalky’s gift by saying in the final panel, “But I don’t want a Looney Lemon anymore” (85). (See figure 5). By echoing the final panels of the Rusty Brown comics on pages 63 and 85, Ware further exposes the artificiality and absurdity of Rusty’s confused desire for objects and for emotional fulfillment.

Figure 5: Ware, Acme, 85.

Initially, Rusty may experience this confusion due to a primary inability to accept or find affection from his mother. For example, Rusty’s frustrated sexual desire for a new Bat Woman or Wonder Woman action figure, which make him feel “tingly” just thinking about them, is displaced by his hatred of his mother’s affection for Chalky (Ware, Acme 42). While I will make no presumptions about Rusty’s desire, it may be said that these early sexual rumblings are caught up in a complex system of desires divided between his feelings for his friend, for his mother, and for objects. So, while I will not offer a psychoanalytic reading of this foreclosure of desire, I note that Ware’s description of Rusty centers on his constant failure to achieve the desired sense of fulfillment from anything or anyone. No clear distinction between this frustration or foreclosure of desire that emanates from his mother is ever realized, which is much like every other relationship in Rusty’s life.

This misplacement of desire culminates in Rusty’s disturbing and tragically misguided attempt to give Brittany a “present.” (Ware, Acme 76). A fundamental aspect of being a collector is to confuse objects and people. For the collector, “the object is detached from all its original functions” so that it may find closer and more intimate relations with other objects of its kind (Benjamin, Arcades 204). Rusty detaches the original function of the doll several times. The doll as a plaything first becomes an object of economic trade and is subject to value speculation among collectors; the doll then becomes confused as an object of exchange in Rusty’s malformed desire to show Brittany affection. While it is unclear whether Rusty’s intentions are sexual or simply terribly confused, the doll becomes a symbol that carries all of this confusion and ambiguity. The frustration of producing a clear meaning from this scene is something that carries throughout much of The Acme Novelty Library.

Though I will not offer any complete unity of meaning for The Acme Novelty Library, I would like to outline the constant theme or allegory of frustration running throughout the collection. While the structure of Ware’s collection collects meaning as it progresses, the frustration of the desire for the complete fulfillment of meaning is constant. By extension, the frustration of desires and expectations can be found in any of the major characters. As the man of the future in “Tales of Tomorrow” despondently gazes out of one window or another, he futilely seeks happiness in sandwiches or television (Ware, Acme 76) Also, Quimby the Mouse seeks a simple childhood happiness by having a popsicle on the threshold of his home. Yet, he is frustrated by the very thing he desires: his “Radical Rugrats Tropical mango Kiwi and Banana Zapperpops” tell him, “you’re history, dude” (56). Again, Big Tex works endlessly for his father’s approval and love, only to see his efforts go neglected and unnoticed (39). Frank Phosphate is incapable of surviving any heroic act, which frustrates the basic premise of the super hero genre (43, 83). Indeed, it seems that Frank’s status as a superhero determines his demise. Also, Rocket Sam’s constant attempts at companionship always end in isolation. Whether he is unsatisfied by his robotic companions, or his robotic companions are unsatisfied by him (34-38), Rocket Sam is destined to die never knowing the potential friendships he has lost (106).

The entire collection is bookended by the unfulfilled desire for companionship. The masked floating Superman figure, in the endlessness of space and time, only wants to be with the woman he left without a second thought (Ware, Acme, inside back cover). Ware’s emphasis on the frustration of desires is made physically manifest in the “activity section” of The Acme Novelty Library (70-73). The full title is, after all, The Acme Novelty Library: Final Report to Shareholders and Saturday Afternoon Rainy Day Fun Book. These paper novelties enact a strangely physical aspect of collecting objects. Benjamin explains quite simply: “Possessions and having are allied with the tactile, and stand in a certain opposition to the optical. Collectors are beings with tactile instincts” (Arcades 206). As a result of this play between the tactile and optic, it is necessary that Ware supply these objects to be collected. The emphasis on structure and construction becomes another pervasive aspect linked to the theme of frustration in Ware’s work. The instructions for the “Novelty Library” constantly emphasize the possibility of failure. While the physical instructions are quite simple – “Instructions. – Cut out all pieces and fold them together, securing them with adhesive. Allow to dry, and display” (Ware, Acme 73) – the emotional instructions are much more complex. In the end, the level of expectation attached to the construction of these objects guarantees failure:

Ten hut! Here’s just what you’ve been waiting for, boys, a real working Library that you can make in your own home. Wow! Just like the kind “down town” that the engineers and architects made, except that this one fits on your desk. It’s a genuine test of skill – let’s see if you can do it.

The sailors, the airmen, and the firefighters all wish that they had a miniature library, but even they don’t have the materials to make one. Oh boy! You’ll feel like a big grown up now. Just imagine, your local police officer or military official giving you an official medal of congratulations for completing this difficult and highly specialized task. You might even get a day named in your honor, or a street. Hey – Get to work! (Ware, Acme 71)

So, while it is possible to construct the novelty library, attaining fulfillment on the level promised by the instructions already frustrates this desire. As a corollary argument, I would like to claim that this theme of frustration is manifested within the very aesthetic of comics. In regards to the distinction between the tactile and the optic, the art historian Alois Riegl first defined the dialectic of the haptic and the opticsenses in his landmark work Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts (1897). In some sense, reading comics is always a play between these two types of viewing. While the optic view embraces the aesthetic whole of the comic page’s composition, the haptic grasps the texture of the text and the closeness of seeing each panel. Each view, whether distant or near, frustrates the apprehension of the complete meaning of the image and text. I offer this suggestion, however, merely as a provocation to other readers to follow such a line of thought, which I do not have time to address here.

This physical manifestation of frustration is also expressed in Ware’s first work, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Early in the comic Ware provides a zoetrope on a single double-sided page. Because the zoetrope is printed on a single sheet, it is impossible to realize these blueprints without first memorizing the instructions and then “waking up the pieces on the other side” (Ware, Jimmy). For Thomas A. Bredehoft, the zoetrope signals Ware’s “literalization of reader-character identification: the reader who cuts out and assembles the zoetrope is literally engaged in the same activity as Jimmy” (870). Bredehoft also claims that this type of literalization opens up the “metaphor of architecture” as narration (870). For Ware, comics straddle the line between the optical and the tactile experience. He explains in an interview that:

What you do with comics, essentially, is take pieces of experience and freeze them in time […] The moments are inert, lying there on the page in the same way that sheet music lies on the printed page. In music you breathe life into the composition by playing it. In comics you make the strip come alive by reading it, by experiencing it beat by beat as you would playing music. So that’s one way to aesthetically experience comics. Another way is to pull back and consider the composition all at once, as you would the façade of a building. You can look at a comic as you would look at a structure that you could turn around in your mind and see all sides of at once. (Raeburn 25)

Comics are structural in nature for Ware. They are composed panel to panel, but the overall aesthetic value, like that of the façade of a building, depends on an appreciation of the texture of the entire page. Each page is then composed of panels or windows opening onto a drama taking place beyond the façade. The reader is left to enact the closure from one window to another.

The structural nature of comics necessitates an appreciation of architectural forms. According to Roger Sabin’s history of comics art, engineering and structural drawings, including cutaways of the internal workings of machines and buildings, were part of the early fascination with the comics form (Sabin). So, while Ware’s aesthetic does not emulate that of the intensely detailed action and adventure comics of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, his comics inherit the architectural and structural awareness of the early comics. Indeed, all comics art necessitates a frustratingly large amount of time to render a narrative. Ware laments the difficulty of his craft in an interview given in 2004 for The New York Times Magazine:

“This is just an incredibly inefficient way to tell a story. […] It involved maybe 8 to 10 seconds of actual narrative time,” he said. “But it took me three days to do it, of 12 hours a day. And I’m thinking any writer would go through this passage in eight minutes of work. And I think: Why am I doing this? Is the payoff to have the illusion of something actually happening before your eyes really worth it? I find it’s a constant struggle and a source of great pain for me, especially the last day when I’m inking the strip. I think, why am I doing this? Whole years go by now that I can barely account for. I’m not even being facetious.” (McGrath 24-27)

The structure and form of comics, then, propagates the feeling of frustration and difficulty. Perhaps this emphasis on a form which is difficult to construct is addressed by Ware’s use of architecture in Jimmy Corrigan. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for which the people of Chicago built over 200 buildings, serves as the historical backdrop against which Jimmy’s grandfather recalls his childhood. (See figures 6 and 7). The large glass-and-iron structures were called the “White City” and were a symbol of America’s economic and industrial hopes for the future. The largest and the centerpiece building was the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, which Jimmy climbs with his friend (Bolotin and Liang 13, 48). (See figures 8 and 9). It was a large space devoted to the exposition of modern technology and art. For Benjamin, these expositions served a particular function in the formation of the modern world: “The world exhibitions were training schools in which the masses, barred from consuming, learned empathy with exchange value. ‘Look at everything; touch nothing”‘ (Arcades 805). These exhibitions were collections that denied the viewers the pleasures of even touching, while reifying everything as commodity. Like the Parisian arcades, these vast iron and glass passages housed commodities and commodified everything.

Figure 6: Ware, Jimmy Corrigan.
Figure 7: Bolotin and Liang, WorldÕs, 62.
Figure 8: Ware, Jimmy Corrigan.
Figure 9: Bolotin and Liang, World’s, 48.

In the essay “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” Benjamin claims: “World exhibitions are places of pilgrimage to the commodity fetish” (“Paris” 7). These vast collections served to commodify everything, but these events had their critics. It is, for Benjamin, the work of French cartoonist J. J. Grandville [1803-1847] that offers a critique of this modern consumerism. An influential cartoonist, Grandville created some of the earliest “animal head” drawings (see figures 10 and 11). His work sought, according to Benjamin, to make strange the commodity by making the consumer strange:

Figure 10: Grandville, “La Vie Privee et Publique des Animaux” (1842). Bizarreries and Fantasies of Grandville. New York, Dover, 1974.
Figure 11: Grandville, “La Vie Privee et Publique des Animaux” (1842). Bizarreries and Fantasies of Grandville. New York, Dover, 1974.

World exhibitions glorify the exchange value of the commodity. They create a framework in which its use value recedes into the background. They open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted. The entertainment industry makes this easier by elevating the person to the level of commodity. He surrenders to its manipulations while enjoying his alienation from himself and others.—The enthronement of the commodity, with its luster of distraction, is the secret theme of Grandville’s art. (“Paris” 7)

Thus, these early comics become the primary means by which Benjamin foresees a legitimate critique of consumerism offered by exhibitions. At the centre of the relationship between architecture, consumerism, and collecting is the cartoonist. The cartoonist is both the artist most inculcated in these disparate aspects of modern life and the one most able to offer a critique of them. I would like to suggest that Ware is the latest of these cartoonists to take up the task of addressing these aspects of what it means to be modern.

As a means of taking up the task of the cartoonist, Ware is most concerned with architectural thresholds or passages. Windows, doors, and hallways become an integral part of his comics grammar in both Jimmy Corrigan and The Acme Novelty Library. Of the many examples of this use of passages, the sequence depicting Jimmy’s stay in the medical clinic uses doors and windows to demonstrate his role as reader/spectator of his own comics comedy. (See figure 12.) As Jimmy quietly sits on the examination table with the bloody rag to his face, through the door he observes his father in the clinic waiting room. Like Ware’s reader, Jimmy is separated structurally from the action taking place before him. These thresholds also allow for imaginative escapes. Looking down the shirt of the nurse offers Jimmy an escape into sexual fantasy, and looking out the window at the birds on a ledge offers the fantasy of flying away. (See figure 13.) It seems that Ware is making a statement about the comics form. These structural thresholds, like those of the panels through which his readers gaze, offer a drama or fantasy through which we escape along with Jimmy. As with the reader participation experienced by constructing the zoetrope, the reader experiences observing the world through thresholds.

Figure 12: Ware, Jimmy Corrigan.
Figure 13: Ware, Jimmy Corrigan.

In the only completed essay he wrote during the period of the compilation of The Arcades Project, Benjamin refers to his arcades as “[m]osaic thresholds.” I believe Benjamin’s description of his arcades may also function as the most complete and succinct definition of comics. A reader, moving from panel to panel, draws closures of meaning from the gutters between the panels, which is to say that the reader gains meaning by passing through thresholds. Like the experience of moving through Benjamin’s arcades, passing shop windows or passing exhibitions of modern consumerism, comics necessitate an allegorical recontextualization of images to form meaning through the closure of thresholds. In McCloud’s terms, the ambiguity of closure in time, through moment-to-moment, subject-to-subject, or scene-to-scene panel progressions, is enacted in the ambiguity of movement over the gutter between panels. Thus closing the allegorical relation between the arcades and comics, Benjamin explains, “Ambiguity of the arcades as an ambiguity of space” (Arcades 871). The ambiguity of comics, if I may echo Benjamin’s words, is also an ambiguity of space.

Through the space of these mosaic thresholds, the very architecture in which we live guides comics construction. Between the two universe maps in the opening of The Acme Novelty Library, Ware depicts three artists at their drafting tables (Acme 6-9). Each of the artists, regardless of historical context, looks absently into space before choosing what to draw. (See figures 14-16). The implication Ware offers is to simply look out the window. The rest of the panel is reframed by actions occurring beyond the thresholds of dwellings. The caveman need only turn to gaze out of the cave for images of life and death (Ware, Acme 6). The Renaissance man need only look out the window for images of a beautiful culture (7). The man of the future need only look outside to see the complexity and alienation of his society (9). As readers of Ware’s comics, we too are left looking through the window of the comics panel to witness the imaginary drama.

Figure 14: Ware, Acme, 6.
Figure 15: Ware, Acme, 7.
Figure 16: Ware, Acme, 9.

As the theatre of all Ware’s struggles and all his ideas, the comics medium, manifested as architectural thresholds and comics panels, renders the structure of its own production and consumption. This tactile experience of comics necessitates a collecting of movements from panel to panel, which draws closure and meaning from the reader. As an object to be collected, which must be collected issue by issue and panel by panel, comics become the arcade in which the readers and creators are the iron and glass. By our own participation, comics collecting and reading mark the personal history of those involved in their consumption.


[1] There are at least four different versions of The Acme Novelty Library with various minute and often amusing differences. While a list of these differences would be as unwieldy as the title of this collection, the discrepancies seem to be present merely to bait the collector into purchasing more copies of the comic.


Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.

– – –. “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” Benjamin, Arcades Project Harvard: Harvard, UP, 1999. 3-13. Print.

– – –. “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969. 253-264. Print.

Bolotin, Norman and Liang, Christine. The World’s Columbian Exposition: The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Print.

Bredehoft, Thomas A. “Comics Architecture, Multidimensionality, and Time: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.” Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (Winter 2006): 869-890. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993. Print.

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