Rusty Brown

By Chris Ware


I’ve never read a graphic novel before.

This isn’t a principled stance I’ve taken – I know the whole spiel about how graphic novels are novels, and they are High Art now, and they are very sophisticated and deal with adult themes. I’m not disputing any of this – how could I? I’ve never read one.

Art evolves, and I’m completely fine with that. I know that sounds defensive, but that’s only because it’s in print, on the internet: I really am fine with that. I have watched completely open-mindedly as the graphic novel has become mainstream and achieved artistic legitimacy. I think it’s a good thing – I think more inclusive artistic definitions almost always benefit the form, and the culture, over time. They accelerate growth.

But I have never read a graphic novel, again, not because I have a problem with them – not at all! – but because…I don’t like them.

I don’t like reading them, and ‘reading’ is the operative word there. I think they’re often beautiful, visually sumptuous and mesmerizing to look at. But I have been reading for a long time, and I am used to the flow of words on a page. On a page that doesn’t have a ton else on it, a page where, if there are pictures (which there almost never are), the words arrange themselves tidily around the pictures and don’t scatter themselves through it.

I find graphic novels a little difficult to read. That may be the point, right? It might be that the difficulty of finding and ordering the words, visually, is designed to make you slow down and look at the pictures. It may be that this actually makes you take in the words more deliberately, makes you pay more attention.

But I do not, viscerally, enjoy the drag on my mind. I am used to ease when reading, total mental comfort. The ability to immerse myself, mentally, effortlessly, in a text, is one of the things I love about reading. It’s almost meditative. It feels like swimming. So I have found the new proliferation of graphic novels amazingly easy to resist.

But my mother gave me ‘Rusty Brown‘ for Christmas this past year, explaining (sort of apologetically) that it got really good reviews*. And it is gorgeous, with amazing, complex layouts and lush, arresting pictures. So, the other day, when I was totally fried from work and wanted to try something a little different, I sat down and read it.

*My mother was completely correct, by the way: the reviews for ‘Rusty Brown‘ are ecstatic.

And now I have a question: how am I supposed to feel about this book?

I’m not asking what I’m supposed to feel: happy, sad, existentially frantic. I’m asking how I’m supposed to feel: am I supposed to feel the way I feel about books? The way I feel about visual art? The way I feel about movies?

Rusty Brown‘ is a story, it’s a narrative; it has characters and a plot (sort of), a lot of which are communicated through the written word. In this way, ‘Rusty Brown’ is a book. But it’s so visual – the story, plot points and character elements, as well as overall mood, are all communicated visually. In this way, it is like a movie.

And some panels are so stunning that you stop, and stare, and react to them just as pictures. They are moving, desolating, some of them. They almost all involve snow.

I can see why ‘Rusty Brown‘ received such incredible reviews. The pictures are incredible, moving back and forth between schema and detail seamless, laid out so inventively that they are almost mobile. They communicate shock, grief, the grinding passage of time, profound alienation, vast, existential bleakness.

Chris Ware

In fact, most of the emotional content of ‘Rusty Brown‘ is bleak. It is the story of several lives which meet around a middle school in Omaha, Nebraska. This is what I mean when I say it has a plot, sort of: it actually has several plots, or rather, several lives. It’s about an intersection – it doesn’t have a climax. It’s about the rich, complicated human context that lies underneath even the most ordinary moment, in the most ordinary place. It asks you to consider how long the journey has been that has gotten you here, has gotten everyone here, how much everyday time, everyday suffering, has accumulated underneath each and every one of us.

So it doesn’t really have a plot – it has a tone. To quote the New York Times, “Though there are a couple of perverts (and possibly a criminal), his characters aren’t people of wealth, power or energy; they’re self-conscious, often inarticulate, trying to break free of the mundane or anesthetize themselves to it. The characters weave in and out of the 113-page opening sequence, which dissects a single day at a Midwestern school in the 1970s, with its smell of “spilled teacher’s lounge coffee, old milk, formaldehyde and lip gloss and hot lunch.”

Each of the characters is lost, alienated, lonely. The children are awkward, afraid they won’t fit in. The adults are aging, fading, their youthful dreams lost, their bodies unrecognizable. Everyone is miserable. Or, to quote The Guardian, “The remaining narratives display a shared concern with regret and ageing, anxiety and ennui (there’s a lot of repetition and masturbation), the sense of lives being missed for a combination of factors, from parental neglect to racial intolerance. The book poses essential questions about the formation and hardening of character: what limits our chances of happiness or fulfilment? How do behavioural patterns form? And why are they so hard to break?”

It’s kind of a lot: a big book about the grinding alienation of life, hard to read, emotionally bleak. It’s a masterpiece, but, like many masterpieces, it’s impressive rather than fun. I am impressed; I am also really, really glad that the book is over.

It’s a rough thing to think about how hard, how much quiet suffering the people around you are carrying around. Beautiful, bleak pictures make it both easier and harded to connect with material like this, at least for me. Pictures are vivid, yes, but they are less vivid than my imagination, and the pictures relieve me of the need to imagine.

Is the entire genre the same emotional gray of ‘Rusty Brown‘? In my imagination, all graphic novels are beautiful and dismal, and I’m sure that’s not right. I feel contaminated by this novel more than I understand it, laid low and blue. It was really, really good, there’s no way to miss that, but it’s hard, and strange. It’s grand, and sad, and lovely, and cold. It’s pretty magnificent, but in a way that leaves you more lost than when you started.

Ultimately, it’s hard for me to mentally file ‘Rusty Brown‘ as a ‘book’ in my mind. The experience is more like a movie – the parts of it which are the most moving are the visual parts, not the words. It doesn’t elicit book-feelings – it elicits movie-feelings, photograph-feelings.

So, I think I want to read another graphic novel.

Maybe this sounds weird, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I won’t be able to figure out how I feel about this form until I read some more. Different kinds of graphic novels, not just this sad, magnificent one. I’d like to read a funny one, a sweet one, and a violent one. And probably about eight sexy ones.

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