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The mind behind Jimmy Corrigan on casting himself as a jerk in his new book Rusty Brown, childhood nostalgia and discovering his distinctive style

In 2001, the cartoonist Chris Wares graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth won the Guardians first book award. It was the first time a comic book had won a major UK literary prize. Ware was in that respect, as in others, something of a trailblazer in showing how subtle and complex and serious graphic narratives could be a first advance in their subsequent storming of mainstream literary culture.

Rusty Brown, Wares first graphic novel since 2012s Building Stories, is anchored by the inconsequential events of a single day in a school in Wares hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, in 1975. It tells the interwoven stories of the titular pre-teen bully magnet and a handful of characters with whom his life, however glancingly, intersects. As readers of Ware will have come to expect, its mordantly melancholy and drawn and plotted with extraordinary precision.

When he guest edited a comics issue for McSweeneys in 2004, Ware called comics not a genre, but a developing language. Ahead of the publication of the print instalment of Rusty Brown, we discussed his way of working and where that developing language is now.

Sam Leith: Rusty Brown collects a number of different storylines written over a number of years. How much do you think of it as a coherent single work?

Chris Ware: Id always planned it as one volume, but my irresponsible writing methods got out of hand and I decided that rather than produce a book that would be too heavy to hold, it was better to split it into two books. Besides, paper may no longer exist when I finally get done with the thing, though at least Ill know half of it will actually physically exist somewhere for a little while. Sprawl and complexity are features of my favourite books, from War and Peace to Moby-Dick to Ulysses, and Im aiming for a similar end albeit with thousands of little colour pictures instead of just words.

SL: How do the characters in Rusty Brown and their universe relate to the worlds of your other work? Is there a sort of Ware-verse in which they cohabit?

CW: There is a tip-off in the book that it all connects to Jimmy Corrigan, and though its not apparent yet, also to both Building Stories and two other books on which Ive been slowly toiling. This is all very inconsequential to the turning of the planet, however.

SL: You or someone with your name figures in the book as a character (though, at the time in which the book is set, Im guessing you would have been closer to Rustys age than his). How autobiographical is the book and in which way? What does it do to introduce Chris Ware as a character?

CW: Well, I needed a jerk and I was available. To portray is not to endorse, of course, though on my private novelistic spectrum of human loathsomeness, the character is probably the most immoral and selfdeceiving of anyone in the book, growing out of my own sublimated venal impulses and the imaginings of those in others. For the reader as well as the artist, comics are already something of a paper mirror. So to have a horrible person staring back at me while I draw him, who looks like me but isnt, serves as a useful psychological experiment. It is all in the service of trying to understand the world and, most importantly, to be a better person.

Every generation has its immoralities that culture and custom somehow cushion, and were seeing a much-overdue reckoning of that now; if theres any shred of inadvertent good to the election of Donald Trump, its that he has made us all keenly aware of the fragility of virtue versus the blunt force of deception and domination. It takes considerable effort to be good and almost none to be bad.

A detail from Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. Photograph: Chris Ware

SL: How do you feel towards your characters? Is to understand all to forgive all?

CW: I try, but dont always succeed, to somehow love them all, even if that sounds crazy. I genuinely believe theres a redeeming impulse of goodness in everyone which is heightened by sympathy, if not by art, and in my own mind the two should be synonymous as much as is possible.

SL: Your persona as you present it to readers is extremely shy, and self-deprecating to a fault. Does the fact that your work has been buried under a mountain of prizes and plaudits make it, even just a bit, hard to sustain that?

CW: Maybe it seems disingenuous after receiving such kind words, but it sure doesnt feel that way in my skull. I kind of envy writers and creators who seem to suffer from no self-doubts, but Ive also come to decide they might also be a little nutty and that, regardless, were probably pretty much pre-wired in this regard anyway; ie, thick skins dont seem to grow over thin ones. Ultimately, though, my own comfort doesnt matter. As an art of reproduction, comicsalways returns to its status as trash, which I think is key to its being seen clearly and read critically; it has none of the innate prestige of writing or painting and so has to earn its stature on its own terms, every time.

SL: Can you say what the germ of this or any of your cartoons is? Do you start with a character sketch, or a situation, or a mood? And how do you plan out a comic story? Youre so meticulous and exact in terms of the design of pages and spreads, Im curious as to how you mesh spatial thinking and narrative thinking.

CW: The apparent meticulousness of my stuff only comes from trying to provide as clear as possible reading experience out of the tangled and knotted experience of life as Ive come to know it. I have sheaves of notes and ideas of where the story is going to go or worse, what I might think its about nearly all of which get thrown out the moment I sit down to draw. If I pay attention to what occurs to me as my drawings appear on the page, however, it will all eventually connect in ways that would otherwise be impossible to predict or control. I believe its the role of the artist not to impose a structure on ones art but to let the structure build itself and it always will, if you let it.

The book is largely set in my own memories of the parochial school I attended as a kid, which in my early adulthood I realised Id spent more time in than at home. The rooms, hallways and kids were almost all certainly more familiar to me than my own family and house, and still reappear in my dreams, even if theyre incongruously populated with the people and details of my life now.

Chris Ware. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

SL: Why the very very tiny panels and lettering? Is it a way of slowing the reader down?

CW: I dont mean to strain the limits of legibility, but narratively its a way of trying to get at the seemingly infinite tide pools of memory and detail that regularly open and close in our minds, as well as pointing to the ever-finer complexity of the universe as one looks at and into it. Also, I dont want the reader to feel as if Ive laid down on the job and since the universe never disappoints in that regard, I shouldnt, either.

SL: Theres a dichotomy sometimes made between grown-up comics and the superhero/funny-papers/genre type. Your work seems to be an example of the former thats very interested in the latter, as a fantasy contrast to the humiliating mundanity of ordinary life. Do you feel affectionate towards that sort of storytelling? What does that sort of fantasy offer?

CW: As a kid I was made fun of for reading superhero comics, but once I grew up I lost all interest in them. Which is why I find it a little disquieting, though not necessarily surprising, that such stuff has become mainstream American culture, and one that adults now find a satisfying diversion. Then again, mythologies arent going away anytime soon. For me, however, regular human life is already so extra strange, moving and complicated Im more than happy not plugging it into any amplification.

A detail from Rusty Brown. Photograph: Chris Ware

SL: A big theme of your work seems to be human connection (and its failure). Is that why you weave stories in and out of each other?

CW: Were all connected in ways we dont and cant ever completely understand. The chain of causality that links us from the subatomic level up through the sphere of thought and how that thought, though it apparently still arises from the interactions of particles, somehow also seems to have an effect on the physical world, is simply unfathomable in its complexity. I find this immense incomprehensibility greatly reassuring, especially its seeming meaninglessness.

SL: You (or Chris Ware) say in the book that the sense of weary dislocation we suffer comes from the thwarted desire to feel like a protagonist. How does that bear on your stuff?

CW: Like Building Stories, which was an attempt to write a book with no beginning or end, Rusty Brown is an attempt to write a book with no main character, despite its embarrassing-to-say title. But in another book with an embarrassing-to-say title, Moby-Dick is also not a protagonist but something else about which everyone else in it orbits; Rusty Brown is simply the loathed kid who happens to invisibly bind everyone in this random three-dimensional snapshot of a single day in 1975.

I very much believe that one of the most important things we can do is to try as hard as we can to imagine other peoples lives, with the ultimate aim of understanding and empathising with everyone we possibly can. We already do this unconsciously when we dream, or consciously when some jerk cuts us off on the highway, but fiction can act as an assisting rudder; books cant tell us how to live, but they can help us get better at imagining how to live.

SL: Can you talk a bit about the pull of childhood and period nostalgia in your work?

CW: There is a peculiar lingering redolence for most peoples memories of childhood because those experiences have partly accumulated outside of the structures of language as well as at a time when we least had to have a plan and everything was new. So we return to them again and again, little flashes here and there coming through as comforting sensations that remind us who we maybe really are. They are all part of a feeling that as adults we learn to repress, if not completely smother, though which can still resurface at moments of great anguish or confusion, which I think is simply the raw feeling of being alive.

Rusty Brown by Chris Ware Photograph: Chris Ware

SL: When did you start wanting to do what you do and did you find your distinctive voice/style quickly?

CW: Whatevers distinctive about my voice is only a combination of all the tricks, ideas and approaches Ive stolen from the writers, artists and cartoonists I admire, tempered by my own failings as a person and shoved through the keyhole of my own fairly unadventurous life. In college I took literature and art classes with the aim of figuring out what literary comics might look like, and before that I studied the history of comics and essentially learned to draw from copying them, and before that I drew picture stories about having breakfast with my mom and grandmother, so I guess Ive pretty much always known what I wanted to do with my life.

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