Acme Novelty Date Book Vol. 1: 1986-1995

By Chris Ware
208 pages, color
Published by Drawn & Quarterly and Oog & Blik

On the surface, releasing a sketchbook seems like a vain exercise. For many comic artists, it probably is; stripped of stories and sequence, you’re left with a series of drawings that need to not just look good, but look so good that people want to buy a book of it. Drawn & Quarterly certainly seems to understand exactly who in comics deserves this treatment, first with Seth’s Vernacular Drawings collection, and now (co-published with Dutch company Oog & Blik) Chris Ware’s The Acme Novelty Date Book.

There isn’t a “story” in the Date Book, needless to say, so if you’re expecting a new Jimmy Corrigan epic you’ll be sadly disappointed. What you do get, though, is the story of an artist growing more mature and comfortable with his own work over the course of a decade. Beginning with Ware’s time in Austin, Texas, his pages are full of his potato-head character wandering around the pages and a variety of sexually tilted jokes. It’s immature in many ways, but intriguing to watch a much younger Ware goof off with drawings that were really only intended for a small handful of eyes at best. It’s hard to keep from laughing, though, at some of the sillier pieces in this book. There’s something so wonderfully wrong about Ware mapping the faces of comic strip characters Nancy and Sluggo onto people’s genitalia about to have intercourse, for instance, or the continued exploits of potato-head guy.

At the same time, though, there are already glimmers of the artist that Ware will become in these early entries. His skill at rendering architecture is starting to appear, and with each page you can see a stronger grasp of his own talents and what he’s capable of. Then Ware moves to Chicago, and everything radically changes. Suddenly we’re getting watercolor paintings of his surroundings, more portraits of himself and others, and a rapid growth of an artist. That’s not to say that Ware’s perverse sense of humor has gone away entirely, but it’s much more under control, or at least less on display here in the Date Book. From comments on his own appearance in self-portraits to the occasional sexual joke, there’s a real sense of wit through the second half of the Date Book, and it put a real smile on my face.

The Acme Novelty Date Book is nothing short of astounding. An amazingly talented artist, it’s a real revelation to see these private creations that show the hidden side of Ware. Not many creators would be willing to put a decade’s worth of experimenting and tinkering about on display, but even fewer would end up representing themselves outstandingly. Hopefully we’ll get a second volume in less than ten years, because for both artists and people who merely appreciate art, this is a must-have book.

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