Saturday, February 04, 2006


Based on the traffic from my last post ("Drawing With Your Brains") I thought it was important to spell out my views on Chris Ware's artwork:

I enjoy Chris Ware's work, but the highbrow critics currently fawning over him drive me absolutely bats. Ware is being offered up as one of the few "Masters of American Comics" (the title of the exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art) and is feted at the Whitney Museum and in the pages of the New Yorker. Here is what the LA museum catalog says about him:

"I don't think anyone in any visual medium is making art that is more elevating."
"Ware is capable of creating beauty anywhere and always. Ware's work, in this way, is also quite like Bach's."
"There's glory there. We look at his work and we think of words like sumptuous and exacting and rhapsodic."
"His use of the page is unparalleled."

These people are morons.

50 years ago, there were a thousand anonymous paste up artists working for subsistence wages in commercial art studios across the country. They would sit at a drawing board with a T-square and a triangle, key lining ads for the backs of comic books and other lofty venues. Virtually all of them could draw as well as Chris Ware. Many could draw better. But because that was an era with different standards, they would have laughed at the suggestion that their drawings were good enough to hang in a museum. Today those artists have all disappeared, swept aside by technology and the invisible hand of Adam Smith. But Chris Ware is hailed for the same basic mechanical drawing skills.

I don’t begrudge any artist who has won the lottery in today's society, whether it’s Chris Ware or Thomas Kinkade. Ware has some admirable qualities. He is a decent writer and a diligent artist who has created his own interesting world. He is disciplined enough to create a substantial body of work, and the cumulative effect is showy. But if you deconstruct his accomplishment, you will find it easier to evaluate.

Ware’s work combines three disciplines: artist, graphic designer and writer. Taking them in order, it is hard to argue that his "art"-- the actual drawings inside the panels-- is anything better than competent. He draws in a monotone, with little of the variety, the sensitivity or wisdom of line, the composition, design, or the other qualities that have traditionally been the hallmark of great drawing. Ware would have made an excellent paste up artist, and that was an honorable profession, but anybody knowledgeable about sequential art or illustration should have no trouble identifying 500 superior artists.  (As an aside, Ware also hasn’t discovered that an artist who wants to depict a repetitive and bleak life cannot simply resort to repetitive and bleak drawings. Important lesson.)

Weak drawing skills are not fatal to a creative enterprise, so let's move on and talk about Ware's second (and more important) discipline, graphic design. Ware is more a designer than an artist. His designs can be interesting and sometimes even complex. However, the critic who wrote, “he really has no stylistic predecessors….No one can do what he does, so no one is even trying” is just plain ignorant.  He has obviously never heard of constructivism or the modernist school of commercial design, a mere 80 years ago. He must have missed the thousands of labels and posters and advertisements by underpaid and forgotten commercial artists who worked in the style Ware has now adopted.

That leaves the third component, his words. This is extremely important because the whole thrust of the "concept art" school is that so long as you are diagramming great thoughts or peerless words, it doesn't matter that you draw badly under traditional standards. My own view is that Ware’s words cannot compare with a good essay, play, or poem, so what is the advantage of reading literature adulterated by these pictures?  And that leads us to the bottom line:

Establishment art critics, always late to the party, think they are cool when they descend to the subculture of comix and sequential art. Yet, they can't seem to untangle the words from the pictures long enough to make an honest appraisal of either one. Literary critics tend to say "this person writes pretty well for an artist" while art critics tend to say "this person draws pretty well for a writer." But as a general rule one can't produce great works of art by combining merely good words with merely good pictures. Chris Ware's art is, IMO, merely okay. But that's not the worst thing in the world.

I hope this fleshes out my previous post on "Drawing With Your Brains." I have nothing against Chris Ware, who I'm sure is a fine fellow with a pure heart and deserves to make a good living as an artist.  Being canonized as a "Master of American Comics" unfortunately makes him a sitting duck for all of the silly statements and effusive praise from a tasteless group of taste makers.  However, I suppose that anyone who is repeatedly embraced as a genius has to be prepared to hear alternative opinions.

As I said my previous post, I sincerely welcome any examples, jpgs, quotations or explanations of Ware's work that help me understand where I missed the boat.


Anonymous said...

I won't defend him too vehemently, as I agree that there are many other great, unappreciated artist's in comics today.*
First question: have you read Jimmy Corrigan? Just wondering.
Secondly, I agree that the quotes in yellow are a bit overdone, but I think you are overreacting to the other extreme. He has drawn, designed and written some truly great, unique, and beautiful stuff. Although I will be quick to point out a lot of his stuff falls into the self-pitying, sexually awkward rut of a lot of other indie cartoonists (his "God" strip for McSweeney's, for instance, was pretty unfortunate, even though it was nominated for an Eisner.)
As for his place in the pantheon of comics/drawing/art/illustration (which is all merging nowadays), I think it's a comfortable fit for now. Keep in mind, the contemporaries rarely decide who will be remembered in 50+ years. And if his work is as hollow as you suggest, his light will fade.
As for the "Masters" book, Ware was probably a premature addition, but his originals were relatively easier to come by for the exhibit. And the David Eggers/McSweeney's/New Yorker/indie hipster crowd wants the validation that they are in on something on the ground floor.

*Paul Pope, Mike Allred, Seth Fisher (RIP), Ryan Sook, David S, Darwyn Cooke, and more.

David Apatoff said...

That's a fair comment, Adam-- perhaps more fair than my original post. I did read Jimmy Corrigan. I bought it with high hopes because the design of the book was so impressive. About halfway through I noticed I was speed reading because the drawings could be read like graphic symbols to advance the plot. You see the same kind of graphic symbols on LEGO toy boxes and on traffic signs in Sweden, where the audience will have a short attention span.

If you linger over a great drawing, no matter how simple, it often rewards you with subtlety and wisdom and even skill that thrills. I find no such nutritional content in Chris Ware's work. If you think I've missed something exceptional in Jimmy Corrigan, please point me to the relevant pages.

Keep in mind, Chris Ware could be a combination of William Shakespeare and Edwatd Albee for all I know. I am not passing judgment on his writing. I have seen him produce a nice turn of phrase or an ironic transition. I am just passing judgment on his drawing, and more particularly on the intellectual establishment critics who I think get weak in the knees for all the wrong reasons.

Thanks for writing. I did enjoy your response.

leifpeng said...

A great post, David. You present your point of view very clearly and logically in regards to how you feel about Chris Ware's work. Rather than try to "educate you" - as if such a thing were necessary! - I'd prefer to focus on your reference to the "morons":

The entire fine arts machine that dug a great divide between the artistic merit of form and function during the twentieth century now finds itself trying to jump on the sequential arts bus. The beautiful thing about lowbrow art - comics, graffiti, hiphop, what have you - is how unpretentious it is, working more from intuition than traditional schooling.

Thanks to a hundred years of indoctrination by the fine arts establishment, the poor little street artists are only too happy to leap into the black widow embrace of that awful school of elitism, thinking that legitimization and acceptance ( and money and success ) lies in that direction. One need not look much farther than Jean-Michel Basquiat to see what fate actually awaits them.

You were saying that you're not sure Ware deserves to be singled out. I expect that might depend on whether or not he has come to believe his own press. But setting aside the focus on a specific artist ( from my experience the fannish nature of comics doesn't allow for much perspective - and I'm saying that as a life-long comics fan - and fierce devotion to the form or a specific artist will almost always trump rational analysis ) what might be more enlightening is determining why so much good creative art ( be it illustration, concept art, storyboard art etc. ) is scorned because its primary purpose is something other than hanging on a gallery wall.

You began this series of intriguing posts with that premise - the Fuchs vs. Rauschenberg post - and I suspect that if we could answer that question it would put the Chris Wares and Art Spiegelmans in context.

David Apatoff said...

I think you have put your finger on the real question, Leif. The inherent artistic value of an object is so often obscured by snobbery or marketing schemes or aggressive ignorance (as in the case of the LA museum catalog). Everyone is afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. But I think we have a duty to speak up, not to attack the charlatans but to defend humble, talented artists who can't afford a press agent and don't know how to spell hermeneutics."

Chip Zdarsky said...

If Chris Ware were, say, an editorial or advertising illustrator, or just a designer, OR just a writer, he would have, if I had to guess, mid-level success. But, his illustration, design and writing so perfectly complement each other it creates something entirely new, and superior, to a lot of comic books (or graphic novels, or "sequential art," whatever the kids are calling it these days) that are being produced.
I REALLY enjoyed the hardcover ACME collection of his more one-off humorous work as I think he has a lot of comedic strength, but his latest ACME book was even better. Rusty Brown makes me laugh and cry at the same time and a lot of that is in his visuals.

Oh! And has anyone seen his sketchbook that came out a couple of years ago? There's some great work in there!

David Apatoff said...

I will have to take a look at his latest ACME book. So far, I find the vast majority of his work to be dull, barren and self-obsessed (which may be why it strikes such a responsive chord in our times). But if Ware has produced something new (and funny!)I will give it a chance.

That, by the way, is the one thing I do admire most about Ware-- the fact that he continues to work so hard. In my view, he takes a mountain of effort to come to a mole hill of an artistic product, but there is something to be said for being that dedicated to any cause.

Anonymous said...

You are completely on crack. I have never seen such a misguided discussion in my life. You sound like the sort of person who railed against John Singer Sargent (too cutesy! they said).

It drives me absolutely nuts. Ware's work is very aesthetically pleasing, yet you say it's bad. It is masterful. Is all art supposed to look completely unlike art of the past? Yet he is supposed to draw like Leonardo DaVinci? If I wanted to draw should I give up because I can't draw as well as Lucian Freud?

You talk about how content rules over aethetisicm when actually the art world is horrifically driven by vacant aetheticisms and absurdity... where is the content? Gosh I wish there was some.

David Apatoff said...

Hmmmm... Anonymous, I'm not sure whether your point is that I believe Ware's work should look more like historical art, or that it looks too much like historical art. I don't think there's any one formula for art. Sometimes content governs form, sometimes not.

For what it's worth, I love Sargent. I also love conceptual art from Duchamp to Beuys, I love Dubuffet's art brut, outsider art (Henry Darger), abstract art from Gottlieb to Frankenthaler; I like Basquiat's work and Warhol's urine paintings; I love Egyptian tomb paintings and Cromagnon cave art. So I like to think I am open to excellence in many forms.

Remember, I wrote that I do enjoy Ware's work. It's just that when it comes to Ware's drawing, I don't see that excellence. I think you could pretty much train a chimpanzee to draw his repetitive squares and circles. If you can point me to a single Ware drawing that you believe qualifies as "masterful," I promise to seek it out and study it with an open mind. Ware gets closer to excellence with his writing, but I think there is more erudition in Leonard Starr's comic strip about an ice cream sundae (see my February 7 posting on Married Life)than in a typical page of Jimmy Corrigan.

I didn't start out to beat up on poor Chris ware, but rather to shine a light on the standards of pretentious critics who were hyperventilating over him. It seems to me that they are smitten by the idea of Ware's psychological catharsis and bleak alienation being packaged in a simplistic comic book format. I admit the comic book format adds some freshness, but couldn't you get the same message in undiluted form by reading Kafka or Dostoevsky?

Todd Fletcher said...

I enjoy Ware mainly for his ability as designer, but it is mostly a technical admiration; I too find his work barren and in the end really annoying with it's self-pity. Charles Burns is far better on all accounts in my opinion.

Shane White said...

It's my belief that Chris, after seeing his "Hate Book" (sketches from the past ten years) has found an artistic style that speaks to his greater strengths as a designer and writer.

The barren sterile quality I also believe adds strength to his empty dispirited stories. In that genre he is doing some wonderful work.

I would go so far as to say he got lucky that all these things work so well in his favor.

Has he changed the face of comics? Well he's certainly added a new face, a recognizable one of his own machination.

Furthermore, I'd bet he doesn't care what people are saying about his work, especially the high-falutin' art circle critics who spell it out for the trendy masses.

Bottom line, no he's not a master yet. He's an innovator at best and a unique voice of the medium. This cannot be denied. I believe he plays to the "apathetic crowd" that makes up a lot of our "whatever" culture. He's come like other artists in the past at the right time and place for his work.

What's old is new and kitschy, and sells like hell to the generations who remember it briefly, fondly, or "whatever".


Anonymous said...

It can be confusing following his panels, so he often has to resort to arrows. This is a huge failing in a supossed comic artist.

The critics who praise him do so because they confuse his sour, humourless stories with seriousness, and they mistakenly think seriousness equals art.

David Apatoff said...

Skinshark, I will make a point of tracking down the "Hate Book" you mention. If Ware's sketches betray any humanity they would be a welcome relief from the vapid robot style of his finished work. I do agree with you 100% that Ware has, through hard work and persistence, created a distinctive presence in the comic world. In my view, Ware's single most impressive attribute is his work ethic.

Anonymous said...

David Wrote:
didn't start out to beat up on poor Chris ware, but rather to shine a light on the standards of pretentious critics who were hyperventilating over him.

That is the core of the problem, Dave, well put. I've been following Ware since the mid 90's, when his strips were running in a free Chicago weekly called New City. I've always loved his work, but when I hear critics treating him like the second coming it drives me apesh*t. Within the comics community he is very well regarded and respected, but there is considerable annoyance whenever he gets referred to as the king of the graphic novel or the inventor of an entirely new artform or the greatest comics artist living or dead. he has done a brilliant job of resurrecting and breathing new life into a antique style of illustration, and his humor is often brilliantly bitter and incisive. But his narrative structure is weak and his plots often drag. Visually, they are great graphic books, but there are far better graphic novels out there, many of them written a long time before Ware even hit the scene.

Anonymous said...

Todd Fletcher said...
I enjoy Ware mainly for his ability as designer, but it is mostly a technical admiration; I too find his work barren and in the end really annoying with it's self-pity.

If you ever see him speak live, Todd, you'll understand where the self-pity comes from. As a friend put it to me, "Chris Ware is violently humble", and its really the only way to describe it. He allows no compliment to go undenied and no accolade to go unrejected, and insists on debasing himself, even as the world carries him on its shoulders.

Anonymous said...

One of the things that strikes me about this conversation is the seperation of Ware's art from his writing and design...I've been an avid comic fan for more years than I care to remember and have followed and purchasaed Ware's work pretty religously. You could say I'm a fan. And the reason his work is, in my opnion, great, is the way these elements work together. Someone above mentioned it when they said the bleakness of his drawings matched the bleakness of his story...which I agree with. The two go hand in hand to create a bigger picture, one that is often melancholy.

And his art is so much a part of him...he is a very self-effacing and sad seaming person...he is amazed at his popularity and often ridicules himself in his own work. That again is part of the whole picture.

I agree that he is not a master artist but the combination of the way he ties things together does add up to something greater than the parts.

Thanks for the interesting thoughts and this whole conversation!

Anonymous said...

When I got a link to a piece on why Chris Ware is mediocre and overrated I immediatly assumed it would be about how horribly mediocre his writing is.

Jimmy Corrigan? 500 pages of people looking at each other awkwardly and coughing.

I think his art style is actually pretty nice. His design sense is EXCELLENT. But his writing is totally unnoteworthy. He would never , ever survive as a prose writer.

Ware only gets any attention becuase... well... frankly most comic writers are shitty. You only have to be decent as a writer to look like a genius in the comic world.

Anonymous said...

sorry, David, but you have no idea what you're talking about. People who appreciate fine art sometimes get to like someone with a comic style, but their appreciation has nothing to do with what makes for "great comics."

Go back to reading batman; you're totally out of your depth in trying to understand why Ware is a great artist (if indeed he is - I remain agnostic about that), qua fine art.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, you could be right that I don't know what I'm talking about-- it wouldn't be the first time-- but I'm on pretty firm ground rejecting the distinction between comic art and what you call "fine art." I have been a syndicated cartoonist and a professional illustrator but I am also the chairman of a multimillion dollar "fine art" institutional collection, where I am responsible for passing judgment on art by Richard Serra, Joseph Beuys, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and other "fine artists" on a regular basis. Professionally speaking, I wouldn't give a hill of beans for the difference.

I don't measure a rose by the same standard I apply to a tulip or a daffodil. You have to be able to assess whether each one is successful when judged by their own standards. But that doesn't mean you can't identify and exclude the weeds.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion on an artist I greatly admire (and, I should admit, know personally.) Certainly, David you have every right to dislike his work -- or like it moderately -- or anything. And, to get a little cranky about his huge critical response.

Two points: first, I'm a writer. I speak to his writing. His writing is brilliant. Not flashy, not punchy, not even particularly memorable, word to word. But that's not what he's doing. He's creating character, voices, actions... check out the latest installment of the Story of the One Legged Girl (my title; she has no name) in The Chicago Reader. A moving story, brilliantly told. Her voice is perfectly captured... her narration isn't funny, or gnomic, or even particularly memorable... because that's not how she would talk. It is, however, as much of a leap of creative imagination and skill as anything Frank Miller or Brian Michael Bendis or anyone in the field right now could come up with. In fact, simply based on his refusal to indulge his own wit, to subsume himself into the character, I think Chris surpasses those writers.

So there.



kewlio said...

i havent even read the post but i totally agree hahah

Anonymous said...

I think your comments make sense coming from an illustrator's point of view, but as you mention yourself, Ware's work straddles the territory between multiple disciplines. Judging his work on the the merits of the three disciplines in complete separation from each other ignores his knack for integrating these very different processes into a cohesive whole. Your last paragraph betrays this sentiment, suggesting perhaps that art critics should separate the words and pictures and judge them on their own. But why would you do that when they are part of a singular work, where each part relies on the other? (McCloud addresses this extensively in Understanding Comics). You might as well critique a movie's script by only listening to the finished audio.

David Apatoff said...

Peter (Anonymous), thanks for the interesting comment. I think it is a tribute to Chris Ware that he provokes this kind of thoughtful discussion from so many interested people.

I find Chris Ware's writing sad and sometimes even poignant but, like many of the responders above, I don't find his writing brilliant. In fact, I often find myself speed reading his work in frustration because he writes with the timing of a slow dripping faucet.

Since you know Ware personally, I have a question for you. I think the response to this posting has helped me to understand Ware's contribution. I now think he is closer to what is called an "outsider" or "visionary" artist. These are for the most part highly eccentric, isolated types who write agonizingly painful tracts, often delineated with technically precise, laborious artwork and lettering. Their words or pictures often don't compare easily with traditional writing or art, but the real beauty of their work lies in their sincerity and the purity of their pain, laid out for everyone to see. Do you think I'm way off base here? Ware's work seems very similar to that of outsider artists Paul Laffoley, John Day, Stephen Powers and L.C. Spooner.

alpha said...

You are what we in the real world like to refer to as a "hater". Your bitter invective is born from a knee-jerk reaction to the way the "establishment" has responded to Mr.Ware's work. It's one thing when the elitist critics elevate mediocre talents to superstar status, but to sit there and spit on Ware's marvelous ouvre from your electronic throne is too much!
I find it peculiar that of all the fine examples of Ware's work you could have posted, you chose the most static panels to prove your weak opinions.Your academic innocence is made painfully aware when you bitch and moan about his drawing skills, as if drawing were merely measured by anatomical accuracy or whatever it is you chose to be the standard for good drawing. The point here is that you haven't explained why he can't draw, nor do you mention who these other unsung illustrators are who supposedly draw circles around Ware.What yardsticks are you using to measure talent?
I truly respect and admire Chris Ware. His vision for the medium is fresh and groundbraking, inspiring further innovations in sequential art. This you obviously have no grasp of. Nor do you have any idea of what art is, otherwise you would give credit where it is due instead of taking your frustrations out on someone of unquestionable merit. It's funny, but your hackneyed attack on Ware's work truly reflects on your limited view of what this artform could be. You can't appreciate the idea that Ware has synthesized a visual history of illustration and advertising into a beautiful language of his own; his sense of line and color is unique, his integration of lettering and design is superb, his mastery of indirect communication through the disruption of linear narrative is exciting...don't hate,player, appreciate!
What you are, sir, is that peculiar breed of philistine who seems to have no problem with an artist as long as they remain unheralded and stuck underground somewhere. No, it is bad when talent receives accolades from critics and fans alike because the masses are never right. This is the very defintion of elitism...
A couple of suggestions for you Dave; grow up & wise up.And if you are going to make a case for your argument, make sure you knock that chip off your shoulder before you do so.

Seth T. Hahne said...

How do you deal with all the weird comments (almost exclusively anonymous) like this last one?

I think you have valuable points. I really liked Jimmy Corrigan. It remains among my favourite comic stories; I would say it sits in my Top 50 or so. I think you are right that there is nothing especially spectacular in the art Ware uses to forward these particular kinds of stories. I also think that others are right in pointing out that Ware's technique really does serve the brand of storytelling he employs. And it's a brand that isn't for everyone.

Personally, though I loved the experience of pursuing the multiple tragedies Ware illuminates in desaturated fashion in Jimmy corrigan, I have had a hard time getting myself to likewise enjoy many of his other works. I think I may have a personal barrenness-quotient past which I just cannot abide.

One thing: I think without experiencing his work outside this particular sense particular of storytelling - this sense of void, of emotional wasteland - it is difficult to remark on his talent as an artist.

Certainly, the style he employs does not require one to be the Greatest Living Artist. And certainly, his combination of such a minimalized technique with his cold design sense and his intentionally sparse dialogue leads to a thing that is greater than its parts or their sum. I'm not sure exactly how we should categorize Ware (evidently Watchmen is still praised, so I'm sure Ware will long be regarded as one of the pantheon of comics lords as well), but I think that in the end, you are correct in castigating critics' penchant for hyperbole.

Anonymous said...

I think it's this:

Chris Ware, in his past output, has shown a variety of styles, both artistically and in narrative. He's clearly an incredibly taleneted artist.

However. His current work, that has made him so famous, he has specifically chosen this style, this narrative device and this approach. It's an artistic choice, not a necessity.

His curret work resembles on the surface instruction manuals. The designs on the emergency card in airplanes. Intended to be plain, simple, and lacking in emotion. Yet he uses this expressionless style to portray some of the most personal scenes in human life. He then takes the common arrow motif from manuals and uses that to reveal many many layers behind the surface we would otherwise see. It's intended to touch the reader in a way that other comics and books do not.

That's why it won Guardian First Book Award against stiff competition, to a jury previously unfamiliar with his work.

Spencer Carnage said...

There was a bit in understanding comics that Scott McCloud went on and on about how making the art more simplistic made it easier for more people identify with it, citing examples of old disney cartoons, which I don't have in front of me so i can't reference as it well as others could. He showed a picture of the front of the car as well as an electrical socket and stated that you couldn't help but associate a human face with both illustrations. This made the works of art and illustration that utilized this technique that much more accessible.

You can put Chris Ware's illustrations up against the likes of Eisner, the Romitas, Kirby, Jim Lee, Frank Miller, and even Rob Liefeld, and say yes....they do a better job of drawing a realistic face, which can be used to argue that there is more talent in that single panel of Spider-man kicking Dr. Octopus in the face as opposed to a single panel of Ware's characters being melancholy, upset, sad, etc, etc. This is true, however Chris Ware's work makes it much easier for people to associate with it, especially when you have the history of the artistic style that Ware uses to back up his work. People have seen it before, but not quite like this. Just like Led Zeppelin. They just took the blues and played them a little faster, but damn, did it sound and feel so damn good and new.

Ware's work takes this illustration style that you cite from so many years ago and remixes it in a way that many fans of sequential art aren't quite used to. People that aren't fans of the sequential art are not only picking up on the charisma of Ware's simplistic nature of his artwork and writing, but the charisma of sequential art itself.

And that might be Chris Ware's biggest success yet.

David Apatoff said...

Alpha-- I am not certain, but I get the impression you don't agree with all of my positions. That's OK, Chris Ware jihadists are welcome here too. There is room for everyone. I just hope you will keep an open mind about the contrary views voiced in some of the other responses.

You may also find answers to some of your points in my preceding post ("Drawing With Your Brains.")

jimrugg said...

Please don't interpret this post as snarky or sarcastic. But I think your critique of Ware's work misses an important point. Ware is a cartoonist. Comics are a language or medium unto itself and should be considered that way, including various components that make it successful or not so successful. It's not as simple as dissecting the elements of a drawn page and analyzing those elements individually.

You can find many examples of his drawing style in the Acme Datebook ( ) if you're interested in evaluating his drawing ability.

Without getting into too lengthy of a rebuttal, I think your analysis misses the major reason for Ware's current popularity. He has applied a sophisticated approach to the mechanics and form of traditional comics storytelling. His subdued drawing style for these comics is a very conscious decision on his part, a decision that he spent years working towards. To ignore this element in a critique of his work is to essentially ignore his work altogether.

Again, this isn't meant to be an attack on your post. I just think it might be more relevant to consider his work in terms of cartooning and not the individual elements that contribute to cartooning.

I would be curious to see you evaluate some of the other cartoonists from the Masters of American Comics show.

Anonymous said...

I could not agree with David any more. I've read Chris' stuff, including Jimmy Corrigan, the McSweeney's stuff, Rusty Brown, the strip currently in the NYT. blah blah blah. I hate it. It leaves me utterly cold, and feels almost devoid of any emotional content. I know that this is not a universal opinion, though. I went to the Masters show before I left LA, and I could go on for pages about missed opportunities there, but Ware's inclusion strikes me as the most egregious of all.

Formalism for formalism's sake.

And don't ask me why I keep reading his stuff. Half the time I feel like a rubbernecker at a fatal accident. I keep waiting for something to happen, or to just "get it." Maybe I'm just a masochist. I do think there's a lot of validity to the "oooh, the critics darling" argument. The highbrows are afraid of the very word "Comics." I get tired of hearing them, and celebs, talk about their new-found love for "graphic novels." Semantical BS.

I spit on them all.

Metaphorically, of course.

At least I didn't pay for it, withthe exception of McSweeney's.


Anonymous said...

To the main poster: apologies, I was directed here by Tom Spurgeon's

I agree with those who insist that you appear to be slightly missing the mark with Ware.

First of all, let me back up a moment. If Chris Ware isn't a master (not necessarily THE master) of modern comics, who in the world is? Because I really need to know of the artists who have done more to advance the craft and the art of comics individually moreso than Ware has. Charles Burns, you mentioned, but I cannot judge him the same as Ware because his body of work is substantially less influential than Ware's, and also less formally innovative, even if it is more emotionally exciting.

Let me move on to say that Chris Ware, as a person has indicated above, is a cartoonist in every way. His work is not a combination of elements (writing+drawing+designing), but rather a single, focused format. Ware himself has discussed that he doesn't write his comics in separate prose drafts, but rather he works directly in comics--directly in images. Essentially, Ware speaks in comics. He doesn't translate a script into illustrations, his work is this whole separate kind of thing.

The biggest resistance to Ware's work that I'm picking up from people is the "writing" (if we are to divorce the body of comics into parts). I can see how Ware's stories are off-putting, but is that a fair way to judge? I don't like flowers, therefore, paintings of flowers are all bunk? I've noticed a growing resistance toward certain kinds of stories in comics. Many readers have grown more and more vocal that they do not like to hear overly "sad" stories or things that are "too depressing." To me, the thing that matters is whether the storyteller is doing a good job of telling the story. Chris Ware's worldview (ie, author's theme) tends to be bleak and almost hopeless, but as many have noted, Ware really does have that aspect to his personality. They always say "write what you know," and Ware writes what he knows--well. The most important thing is: does the work ring true, and is the story told expertly? Yes and yes, I contend.

And to restate: If Ware is not one of the modern masters of comics, then who the heck is? I hate to put it on the critics in that way, because it's kind of unfair, but it does become a "show and prove" thing. I always seek the best comics, and if Ware isn't the top of the mountain, I'd like to at least see who is.

Signed, sincerely,


David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Jimrugg and Ayo. I welcome your thoughts. I always try to go back and reconsider when reasonable people tell me I am overlooking something of value.

You both suggest that Chris Ware can't be fairly evaluated when he is divided up into subcategories, such as words and pictures. As I wrote earlier, I would be more willing to evaluate Chris Ware's work as a whole if his fans didn't use that as a way of avoiding careful analysis of his work. If you criticize Ware's drawing, fans try to distract you by pointing to his writing. If you criticize something specific about his writing they change the subject to his drawing. It's a very slippery way to evaluate any art form.

In truth, I see nothing seamless or even homogeneous about Ware's component parts. To the contrary, the whole secret of his success seems to be that he uses simplistic flat drawings of the type you would find in an industrial instruction manual to convey bleak and desolate stories of human pathos. It's really the incongruity of combining very different types of drawing and writing that gives his work its novelty and charm.

There are plenty of great artists who have found ways to convey bleakness and desolation with a line (check out Kaethe Kollwitz, George Grosz, Edward Hopper). My guess is that Ware does not try to compete in this way because he simply lacks the ability. He has to content himself with diagramming his stories with robot figures. In addition, there are plenty of great writers who have found ways to convey bleakness and desolation with words (check out Kafka, Dosteoevsky, Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot). My guess is that Ware does not try to compete in this way because he once again lacks the ability. This doesn't mean that Ware is a bad artist or a bad guy, but it does mean that some of his cheerleaders should give it a rest. Or at least read a book from time to time.

Ayo, if your response is that Ware is only a master of "modern comics" and it is unfair to compare him to more serious art forms, that's where I get off the trolley. I judge the comic artists and illustrators I like by the same standards I apply to drawings I see in museums, and measured by those standards they are pretty darn good. Ware, for all his sincerity and obvious psychological pain, does not seem to be in the same league.

leifpeng said...

At the risk of trying to jump back on the trolley ( and getting caught under the wheels ) I have to say how astonished I am at the response you got from posting this Chris Ware piece, David!

I haven't scrolled down in a while so I missed all the hubbub that came after the initial exchange but - my gosh - it only goes to prove my point from earlier:

Comic fans cannot accept critism of the creators they love.

I once got ridden out on a rail on a certain comic artist's discussion group for trying to start a thread that didn't just involve praise, but might actually have been a discussion.

One person actually had the audacity to say to me, "Sometimes too much analysis is not a good thing".

Unfortunately all of these Chris Ware Jihadists (I love that) completely missed the point. Too bad your original thoughts about the false construct of art elitism never really got addressed.

alpha said...

First off,contrary to Leif's assertion, I am not a comics fan. I find most of the garbage in print today boring and irrelevant.So take your fanboy crap and stick it next to the feather on your cap.Second, the jihadist quip is indicative of a knee-jerk reaction to any opposition to your imperial view on the topic. Clever, I'll give you that; maybe you want to sound the orange alert anytime you're hard-pressed to answer for yourself. I noticed you didn't have much of a response to my post...
Now, to clarify my position on all this; what rubs me the wrong way about all this is your transparent prejudice towards Mr. Ware and his work. If you were to make the case that your OPINION is subjective, and that your attitude towards his work is a matter of personal taste, then I'd back off of the vitriol and ease up on you.But you insist on giving your ideology this pompous air of authority. Who died and made you boss?
See folks, Dave's post was not written in the interest of creating discussion,but in the interest of defending his personal preferences, whatever they may be. Afterall, it's not enough that he can't draw, but he's not as good a writer as Dosteoevski! No, let's not examine his work as a whole, let's nitpick every facet of what he does to prove that taken individually he is not that good at any of the components that make up his work. If this is your yardstick, then who are these unsung geniuses who draw like Hopper & write like Kafka?
The truth is you don't know what you're talking about.This is what bothers me.Underlying all your silly comments is the fact that you can't stand that Mr. Ware is getting a little shine for what he does.His cheerleaders cheer ( that's what people do when they like something) and this seems to drive you crazy. Why? Are they not cheering you enough? Is Mr.Ware all hype, as you are trying to imply?
Now, all your name dropping might make you sound somewhat cultured, but it also shows your total lack of sophistication in these matters. I mean, do you hold the Rolling Stones up to the same standards as you would Bach, would you compare Picasso to Saul Steinberg? Keeping an open mind is important,Dave. I suggest you find the key to your convoluted intellect and open it, that it may release the bitterness informing your pseudo-authority.Chris Ware is not as good as some might think because YOU are the "chairman" of a multi-million dollar art collection( whatever that means). Give us a break,man!
The jig is up,Dave.Your supposed disapproval over the "hypervention" by the critics is pathetic.Congratulations,Dave. You're the one 'critic' in the fold not doing backflips for Mr.Ware.You're such a rebel...

alpha said...

Hey,Leif,why not address the false construct of Dave's elitism.You missed that point,eh buddy?

Anonymous said...

An interesting discussion. It's always good to hear a dissenting opinion, especially when it's an informed opinion. I've no technical knowledge of art or it's history, so I can't speak at all when it comes to either of those areas. But as a person I knew once said, I know what I like. And while I enjoyed and appreciated Jimmy Corrigan as a stand-alone work, I find Ware's other works to be just more of the same - depressing, bleak and repetitive. Yes, the design and colors are aesthetically pleasing, but the depressing, pathetic characters get old. It would be great if Ware decided to find a new kind of story to tell as well as a way to tell it. To me, that's part of what makes a creator truly great.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your posts on Mr. Ware, Mr. Apatoff. I used to be an indie comic book obsessive, one of these folks who proudly proclaimed that, in defiance of popular opinion, comics are just as valid an artform as any other. In theory, that's arguably the case, but in practice the field is pathetically thin in sustenance for a non-depressive adult mind. What purpose could reading Chris Ware any further serve for me, now that I've invested enough time into his work to detect that the man doesn't really have much to say about the world that could inspire or amaze me. Instead, he only speaks to the darker side of my personality, the side that would prefer to just give up life and wallow in the pinprick pains of past social defeats in my life, declaring "what's the use?"

By the way, why does Ware concentrate his satirical skills on parodies of olde-tyme advertisements, antique newspapers, Grit ads, Charles Atlas ads, practical joke advertisements, etc., when there are a myriad of current targets in our world which could use some skillfully wielded satirical abuse? All these targets of his satirical wit are dead and could give a rat's ass that he's poking fun at their stilted come-ons. Wake up, Mr. Ware, and gather some testicular fortitude to actually take on some cultural targets who haven't been dead for fifty to a hundred years, you blubbering sad sack twit.

leifpeng said...

Ugh... this is exactly the kind of vitriolic bile that turned me off comic "discussion" groups in the first place.

Calm down, Alpha; believe it or not we're all on the same side and David deserves better for having patiently and good-naturedly entertained all the nasty name-calling Chris Ware zombies who wrong-headedly flocked here to bring his head on a platter to the foot of King Ware's throne.

Go back and read David's original post again. It was never about Chris Ware in the first place. David was trying to point out that there are too many people in the world who bestow the term "genius" on every moderately talented recent arrival to the party.

BTW, just my opinion but I think a person's words carry a lot more weight when they have the courage to reveal their identity, "Alpha".

Anonymous said...


David: "Ayo, if your response is that Ware is only a master of "modern comics" and it is unfair to compare him to more serious art forms, that's where I get off the trolley."

Ayo: No, I did not say that. I consider Ware to be one of the very top masters of modern comics, but not "only" a master of modern comics. I'm just trying to keep it specific. I would contend that Chris Ware's work could stand beside the best of the classic cartoonists, McCay, Herriman, Segar, Kelly, Sterret and so on. Formal innovation alone places him next to the greats, in my opinion.

David: "You both suggest that Chris Ware can't be fairly evaluated when he is divided up into subcategories, such as words and pictures. As I wrote earlier, I would be more willing to evaluate Chris Ware's work as a whole if his fans didn't use that as a way of avoiding careful analysis of his work. If you criticize Ware's drawing, fans try to distract you by pointing to his writing. If you criticize something specific about his writing they change the subject to his drawing."

Ayo: I don't know about "changing the subject," but I believe that what you're observing is a movement toward viewing comics as a "wholeness." For example, one can say that Ware draws staticy pictures. But that doesn't address the whole. It's not a matter of trying to change the subject, but rather to try to call attention to the whole of the form.

David Apatoff said...

Ayo, thanks for following up. I promise that I did not start this process because I enjoy criticizing Chris Ware. I have nothing against him personally. What keeps dragging me back to this debate is when people say that Chris Ware's work is in the same category (or even in the same galaxy)as McCay or Herriman. That's where I'm afraid you and I part company.

I suppose only time will tell. In the meantime, I keep responding to such comments not in order to insult Ware, but to defend Herriman; to affirm that quality has meaning, that there are genuine distinctions between wheat and chaff, and to stand up for the artists that I think have worked and suffered to demonstrate real quality, vision and talent.

How about if we agree to meet back here in 25 years and see how the passage of time has treated Ware?

alpha said...

OK,OK...just having some fun guys! Seriously, I like Chris Ware, but this is more about putting some heat on the debate...i thought we were all having fun!
It's all good Dave.Hey Leif, way to fight back there!
But Dave, if this is really all in defense of Herriman, why not talk about how great he is? Why shit on Chris Ware to make the point? Or why not focus on the critical elitism of the "art world" as a subject in itself ?
Surely you could have done that without going to town on Ware? Right?...

alpha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
alpha said...

wait a minute...Dave, I just navigated the rest of your blog...I realize the problem here--you're an academic.
I get your agenda now.
I happen to love some of the work you praise on your blog. No wonder you can't dig Ware! You're a might say bad.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that you have made the claim that Ware is lacking in drawing ability, yet you have not viewed the entirety of his published output. Ware's sketchbooks, some of which are reprinted in the easily acquired "Acme Novelty Datebook", indicate to me that he is a beautifully intuitive, and broadly talented fine artist.

He has stated that the style he uses to draw his comics is a matter of choice -- he wants to portray the distilled idea of an object, not a photoreal representation.

Furthermore, I think the critical vocabulary you've used in assessing his comics is itself lacking. It's unfair and disingenous to try and fracture his work into static panels, or to extricate the words from the pictures and evaluate the components. His own expressed intent is to create something akin to music or poetry with his work, with the passage of time an essential aspect of the whole. The placement, size and calligraphy of words on a page, or the arrangement and dimensions of panels, are to contribute to an intended effect. Whether you think he effectively conveys that intent is certainly up for debate, but you would have to consider these elements to honestly evaluate his work.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks for your response, Steve. You are right, anyone who criticizes an artist's work has an obligation to be thorough. I've already seen a lot of Ware's work so I think I know what the conclusion will be, but I will definitely follow up on the helpful suggestions I've received through this process.

I understand that Ware would prefer his work to be analyzed as one seamless, integrated whole and his feelings are entitled to some deference. Unfortunately no artist gets to dictate how their work is perceived or analyzed. For reasons I have explained above, the notion that "you can't judge any part of my work unless you simultaneously deal with every other part of my work" frustrates any kind of meaningful critical response. It effectively prevents the reader from getting a toe hold or finger hold on Ware's work. Therefore, after some consideration, I rejected it.

Anonymous said...

Pretty much every cartoonist that gets active lip service from Fantagraphics and TCJ isn't worth the attention. Anything by Matt Howarth absolutely pisses all over Ware's entire body of work, and the only thing they keep in print by Howarth is a GN pubished under their porno line.

Hell, exerpts from Mark Crilley's
sketchbook piss all over Ware's stuff.

stef lenk said...

stumbled upon this via bookNinja and i have to say, people should check out the colour insert run in Brick Literary Journal (published out of Toronto, Ontario) issue 75. it's bits from Chris Ware's sketchbooks. from the second volume of the Acme Novelty Datebook, no doubt not new to anyone on this forum, but Definitely evidence that the man can draw. I'm in agreement that people tend to revere alot of comic artists without taking the time to evaluate whether they have skill, that is, being caught up in the novelty and the artist as an icon, but HOW amazing is it to stumble upon one that has Such skill as a representationalist draughtsman and chooses a more illustrative/cartooney style nonetheless.
anyhow. i imagine this debate has long since moved on, but thought i'd drop a line nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

vinícius castro said...

the thing is, I believe there is quite a difference between illustration and comic drawing, ware is able to do 'better' than this, but it doesn't flow as well as the simple drawings he does use.
he's nos such an terrific writer, (it wouldn't hold out without the drawings) but he's probably the best one yet trying to do, err, 'serious' comic books. There may be a whole bunch of people who drew better and had a better sense of comic style and timing, but Chris Ware is the first one who can also write (his shorter stuff is mostly self-indulgent and embarassing, but still). On how chris ware is overrated, however, you are dead on.

Anonymous said...

ayo: "If Ware is not one of the modern masters of comics, then who the heck is?"

uhhh . . . craig thompson, jason lutes, charles burns, dan clowes. i'm astounded that in a thread this long, no-one has posted anything of substance about any of these other creators - all of whom have ambitions easily equal to ware's.

there is a huge cultural politics issue at the heart of this debate about ware's quality, which a few people above have already mentioned. it's condensed very neatly in a recent (late 05) new yorker survey of the current comics scene by their art critic peter schjeldahl, who praises ware as the (ahem) acme of the medium, and dismisses or ignores many other equally praise-worthy creators.

it was so cringe-worthy - so uninformed - that i've actually stopped reading his criticism since; if he's that off about comics, what else is he wrong about? schjeldahl has the same problem that everyone else who gets on the bandwagon right now has: no context. they've been ignoring comics for years, but just heard (at design observer, perhaps? in a review of the mcsweeney's comics issue from a palatable source?) that ware is the shit. the key to all this is that it doesn't matter if schjeldahl, or anyone else, leaves out years of context, because his readership doesn't have it either; who in god's name would seriously follow comics?

david, i've been reading and re-reading your original post for a while now; i think you approached the topic very thoughtfully. i also agree with a number of other posts above that you are perhaps unfairly treating ware's drawing in isolation from the other elements that together make up his work.

but to those who think ware is a good writer, or that his writing is an "organic" part of his work and can't be looked at in isolation either: read more. because ware is not a strong writer, and there are many contemporary examples of creators who integrate superior writing into their work. jason lutes' berlin to me runs circles around jimmy corrigan.

David Apatoff said...

Straight from the horse's mouth: Chris Ware's art was displayed in Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, Ware's "wall text" for the exhibition concedes, "as individual drawings [the pieces are] pretty bad." I'm sorry if this fact undercuts Ware's fans, but Ware's recognition of his weakness raises him in my esteem. The issue is resolved. Now the only question is whether bad drawing can be salvaged by a story or a lay out. For Ware at least, I fear the answer is no.

Leif Jones said...

I think you are mistaking the sequential storytelling of comics with illustration. Kind of like confusing writing with typography. If the focus of your blog is ILLUSTRATION ART, perhaps you should stick to that and not try to include Chris Ware in a category he does not belong.

David Apatoff said...

Leif, it's interesting that Chris Ware's fans claim that he transcends categories, at the same time protesting that his critics should confine themselves to a narrow category and "stick to that."

I've been told that writers can't judge Ware's work because he's primarily an artist. Artists can't judge his work because he's primarily a writer. In fact, nobody can judge Ware's work because he has invented a new art form.

I have to disagree with your distinction. For better or worse, I've covered the waterfront-- I've been a nationally syndicated cartoonist, a professional illustrator,a published author and a graphic designer. In my experience, creators who claim "you can't judge my work because you're on that side of the line rather than this side of the line" are simply trying to elude accountability.

For me, illustration art is any art that conveys a story or message (as opposed to non-referential art for art's sake). That makes Chris Ware fair game.

Bob Flynn said...

I can appreciate your criticism, but you might consider checking out this interview Ware did for a P.O.V. documentary on Tin Tin. To understand an artist you should go right to the source. Ware is undeniably a leader of his generation of comic artists. He is an authority on the medium, and has undoubtedly put a lot of time and thought into his approach. He's also as humble as artists come, so its no fault of his own the people are holding him in such esteem. Fine art or not, his dedication to the form is almost unparalelled. And he will be remembered for that.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Bob. I agree with you about Ware's dedication to the form, as I've tried to explain before. I also read the Chris Ware interview you linked, and I agree with most of it. Ware describes his drawings as follows:

"I realize that this is all a rather over-thought, dogmatic and somewhat limiting way of approaching comics, especially if one tries to look at my strips as "good" drawings, because they're not, but it's also allowed me to finally arrive at a point where I'm able to write with pictures without worrying about how I'm drawing something, instead permitting me to concentrate on how the characters "feel."

I think that's right. I am unapologetically looking for "good" drawings (not in any particular style). Chris Ware and I both agree that his drawings are not good in that sense. That's my main point, and that's what many of my angry readers who call his drawings "masterful" object to.

Ware says he uses this style to "write with pictures" without worrying about the drawing. My own view is that if you select a visual medium, you should worry a little more about how the result looks, but that is a lesser point.

Anonymous said...

Again, you're grossly unfair when you don't like something.

"I was speed reading because the drawings could be read like graphic symbols to advance the plot" is exactly the point of what Chris Ware is doing, and after reading interviews, what he believes comics are supposed to do.

Again, read Understanding Comics. And look at Ware's Sketch Book. He can draw.

And everyone that adam suggested are master craftsmen, and make wonderful drawings, but they make horrible comics. Comics is a seperate medium - a combination of design, drawing, storytelling, writing, and something other. Judging Ware on his drawing abilities alone is akin to complaining that a passage from a novel doesn't read like a sonnet.

Lastly, the art world has accepted Ware and Spegelman because so many artists have claimed them as an influence. If the art world was the same at the turn of the century, Herriman and McCay would have been included, but their other luminaries would not have.

Anonymous said...

I just read all of the comments (it's been a VERY slow day at work and I just discovered your blog) and have a few gripes:

You keep mentioning that you're simply talking about the drawings, but people consistantly point out that A) judging from his other work, and his sketch book, Ware can draw, B) the style in Jimmy Corrigan is only one of many styles he's used in the past, and C) that the cold techinical drawings are deliberate, and deliberately contrasted to the emotional story.

I also love drawing and I think his drawings are wonderful. Yes, there are plenty of historical illustrators who are better craftsmen, but they didn't make books.

I'm an avid reader of comics as well as books, and I've only read a couple of comic books that are even slightly as interesting as his, and his comic is one of the best I've ever read (easily Top 5). You can't compare him to Herriman and McCay because they never made a bok - they only made disconnected daily strips. But, yes, NO contemporary comic artist draws as well as them (definitely NOT Chris Ware).

After reading your blog, I believe you have a strong distaste and dislike for 'cold' drawings. You like blotches and free line. You like line that people in the 60s would say is 'existential' and about the 'teunous condition of man.' You like proof of the hand and access to the 'artist's DNA.' Ware's drawings in Jimmy Corrigan are all about erasing the proof of the hand. It almost looks like it was made in and by a computer, which seems to fall into your blind spot.

Stewart Kenneth Moore (Booda) said...

How many of the people writing on this subject have ever drawn a picture let alone try and sell one?

I like the way 'Illustration art' showcases diversity but this Ware argument is daft. Any artist can be over or under hyped. BS aside he remains a brilliant artist and so many you feature.

Anonymous said...

This debate seems to be going around in circles. It seems that original poster can’t make up his mind who he is attacking – the ‘Critics’ of whom he is emphatically not one, or Chris Ware, who’s talent he categorically denies is worthy of recognition. David, you seem intent on judging Ware’s work by the standards of any number of different mediums – prose, fine art, commercial and technical design – any but the medium in which Ware actually works: comics or cartooning. It is true that this form encompasses all of the above, which is one of the things that is so cool about it. But, as other posters have stated, it would be pointless to judge a work of one form by the standards of another, and deny the effect that it actually achieves.

For someone who can appreciate the “urine paintings of Andy Warhol” you seem awfully bent on judging Wares work based on the level of technical proficiency he chooses to demonstrate. You criticise ware’s choice of a simple, pared down graphic style as reflecting a lack of talent, rather than considering that it is intentional and serves the work – that is is a conscious, artistic choice. What Ware is going for seems to be a more iconographic style that can as you say be ‘speed read’ like one might read prose. In this way he can concentrate on ‘writing’ with pictures - telling a story – the very point of cartooning, comics, sequential art. A comic strip is essentially a sequence of drawings that convey a story. Ware has gotten to the heart of that and developed a style in which he can control pacing, character development, narrative arc and all those good things that prose writers do, combining this with a complete control of the visual aesthetic.

It is granted however that the effect that Ware’s choices achieve in the mind of the reader is completely subjective, and everyone is entitled to their interpretation. But to deny the validity of anybody opinion that contradicts yours, calling posters who defend Ware’s work things like ‘jihadists’ is bad form. I have read every post, and have noticed David, that you have not addressed some very compelling points, especially those of Alpha or Troy. For someone who talks about the importance ‘alternative views’ you often seem to discreetly avoid addressing the contributions of those with alternative views to your own.

Anyway, this big critical debate is giving me a headache. I think that the appeal of Ware’s work is that it is a highly personal vision that we can immerse ourselves in. I’ll quote something Leif said: “The beautiful thing about lowbrow art - comics, graffiti, hiphop, what have you - is how unpretentious it is, working more from intuition than traditional schooling.” It seems that you are bringing pretension into the reading of Ware’s work by saying that one aspect of it doesn’t measure up to the work of ‘drop name here’. Judge it by it’s own merits, take it as it is, enjoy it for what it is. Or not. But don’t criticise those who see something in it that you do not, because although we might not all chair “a multimillion dollar "fine art" institutional collection” where we are “responsible for passing judgment on art by Richard Serra, Joseph Beuys, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and other "fine artists" on a regular basis”, our view is just as valid as yours, whether we are professional critics ourselves, the curator of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, or anonymous posters on your blog.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if somebody will answer my post, but here`s my opinion:
Chris Ware is doing something interesting in his work, but his work remains interesting only for about 60 pages or so. I admire him for creating his own visual language, a very "cinematographic" one.
At first he does have an impact, a pretty big one, but after a while he becomes boring. Why is that? One of my professors uses a lot the term "expressive device". An "expressive device" denotes a method which the author uses deliberately to express an idea. Chris Ware found a few "expressive devices" and uses them again and again and again and again. This is were his problem lies. And "expressive device" should be used only a few times and that's that. This is why Tarkovsky is big, Chaplin is big, Shakespeare is big. The "expressive devices" they found were used only a few times and after that they invented something knew.
One of Chris Ware's device is, let's say, the constant repetition. In 3 or 4 panels you practically see the same picture again and again but with minor changes. This device creates a certain atmoshpere and sensation, but after reading 20 pages or so you pretty much realise what he will be doing in the next 200 pages.
Probably his fans adore him so much because of this. After seeing the same "expressive devices" again and again, even without realising it, you get the feeling that you understand this universe, even though on the surface Chris Ware tries to create a complex and subtle story.

milo said...

may i just say,
ya'll are getting a bit too worked up. all in all, no matter how certain people who have posted on this here blog complain or disagree with another persons post, its all a matter of opinion. although thats apparent, getting upset about someone else critiquing chris ware or any other artist for that matter is just silly. the original post was well put and it has strayed so far from that. get over the fact you feel hurt by anothers likes, dislikes, questions, and answers and be happy that there are still people doing this form of art and changing its face as much as possible, or at least trying to do so. i mean really, the fact that comics still exist and people are still finding ways to add or change them is wonderful. although its not the oldest form of art (duh) it has sustained quite a blow, and if artists are getting recognition for their work than fuck yes, that should be a good thing, right? well, anyway, its rad people are willing to break down an artists works and put time into actually wondering why they like it. goodluck with the rest of this discussion, and i hope that it eventually rounds back to the realization that who cares, nothing matters, just figure out why "YOU" like it and dont worry about the rest of us.
bye now

Anonymous said...

this guy is complete garbage. Such a waste of space and he robs the attention of many other illustrators executing great work. This work to me is miles behind good graphic design even. If this mans take on analytical drawing is drawing spheres with dots for eyes then i don't see how he doesn't pass out out of boredom creating these images. This is a perfect example of what happens when someone tries so hard to develop a new approach. They simply forget about high quality. An experiment at best with no results. In every job as well as the arts, there should always be a quest for the highest height of a form. Craftsmen must always develop skill before attempting anything. Its a simple tradition that i could never consider " old World". All great artists, illustrators, artisans, craftsman, athletes understood that to some degree one must consider the traditional layouts and formations created by those masters before them, and that its the only way to develop something new. This guy completely closes the door and locks it. I will also add that he is not a good writer because since he is using the comic format and uses text as well as pictures to compose a story( pictures being the majority of the story) shows his weak skills in writing because the images just don't speak. Not inspired at all. Great teachers like Loomis or Bridgeman would not even attempt to sink into deep criticism when judging this mans work. They would simply say "This man can not draw". It depresses me to know that after we got illustrators like good ol' Will Eisner,Charles Addams,Ralph Barton, Hal Foster, Jordi Bernet, Winsor McCay etc.. we get this guy.

Andrew Rench said...

This comment from David really explains it:

"About halfway through I noticed I was speed reading because the drawings could be read like graphic symbols to advance the plot. You see the same kind of graphic symbols on LEGO toy boxes and on traffic signs in Sweden, where the audience will have a short attention span."

This to me is exactly the point of Ware's style. He's in essence story telling through the language of graphic design. As a graphic designer myself the greatest goal is creating beautiful, simple line forms with as much economy as you can get away with. Great logo design by the likes of masters like Saul Bass have this ability to instantly communicate a message but at deeper investigation have that same reward that you mention when lingering over a drawing.

As we've all seen with Ware's sketchbook, he has great drawing skills in the traditional sense. He's using those skills to create a different type of language that uses economy and simple forms to great effect. Its a choice he's made and if you don't appreciate the beauty in that approach then it seems to make more sense to simply say "I don't like his approach but I can see why others would and I see merit in it" instead of trying to knock him for not being what you want him to be. This attitude makes you as bad as the 'morons' you speak of.

David Apatoff said...

Andrew Rench-- I believe that the success or failure of any artistic statement should be measured by the artist's own standards. It makes little sense to judge Picasso's work by Rembrandt's standards.

That doesn't mean I can't believe some standards are higher or better than others. Personally, I prefer drawing with a sensitive, dynamic line, but I respect the fact that others prefer a uniform line, drawing mechanical geometric shapes.

Judging Chris Ware's work by your standards (and presumably his)I can appreciate that the mission of a graphic designer is different from the mission of a traditional artist. Measured by graphic design standards, I think Ware's work is good, but I think the fawning comments I quoted are just silly statements by uneducated people. I would ignore them except they seem to be the widely held beliefs of a large uneducated group that is shaped by reviews such as the ones I quoted, and that group deserves to hear a different opinion.

I am glad that Chris Ware continues to work as hard as he does, and I salute him for the purity of his effort. Unfortunately, that alone does not put him in the same league with the greatest talents.

I share your views about the importance of "creating beautiful, simple line forms with as much economy as you can get away with," but I don't find the examples of Ware that I posted especially "beautiful"-- they are traditional simplistic Lego style characters with circular heads and square bodies (nothing terribly fresh or innovative there) placed in compositions that are not terribly distinctive or striking compared to the work of truly great graphic designers (I like the work of Bass, by the way). And as for "economy," I agree that Ware doesn't employ the excessive lines of a Berni Wrightson but some of his stories drag out so long, with such minute changes from panel to panel, I think he flunks the "economy" test on the macro level. Compare his over abundance of panels and pages with the pacing of A.B. Frost's work (featured in this week's post)and let me know what you think.

Curtis said...


You wrote, "ayo: "If Ware is not one of the modern masters of comics, then who the heck is?"

uhhh . . . craig thompson, jason lutes, charles burns, dan clowes. i'm astounded that in a thread this long, no-one has posted anything of substance about any of these other creators - all of whom have ambitions easily equal to ware's."

As a follow up, yes, the artists you mention are all exceptional, but I'd like to add I was a student of Jason Lutes and he absolutely believes Chris Ware is the best cartoonist of the bunch. Top of the heap, no debate. James Sturm, another top-tier cartoonist, believes the same, as well. My guess is Thompson, Burns and Clowes would acknowledge they all are fantastic cartoonist, but Ware is top dog.

The above isn't to challenge or change your opinion, but to simply provide additional information.



Curtis said...

Hi David,

Googling "Chris Ware" brought me here, 16 years after the original posting date, and I wonder if your opinion of Chris Ware has changed? I hope so, but only expect the change will happen if you availed yourself to all of Ware's work and, crucially, understand and accept the differences between a cartoonist and an illustrator.

If you have done your homework over the past decade and a half you now know Chris Ware is a trained academic/fine artist. Simply put, he can draw - full stop. The argument "he can't draw" is demonstrably false and to continue to hold that position is simple obstinance born of pride. "If he can draw, why doesn't he do so in his comics?" I hear you cry. The answer to that question will be unsatisfying to you, but is nonetheless true and is the crux of this debate. Chris Ware is a cartoonist and not an illustrator. And, not only is he a cartoonist, he is historian and theorist of the form. While many cartoonists have made good comics by making pretty drawings, beautiful lines and interesting marks, Ware believes such methods detract from the primary objective of comics, i.e., telling a story. He believes by simplifying the forms into its own visual language the story becomes more powerful as the reader is drawn into the story more deeply, as opposed to pausing to admire the technique and beauty of any given drawing, which, as amazing the drawing may be, you've just been pulled out of the story. The legendary cinematographer, Roger Deakins has said the following a dozen different ways, but to the LA Times it went like this, "If your work is noticed, then it really means that it’s standing apart from the film. In the wrong way. It’s like somebody saying, 'I like that shot,' and me thinking, 'Damn.' When you’re watching a film everything should feel of a piece." Ware applies this philosophy to his comics. A cartoonist tells stories and an illustrator makes pictures. Chris Ware is a cartoonist.

With that understanding, one still doesn't have to like Ware's work - his stories, his art... fair enough. Chocolate and vanilla, but to dismiss his work based on a faulty premise with flawed logic isn't just unfair, it's categorically wrong. You commented somewhere here you didn't expect Ware to have staying power, but accepted time will tell the tale. 16 years later Chris Ware has cemented his place as the finest cartoonist of his generation and, while I agree reviewers and literary types take their praises for Ware a step too far, he has earned his place amongst the masters of this art form.

I'll leave you with the following excerpt from an interview with Ware in the Syncopated Times. "...I am not an illustrator but a writer who writes in pictures; I try to use the uncertainty and slow coalescence of drawing as a means towards narrative composition that somehow mirrors the way we think about and remember the world. In other words, I don’t just sit down and write a script and then spend five years drawing it, I let the pictures write the story. If that makes any sense."