It’s only near the end of cartoonist Chris Ware’s latest slim, hardbound edition that you realize the word “Lint”, embossed in gold on its cover, is actually a family name as seen on a headstone. It belongs to Jordan Wellington Lint, grade-school bully, teenage dirtbag, coked-out creep, born-again Christian, shitty father, corporate scum, scared, sick old man. We’ve seen Lint before, in the corners of Ware’s ongoing story of tragic nerd Rusty Brown, which has been gradually unfolding for the past five years across his ACME Novelty Library releases. So far Lint’s been a stock teen bully, quick to shout “fag” at any pasty weakling in his path. But here, Ware goes expansive on the familiar pop-culture archtype by depicting every year of Lint’s life, from birth to death, in a series of one-page glimpses of subjective consciousness. Upon reflection on the complete work, the cover’s dark joke becomes apparent: the word “lint,” perhaps the single most disposable thing in all the world, engraved as a lasting monument. It’s a perfect metaphor for the meaningless existence of a more-or-less normal jerk, captured in full. Running low on existential dread? Have you got a half-hour?
In the past, Ware’s protagonists have been of the sad-sack, underdog variety, which has made the hardships of life thrust upon them almost suffocatingly depressing, borderline sadistic. The switch in focus to Lint amounts to something like the flip side of the recent “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign. The full-life scope of the story illuminates just how miniscule and fleeting the peak of cruel adolescence is, and how much living is left once it’s faded. Though it gets much worse for our protagonist, he never seems to notice too much, softening his karmic comeuppance with waves of rationalization, made visible between panels. The pitch-black comedy of it comes in the resulting disconnect as we piece the story together in spite of Lint’s own limited first-person view. While the pains inflicted on and doled out by him over the course of a lifetime definitely veer towards the maudlin, the dim-bulb ends up feeling more or less ok about it most of the time, which rings awfully true. This mediocre life would be considered “successful” by an observer without the knowledge the reader has, but it unfolds as a tragedy told in minutiae.
Ware, who is unquestionably the most formally talented artist working in the graphic novel medium, refines his technique here, seeming to take a real step forward in terms of thematic effect. The early years of life are handled with his thinly anthropomorphized circular style. As age accumulates and recognition grows, he sharpens into the nearly realistic human renderings. (The architectural detail of the surroundings is continually immaculate, as always.) His use of panels that flow ornately in odd directions, punctuated by bursts of beautifully evocative type face remains from earlier efforts, but here seems more organic, less plainly showy. Though Lint is an even worse bastard than Dan Clowes’ Wilson (though of a diametrically opposed sort), the arc of his life provides moments of recognition that allow empathy to a much deeper degree. The choices one makes will vary, but the order of things is pretty much the same.
Upper-middle class American emptiness as depicted in fiction has been dominated this year by discussion of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Ware hits similar themes with greater economy, to soul-melting effect. But all the New Yorker covers and New York Times inserts he can accumulate still can’t lift him out of the funny-book ghetto and into that mainstream conversation. As his work continually illuminates, there are far greater indignities lying in wait, even for a talent like him.