It All Started in Omaha

It All Started in Omaha

For the graphic novelist Chris Ware, God is in the details. In 2004, he edited a special comics issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly, and as with his own titles, even the unfoldable dust jacket teemed with extra texts and gags. Here, on what normally functions as decoration, Ware concealed a story in which God wonders what happened to “that planet where I made everyone in my own image. Drolly rendered as a stack of colored circles with stringlike limbs, the supreme creator goes on to muse that Earth had some good things — including comic strips — which leads him to pity the sad lives of the slobs who drew them: “I wonder why other people couldn’t see the virtues of an innately democratic pictographic poetry, grounded in a transdimensional metaphysic, anyway?”

Ware delivers these sentiments with hilarious archness, but he also means it. His three epic graphic novels — JIMMY CORRIGAN, THE SMARTEST KID ON EARTH (Pantheon, $35); BUILDING STORIES (Pantheon, $60); and the new RUSTY BROWN (Pantheon, $35) — are heartbreaking works, as they say, of staggering genius: feverishly inventive and intimately told, drawn with empathy, architectural rigor and a spooky sense of a divine eye. Opening in Ware’s native Omaha circa 1975, “Rusty Brown” is at least four books in one, with a sum much greater than all the parts, expanding not just the possibilities of the form but also the mental space of his reader. Along with David Bowman’s “Big Bang,” it’s the most audacious and inspiring fiction I’ve read this year.

“Jimmy Corrigan,” Ware’s 2000 breakthrough, was an Oedipal saga of patrimony as failure, with Chicago as gorgeous palimpsest. Potato-bodied Jimmy meets the father he never knew, and the story stretches back over a century to climax, unforgettably, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. “Building Stories” (2012) was both more modest and more ambitious: It had no grand plot, and its unusual format (a box of 14 separately printed comics, readable in any order) meant you sifted through the contents while meditating on time and memory. The nameless heroine, unable to select a novel to read, groans: “Why does every ‘great book’ have to always be about criminals or perverts? Can’t I just find one that’s about regular people living everyday life?”

In “Rusty Brown,” Ware takes up the challenge. Though there are a couple of perverts (and possibly a criminal), his characters aren’t people of wealth, power or energy; they’re self-conscious, often inarticulate, trying to break free of the mundane or anesthetize themselves to it. The characters weave in and out of the 113-page opening sequence, which dissects a single day at a Midwestern school in the 1970s, with its smell of “spilled teacher’s lounge coffee, old milk, formaldehyde and lip gloss and hot lunch.” Snow falls in a hypnotic scrim, as at the end of “Jimmy Corrigan” or Joyce’s “The Dead.”

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