I like to get out of my comfort zone, and Chris Ware’s graphic novel, Rusty Brown, coming from Pantheon September 24, took me right to the edge. My colleague Calvin Reid sees comics as a religion, and his devotion is infectious. So when he came up to me a while back to say, “I’ve got it for you, Ermelino. This is an event!” I stopped dead in my tracks. Then I discovered that Chip Kidd is the in-house editor and Nicole Aragi is the agent, and... have I used the word trifecta before?
Ware tells me that he drew the first page of Rusty Brown a week after finishing Jimmy Corrigan, the graphic novel that Kidd brought to Random House in 1999 (which has gone on to sell more than 260,000 copies). Meeting with the Pantheon sales force, Kidd told them, “Chris is the James Joyce of comics, and Jimmy is the Ulysses.”
Kidd calls Ware the best cartoonist in his field. “With every book, he challenges himself to see what he can do with the medium of comics,” Kidd says.
Ware says he met Kidd in 1994: “Chip called me one day out of nowhere, offering endless and embarrassing words of kind praise for the first three issues of my comic The Acme Novelty Library and invited me to design an invitation for a talk he was giving. He paid me $1,000—at that point more than I’d ever been paid for anything—and wrote ‘nude modeling’ in the memo line of the check to embarrass me when I deposited it at the bank. We’ve been very close friends ever since.”
Rusty Brown, Kidd says, is an epic character story about ordinary people. It takes place in a Catholic school in Omaha (where Ware grew up) in the 1970s and charts the intersecting lives of several characters, among them protagonist Rusty Brown, the bullied nerd with a rich fantasy life who collects action figures; his father Woody, the school’s English teacher; and Joanne Cole, the black teacher who succeeds despite poverty and racism. The book is interactive and visually stunning, but it’s almost impossible to describe Ware’s work: it has to be seen, to be read. Even the jacket is exceptional: a giant folded poster that can be reconfigured several ways.
“Chris’s narrative is insanely distinctive and iconoclastic,” Reid says. “Inventive, complex, moving, and heartbreaking.”
Rusty Brown was written in serial form, some of it traditionally published, some self-published. It’s 350 pages, the last 100 of which were unpublished, and being the first of two volumes, it ends with the word intermission in multicolored capital letters across two pages.
Aragi became Ware’s agent in 2004. She signed a contract in 2006 for two books—Building Stories and Rusty Brown—with Dan Frank, editor-in-chief at Pantheon. Aragi had read Ware as a fan, and after Kidd introduced her to Ware, he became a client. “I knew Rusty Brown would be a long book, but as in the embarrassing cases of my other experiments, I never thought it would go on as long as it has, or metastasize into such a sprawling mess,” Ware says. “Then again, sprawling messes are what I aim for, since they most accurately reflect real life.” In the middle of working on Rusty Brown, Ware completed Building Stories—a boxed set containing books and other printed elements that’s sold more than 100,000 copies since being published in 2012.
With Rusty Brown, the delivery was staggered. Aragi had an early draft in January, a near-final draft in May, and a completed manuscript June 7. Her relationship with Ware is simple: “He hands things in and I admire them!” she tells me.
And the admiration is mutual. “Ever since we met,” Ware says, “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her acerbic wit, fatalistic sense of humor, and intolerance for BS in every letter and email she writes.”
Of Rusty Brown, Ware says that he’s “tried to imagine people different from myself and also to understand and empathize with them as much as possible, since I believe that’s really the only aim and hope for humanity and art, and also one of the points of the book, more or less.”
Rights have sold to Jonathan Cape in the U.K. (to publish simultaneously with the U.S.), and also in Brazil, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. Publicity plans include an eight-city tour, an extensive social media campaign, and, as Aragi so succinctly puts it, “whatever Chris will let us do!”