In his author bio, Chris Ware describes Rusty Brown, the product of 18 years of labor, as a “sad, inexplicable work,” and that’s a fairly accurate description of a book that must also, in fairness, be described as a work of art. Like his previous graphic novels — Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Building Stories — Rusty Brown makes the reader/viewer slow down and see the world through a seemingly infinite array of lenses. The book’s main stories intersect on one particular winter day in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1975, but Ware’s sweep is positively Shakespearean — his desire to know what makes humans tick is insatiable.
One major warning is in order: Although it ends on a modest note of hope and redemption, Rusty Brown is really, really depressing. The cartoon form allows Ware to hyper-focus on sorrowful images: a mother’s sour face when her daughter returns home with a gold star on her elementary school assignment, the loneliness of a teenaged boy’s autoeroticism, snow falling on the stooped form of a middle-aged failure, the hallucinations of an old man ravaged by guilt and dementia. Life, Rusty Brown suggests, is pretty miserable from birth right to the grave.
And yet, despair and cruelty seem to invigorate Ware’s creativity. Of the major narratives, the most grueling is probably the last one, that of Joanne Cole, an African American teacher at a Christian school. Born and raised in a mostly white city, she is subject to acts of racism large and small throughout her life. She takes up the banjo because of its cheerful sound, but her love of the instrument is not widely shared, and one of the saddest scenes in the book is the “banjo party” attended by only one other person: the author/artist’s avatar.
Rusty Brown isn’t always easy to read, and not just because of its melancholy story lines. The novel is riven with flashbacks, and a number of the panels are maddeningly small half-inch squares. Nevertheless, if I were recommending just one book published in 2019, it would be this big, audacious, unwieldy masterpiece.