The latest ACME Novelty Library (#19), which is the latest instalment in the greater story of Rusty Brown, is a somewhat frustrating experience. It combines two stories that reflect on one another. An science fiction piece detailing the colonisation of Mars by four people and two dogs, and a flashback to the youth of what turns out to be its author, Rusty Brown’s father, who once had ambitions of becoming a ‘serious’ SF writer. The first part — the Mars story — is fantastic, but the second is a real disappointment.
The SF story is a bona fide Warean take on old pulp short stories, or twist ending EC SF/Horror shockers, lent the grim poetry and rueful emotional depth of which Ware is such a master. He uses SF concepts brilliantly to serve his narrative goals. First among them is an artificially generated atmospheric bubble, outside of which the deep freeze of the serenely bleak Martian landscape ensures endless desolation. He delivers images of rare staying power, many of them centred around circular motifs (fill in the blanks to suit your own temperament), and as always he employs almost chimerically subtle storytelling devices to great effect — an homage to Charlie Brown’s Little Red-Haired Girl for example becomes as powerful a signifier of an unreliable narrator as I’ve seen.
The second half, however, not only treads the familiar Warean ground of an alienated, morose and romantically harrowed protagonist, but also throws in the full set of clichés surrounding the SF subculture and its lack of conventional social capital for good measure. It even uses heavy-handed symbolism of a first-person POV through cracked glass. None of what we are told about the young Brown Sr.’s traumatic — we understand — fling with an inconstant mystery woman manages the emotional resonance Ware obviously seem to be going for. This is mostly because the story — in stark contrast to the Mars chapter — is so predictable, so relatively trite in both plot and as a character study. It tells and does not really show, and thus it remains a beautifully crafted postulate that not even the added finesse of having the first half of the book inform it manages to redeem.
Ultimately, I think this is Ware’s problem. His level of craft and storytelling sense are impeccable, and his formal and conceptual inventiveness without peer, but he has trouble bringing out in his characters rich inner emotions. This was the heart of the problem for the impressive, and in every way superior effort at a very similar story in ACME #18’s “Building Stories”. That being said, of course, we are here dealing with one of the most significant cartoonists of his generation, who is always worth reading, and in the first chapter — in the unassuming guise of an SF pastiche — he delivers a small masterpiece.