"Chris Ware’s Nostalgia Machines," by Dan Clinton

Some of you are no doubt familiar with Chris Ware’s work from New City and The Reader, where he publishes a full-page comic every week. I’m particularly interested in the way in which his works simultaneously evoke classic comics (the term makes me uneasy…more on this later) and modern architecture. His line of Tales of Tomorrow comics evokes the legibility of the urban landscape, its ability to interchange images, spaces, and words into a coherent series of events, the sense of automation and encapsulation. Yet, in the fine tradition of all the futuristic comics of the past, he gets it all so delightfully wrong, so that the man of the future flies to the moon in a Renaissance flying-machine. Another of his characters, Rocket Sam, a lone space-cadet stranded on an uninhabited alien world, builds the sort of blocky robots now disavowed by science-fiction in order to ease his loneliness. He builds the kind of future which summons up wells of nostalgia, a technological landscape built from now obsolete conceptions of the new technology, a future which only ever existed during some moment in the past.

Comics must be the ideal medium for this sort of work. I doubt that anyone ever looked upon the comics as new media, even as they were being gradually nudged into existence during the second half of the nineteenth century. We have had the technological means to construct a comic-book ever since we started scrawling on cave walls. The medium probably hit its stride in the early twentieth century (dating from the inception of Krazy Kat) at about the same time as narrative film was being pioneered in Italy. The interconnection seems clear, in that comics do across space what film does across time. Each medium playing the game of encapsulation and continuity in its own way, yet the comics still seem like the low-tech version of narrative film. Low-resolution, according to McLuhan, who gives only a brief treatment. Ware thrives on this sense of working in the “old medium,” of emulating the “Golden Age,” yet nothing like his work has ever existed. His nostalgia is, oddly, cutting-edge. Then again, it took comics scant few years to declare a distant past.

That said, I’m not sure about the precise contours of such an exploration, aside from a claim that comics create a nostalgia for defunct futures, that they do so along a framework which resembles the urban landscape (to say, the present), that they represent a primitive (yet all too modern) system of processing space and time both linearly and simultaneously... Of processing space and time separately or in conjunction... That, and Ware is the master of the dead panel. After numerous words and micro-gestures, requiring dense involvement, he suddenly presents a park bench in a blizzard, empty. That we don’t skip over this image, that it resonates, is in itself remarkable.