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Inner focalization: a child’s game This is the Blog and Archive of

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BY ROBERT O B A R T U A L O N MA R C H 1 0 TH , 2 0 1 1 6 C OMMEN TS Scholarship.

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Ware, C. (2010) ACME Novelty Library, (Montréal: Drawn and Quarterly, #20:

Acme Novelty Library, #20, Chris Ware’s last installment of his ongoing graphic novel Rusty
Brown, has certain surprises in stock. One of the most striking is related with its visual style: as
the narration goes on, Ware’s graphic trace becomes more solid and less schematic;
something very unusual in his work, always biased towards a certain stylistic abstraction. It is
often that we hear Ware comparing his protagonists with typographic characters, or the act of
looking at his pictures with reading (Ware, quoted in Sabin, 1997: 41).

What’s going on with Acme #20, then? This volume, also known as Lint, the name of its
protagonist, is a more or less straightforward Bildungsroman (formation novel) that follows the
progress of one of the bullies of the school where Rusty Brown studies, from his birth to his
death. The changes in the graphic style are synchronised with the different stages of maturity of
the protagonist; the last pages of the book have a rough, unsettlingly realistic appearance, but
the first pages almost look like if they were drawn by a child.

Almost as if they were drawn by a child, but not quite. If you stare at a Picasso, you can bet
that one out of five parents will give you their word that “my child can draw exactly like that”. I
don’t know if many children can write like this:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and
this moocow that was coming along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo… His father
told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face. (Joyce, 1916: 3)

These are the first lines from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, a book[05/04/2016 0:01:12]
Inner focalization: a child's game | The Comics Grid (Blog) | Roberto Bartual

that relates language to stages of maturity in manner that resembles Ware’s approach. This
paragraph certainly looks like children’s writing, but it is not: the election of the words is very
deliberate, the rhythm and the sound too perfect. However there are certainly insistent traits of
children language in the style: the use of iconicity and onomatopoeias (moocow), the absence
of commas in the first sentence, the standardized opening expression (Once upon a time), the
simplicity of vocabulary, the fixation on the face and the gaze of the father, etc.

In Lint, we can find the visual equivalents of all these linguistic traits, although the central role
of the father is enacted by the mother. Since the father is almost always absent in Ware’s
narrations, she is the one in charge of uttering the archetypal word of castration “No”. So, here,
little Lint focus his attention on his mother’s face, instead of his father’s; her face is in fact the
same iconic image repeated in three different panels, an archetypal image that is always
looking at him. Not just “a mother”, or “his mother”, but “The Mother”. Verbal language is very
simplified too. In fact, all the words we can make out in the balloons are some of the few words
any child of Lint’s age would be able to understand: “no”, his name, “bad” and “what are you
doing?” The rest is gibberish: it’s impossible to get any meaning from the words in the lower
left corner of the page. The reason is simple: little Lint does not understand them.

But the most striking thing about this page is its style, too schematic even by Ware’s standards
(they even lack the isometric perspective characteristic of Ware’s work). Lint and his mother
are always shown from a frontal/lateral point of view, like the characters of early Sunday
Pages: Ware turns to the origins of comic language to reproduce the origin of human language.
In fact, the solution Ware adopts to represent the quick movement of the arms of Lint’s mother,
may be related to the very origins of visual sequentiality: Sergei Eisenstein affirmed that
Shiva’s multiple arms in ancient hindu statues were not meant to represent multiple arms but a
moving pair; after all, Shiva is not only the God of destruction, but also the God of dance
(Eisenstein, 1937-1940: 140-141; Bartual, 2008).
The Comics Grid: Journal of
We can even find further Joycean echoes in this page if we consider that in episode 14 of
Comics Scholarship Research
Ulysses, when Mina Purefoy, a secondary character, gives birth, Joyce suddenly turns to the Exchange Group
origins of the English Literature using the alliterative language of Anglo-Saxon verse to A public group for collecting and
describe the first moments in the life of Mina’s child. My intention, when drawing all these sharing comics scholarship
papers. Open Access publications
comparisons, is not to justify Ware’s work in the light of well-accepted, canonical, modernist
encouraged. The Comics Grid is
literature, but to underline the fact that even if Chris Ware may not be the first artist to achieve an open access, open peer review
inner focalization through stylistic choices in his art (that is, to make the reader see things as journal of comics scholarship.
the protagonist does by changing the style of drawing; something that has been attempted too
by Moore and Gebbie in Lost Girls), he is certainly the first to do so with such a high level of
sophistication and detail.
Recent papers
For other instances of inner focalization in Ware’s work (not by means of stylistic changes, but
by means of mise en cadre and mise en page) see: Samson, J. and Peeters, B. (2010) Chris
in this group
Ware: la bande dessinée réinventé (Montréal: Les Impressions Nouvelles)
A Readers’ History of Girls’
Comics: A Review of
Remembered Reading
Benoît Crucifix
Bartual, R. (2008) “¿Es el comic el único arte secuencial? Ecos de la secuencia en el arte
The Comics Grid: Journal of
pictórico”, in Revista Digital Universitaria de la Universidad Autónoma de México, vol. 9, #6 Comics Scholarship , Volume: 6,
<>. Accessed 22 February 2011. Issue: 1 (2016)
Witnessing Fukushima
Eisenstein, S. M. (1937-1940) Towards a Theory of Montage (London: British Film Institute) Secondhand: Collage, Archive and
[Hacia una teoría del montaje, vol. 1 (Barcelona: Paidos, 2001)] Travelling Memory in Jacques
Ristorcelli’s Les Écrans
Joyce, J. (1916) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (London: Heinemann, 1973) Benoît Crucifix
The Comics Grid: Journal of
Samson, J. and Peeters, B. (2010) Chris Ware: la bande dessinée reinventée (Montréal: Les The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics
Impressions Nouvelles) Scholarship Research Exchange Group
is a group in Arts and Literature,
Sabin, R. (1997) “Not just superheroes”, Speak magazine, #6: 38-45
Education, Humanities on Mendeley.
Ware, C. (2010) ACME Novelty Library, (Montréal: Drawn and Quarterly, #20)

About the author

Roberto Bartual has contributed 7 articles.
Scholar, translator, writer and cineaste maudit. Spent a certain amount of his life
in L.A. doing the only two things you can do in L.A. (smoke weed and hate films),
Articles by Contributor
so he decided to devote his life to comics: they are cheaper to make and usually[05/04/2016 0:01:12]
Inner focalization: a child's game | The Comics Grid (Blog) | Roberto Bartual

better than movies. He likes to use French words once in a while and... you
know, you can never trust people who use French words once in a while. A Jeff Albertson (1)
founding member and co-editor of The Comics Grid, he's got a PhD from
Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, in Graphic Narration and European Literature. Eliza Anyangwe (1)
He is currently based in Spain.
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6 Responses to “Inner focalization: a child’s game”
Andy Byers (2)

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Nina Mickwitz - March 11, 2011
Really enjoyed your piece! And sophisticated is right!! Ware is as per usual Jordi Canyissà (1)
almost infuriatingly good at by-passing conventions, making the reading
Tiago Canário (2)
experience fresh and unpredictable but without being obtuse. I really like
the way the mother dominates by size/scale (the way adults faces peering Esther Claudio (7)
down at them must seem to kids) but has this permanently anxious
expression (which I can relate to as a one-time mother of tiddlers and Sam Coleman (1)
toddlers). You use ‘modernist’ in relation to Joyce, but when I first scanned
Brian Cremins (3)
this page I actually had the fleeting thought ‘this is almost a mid-20th
century modernist aesthetic; quite different to the Ware ‘look’ which Mathew Crowther (1)
references earlier influences.
Jason Dittmer (1)
Christophe Dony (1)

Sara Doucette (1)

Roberto Bartual - March 16, 2011
Yeah, Ware’s style in these infant pages certainly recalls modernist Kathryn Drumm (1)
painting too, although I wouldn’t say he is paying homage to any
particular author. It’s funny, because Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie Kathleen Dunley (11)
also try internal focalisation by means of changes in visual style in
Adrian Edwards (1)
Lost Girls, and the artists Melinda quotes (by imitating their styles)
are also from the modernist period! Mucha, Schiele, Beardsley… It Jonathan Evans (2)
would be worthwhile to study the relation between modernist
languange, modernist graphic style and inner focalisation, wouldn’t it? Martin Eve (5)

Reply Thom Giddens (3)

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