I received Rusty Brown as a Christmas gift from my wife. The book is an awkward, heavy rectangle that juts out of my bookcase. Before opening it up I knew nothing about its titular character or the author Chris Ware. When I sat down to read the book I thought, okay, this is about a funny looking kid who’s the class outcast. Now here’s a new girl at school that misses her best friend. Wait, this book is also about a burnout kid’s whole life?
I definitely didn’t expect all this. Rusty Brown is about isolation, self-destruction, sexism, racism, family dysfunction, and life in general. It evokes suburban tales like American Beauty and The Wonder Years, but without any kind of candy coating or overarching moral judgement. Life simply happens, and the characters influence their own lives in both positive and negative ways.
The characters and stories feel real and grounded, due in large part to the Omaha, Nebraska setting (the same place Ware grew up). Mundane rituals mix with signifiant happenings to create an experience that can be uncomfortably personal. The colorful pop art style and cartoony characters belie the complex themes and sometimes graphic events. Watching a little boy flee his abusive father is all the more horrific because the same art style could be used for a Family Circus type of story.
The more I read Rusty Brown, the more I wanted. It reminded me of reading Maus or Watchmen for the first time. The works have little in common aside from the fact they are all unique art pieces that showcase the graphic novel medium. In case I haven’t been clear enough, Rusty Brown is a must-read. Also, I discovered that Rusty Brown and Maus do share a connection. Many years ago Art Spiegelman invited Ware to contribute to Raw magazine, helping Ware move forward as an artist. Game recognize game.