What one notices first about Chris Ware's latest addition to his Acme Novelty Library series, Number 16, is its diminutive dimensions. Previous editions of this comic collection have been almost (pardon the pun) comically oversized, determined to make you grapple with them, forcing you to make a fresh approach towards a medium not always known for its grand stature. It's not surprising then that this small-scale addition is also short in content.
However, that is comparing Chris Ware to Chris Ware and the Acme Novelty Library really has no competitors. Ware's followers will find this nearly as fulfilling as the rest of the series. Previously the vehicle for the now novelized Jimmy Corrigan story line about a modern-day milquetoast's reunion with his estranged father, Ware has now opened up the platform for Rusty Brown, another social outcast whose obsession with superheroes and their toys will become simultaneously emblematic and hyper-critical of the 'collector culture' that the graphic novel form is intrinsically tied to.
Readers of previous editions of the series already know what Rusty Brown becomes: a cranky, deceptive, sexually suspect man-child who still lives with his mom. But here in Sixteen, we see Rusty's beginnings: his school-day interactions, his parents arguing, his pure-Freudian hero fantasies involving rescuing a naked SuperGirl, and the first time he meets lifelong friend Chalky White. Rusty, as we know, will never get over his obsession with childhood playthings, merely transferring their value from toy to collectible. This sentimental attachment to a romanticized past is very typical of Ware, even in his earliest Quimby the Mouse strips which dealt heavily with loss of innocence. Watching Rusty and Chalky's pubescent development here through very unromantic glasses makes the sentiment seem that much more absurd and thereby heightening what is an increasingly typical American tragedy.
Moniker metaphors aside, Rusty Brown and Chalky White have relatively similar beginnings, but Ware knows who the more interesting character is and the deviations in the nature of their characters seem inevitable. To enhance this, the pages are divided into two sections in what is now a relatively familiar format with the primary Rusty Brown storyline taking up the bulk of the page while Chalky White's runs along the bottom in panels sometimes inscrutably small (another unfortunate byproduct of Ware's size reduction). What Ware works so well with this platform though is what he always does best: taking an idea or format that comes with an assumed set of criteria and inverting those criteria to his own ends. Three quarters through the story when the two storylines intersect, the characters from one literally enter through the door of the other, thereby switching the focal point and forcing the reader to re-examine what was most likely skimmed over before.
Indeed, re-examination seems to be the overarching theme to this edition, for Ware as well as us. Not only is he taking us backwards in time on a character whom we've already seen in adulthood, he also introduces himself into the storyline as an art teacher at Rusty and Chalky's school. By allowing himself to become property of his fiction an interesting digression is achieved further reinforcing the sense of voyeurism inherent in watching one of Ware's favorite themes develop: the abandonment of the inner child. Ware's character, an artist, draws pop superhero characters which we see in a macabre gallery as we listen in on him being dumped over the phone. Again the paraphernalia of juvenilia are contrasted with the heart-ache and tragedy of life acquired as a byproduct of adulthood.