The Fifth Cover

Ware’s work has changed, evolved, in his twenty or so professional years. Ten years ago he was proclaimed “The Smartest Cartoonist on Earth” by the Chicago-based critic Daniel Raeburn, but I think he’s only recently begun to produce his best work. It was in the fall of 2006 that he rose to a new level, when he designed five covers for the Thanksgiving issue of The New Yorker. Four alternate covers ran on the print issue, and one cover—a cover that I think deserves mythic proper-noun status, The Fifth Cover—ran only on the website. Art Spiegelman said The Fifth Cover “may be the richest and most complex single page of comics ever made.”

Ware divided The Fifth Cover into 256 cells. In those cells are dozens of little scenes and phrases and images that represent an elderly man’s memories of his brother who died during World War II. The memories flow out from a photo of the dead brother in the center of the page, seemingly with no set path or direction.

When you read The Fifth Cover you feel like you’re simultaneously seeing little moments take place in time and seeing those same moments exist out-of-time in a guy’s memory, in his head. The page works as a fractal: the structure of the comic repeats itself at different orders of magnitude (i.e. full page, half page, quarter page, 1/8th, 1/16th, etc.). That “structure,” however, is a loose collection of moments, memories and mementos. That the brother died because of a stupid mistake at basic training—the kind of absurd story that wars are made of—is expressed in the shattered layout of the frames. The Fifth Cover shows the flipside of the seamless stories we use—comfortably, conveniently—to narrate our lives and our history. With The Fifth Cover, Ware got human consciousness onto a single page in a way that maybe no one, ever, has done before. And he did it as a web-only extra.

Most of his work since then—especially The ACME Novelty Libraries #18-20—has been done with the same fractal technique as The Fifth Cover. With these works Ware figured out a way to synthesize two great storytelling traditions in modern literature. He figured out how to bring together restrained, spare objectivity (à la Flaubert, Chekhov or Hemingway) with excessive, baroque subjectivity (à la Dostoevsky, Joyce or Faulkner). He figured out how to combine just-the-facts minimalism with every-last-detail maximalism.

More on Chris Ware at The Point.

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