Quimby the Mouse

by Chris Ware

Published by Fantagraphic Books

338 pages, 2003




I Was an Angst-Ridden Teenage Mouse

Reviewed by David Abrams


Chris Ware can do as much with a few lines of ink and delicately-colored shading that writers like Raymond Carver or John Updike can in a few hundred words.

Ware, a graphic novelist whose Fantagraphic books include Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth and Acme Novelty Library, is a masterful genius at describing heartbreak, anger and anguish -- especially the kind you find in Updike's suburbia territory. In the tight confines of his pastel-colored panels (vulgarly called "cartoons"), he captures a universe of pain, drawing us in with the kind of emotions with which we can all identify.

In his newest book, Quimby the Mouse, the titular rodent experiences typical teenage anxiety when he sits up in bed one morning and says, "Oh gross. Today's the day I have to give that speech in class. It makes my wiener feel funny…. My stomach hurts, I bet I really am sick." Later, sitting at his school desk, he grumbles, "If I'd barfed, I could've stayed home."

In another sequence, a juvenile Quimby discovers he has super-powers, which enable him to fly, turn his arms to rubber and shrink down to "insect size." He uses his powers to escape the every-adolescent's-nightmare game of dodge ball, play hooky, and peer into the girls' locker room. In the end, though, he's still saddled with living the life of a worrisome, hormonal boy.

Quimby the Mouse is full of these quick, brilliant peeks at human nature. Some episodes are titled, "Empty Stomach," "I'll Do Anything, Just Please Let Me Stay," and "I Am a Sickness That Infects My Friends."

The "quick peeks" might be the book's only shortcoming -- the oversized volume (11-by-14-inches) is little more than a scrapbook of Ware's existential doodlings. Brilliant as they are, these bits of miscellany never add up to the kind of narrative flow we found in Jimmy Corrigan where we suffer through all of Jimmy's ups and downs as he reunites with his long-lost father. Quimby, by contrast, is all over the place, a wondrous jumble of what Ware calls "Self-Conscious Text Pages, Advertisements, and Space-Filling Nonsense." The mind boggles and the eyes cross as we strain to take it all in.

Ware of course, knows this and even labels one page "Incomprehensible Cartoon Strips." Quimby the Mouse won't be everyone's slice of cheese. The panels are laid out in such a way that it's hard to follow the flow and we often wonder if Ware's train of thought has jumped the tracks. Eventually, by staring at the page long enough, we're able to absorb a sense of the abstract emotions Ware is driving at: the loneliness, the regret, the mortality, the you-can't-go-home-again feelings that well up in most of us around the time we hit 35.

I guess you could say Quimby the Mouse is a journey of the senses, a maze-like trip into the self-conscious subconscious. The most appealing, and accessible, portions of the book are when Ware draws his mouse during that turbulent, transitional period of adolescence, back when we thought life had definite answers ("When I was really young, I asked my mom why all old movies were in black and white. She said that back then, everything was in black and white. I took her really literally, and until I was six or seven, I thought color was some weird modern invention.").

At other times in the book, Ware draws Quimby as a two-headed mouse -- either a pair of Siamese twins or a dual personality. One half of Quimby is always imagining the other half meets with a violent end: decapitation, deflation (like a balloon-head), starvation and so on. The episodes, bizarre and full of black-and-white cartoon blood, aren't the book's strongest moments, but they do serve to remind us that Ware is a tortured soul struggling to understand the all-too-real world outside his hand-drawn boxes. Just like the rest of us. | February 2004


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.