Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Chris Ware Doesn't Want You to Read Floyd Farland Citizen of the Future (And Neither Do I)

Floyd Farland-citizen of the future
By Chris Ware
Eclipse Books, 1987
Floyd Farland-citizen of the future is Chris Ware's first published work, a graphic novella from Eclipse Books first published in 1987. Familiar with Ware's masterpieces like Jimmy Corrigan, Building Stories, and his Acme Novelty Library works like the Rusty Brown cycle? Sure you are, you're a smart and well-read comic consumer, after all. But what's this - you haven't heard of Floyd Farland? Well, don't worry, few people have. Not only does it pre-date Ware's next completed work, his breakthrough Jimmy Corrigan, by a good 13 years, rumor has it Ware goes around and buys up all the copies of Floyd Farland he possibly can, and destroys them. You, the Chris Ware fan, the smart comic consumer, the lover of all good things in the world, ask in horror (assuming the rumors are true), why would he do something like that? Well, the answer is simple: It's kind of shitty, and he doesn't want you to read it.

And, honestly, I don't think you should read it, either.

Now, to be clear, this is not a bad comic by Chris Ware standards, which are pretty stratospheric standards by any measure. He is this country's finest living cartoonist, after all (Jaime Hernandez would be #2 for those playing along at home). A bad Chris Ware comic - which I was fairly certain didn't exist because I had heretofore not seen one - would still be better than most comics out there, independent, mainstream, mini, web, whatever. Which is a fair assumption to make given Mr. Ware's proven track record of decidedly not sucking at what he does. Except Floyd Farland is a bad comic by basic comic book standards.

Now no-one is perfect, even Mr. Ware, and Floyd Farland is a good example of that. This is early Chris Ware, and when I say early, I mean REALLY early. Floyd Farland-citizen of the future (the hyphen, no space, no caps according to the indicia) was a one-page weekly strip that ran in The Daily Texan - the student newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin - from summer 1986 to spring 1987, started when Ware was all of 18 years old. Acme Novelty Library is still six years away, and thankfully for the human race it is evident that he learned a significant amount about his craft and himself in that intervening time. Anyway, according to the backmatter by Ware, Floyd Farland the collected work was largely tweaked and edited and outright redrawn to make the the narrative flow better, a common Chris Ware modus operandi for much of the work that ends up in his graphic novels to this day. But I'd be damned to see how it would have made much of a difference because the book is a bloody mess.

The page on the left is more emblematic of the pages in Floyd Farland. The page on the right isn't.
The thing that shocks about Floyd Farland is just how unlike any other Chris Ware work it is, and just how bad it is. The first thing that jumps out at the reader familiar with Ware's stuff is that it is completely unrecognizable as Ware. None of his design sense or lettering and coloring skill or draftsmanship or illustration style (that he very assuredly develops beginning right out the gate in Acme Novelty Library) is evident. And certainly not the extraordinary levels of characterization. The art is stark black-and-white. Not a graded or pencilly black-and-white, but the kind of art that almost looks like he cut out the figures from black construction paper and pasted them to the page. He is somewhat capable of making recognizable human characters with the limited shapes, but it doesn't always work, especially when he is trying to put a lot into the panel (which is often). The art on the page is densely packed, hard to decipher in many cases, and ugly, with many pages having 15-20 panels or more. The style he chose here does not work well in the tiny, numerous panels. The art is certainly interesting, to be kind, but more honestly it's quite dreadful.

The art also makes the narrative, such as it is, quite hard to follow. After some useless exposition about the setting ("The time is the future. Technology and overpopulation have gripped the genitalia of society."), we quickly meet the eponymous Floyd, a happy worker bee (certainly no Branford) content to be a cog in the machine. He goes to lunch with a friend who turns out to be a rebel of some kind and by page three after some mistaken identity or something, Floyd ends up in prison. There are many scenes of interrogation and propagandation and attempts at comical misunderstanding behind his alleged role as a bigwig in the rebellion (whatever that is) and when the story comes to a close 41 pages later there seems to be some kind of recursive-interpretive-somethingorother going on, some hint at something else happening that is hard to see through the terrible art.

... whoa
The book isn't all densely packed hard to read panels, there are precisely three pages where Ware breaks free from this style he imposes on himself for the work, making you wonder aloud why the fuck didn't he do more of this to begin with?! There are two faux advertisements, in a manner similar to faux ads he would come to excel at years later in Acme, though in this case without the narrative density or depth of social commentary - or humor, for that matter. The art in these ads, while still blocky in their own way, far outstrips the art everywhere else in the issue. And then there is the indecipherable climactic page, a frankly astonishing jumble of imagery including liberal use of almost Kirby-like photo-collage. Ware has never done anything remotely like this page in any of his works since - there's no evidence of collage even in his published sketchbooks. It makes the page that more frustrating, that something so unique in all of his works plays such a useless role in the attempted narrative at hand. 

It's hard to say that this work is irredeemable. He certainly tried. And he certainly failed, which is OK. It is a very bad comic book, sure, but there are worse out there being produced every day. And it presents an interesting study of an artist in his earliest possible years, a work and a creator not yet ready for the world at large. 

In the backmatter of the comic are two essays, one, amazingly, (ostensibly) by Chris Ware's mom. She describes Ware's early-life attempts at art and closes with a hilarious anecdote about an early Ware piece of sorts. Then there is Ware's useless and oddly self-important essay about the genesis of the comic, closing with a very Ware-ian bit of self-deprication: "I hope [the comic] works. And if it doesn't, you can give it away to your little nephew as a coloring book. I wish him the best of luck."

If you can find a copy of this anywhere, I don't really suggest buying it (if anything, for Mr. Ware's sake). There currently is one copy available at JHU Comic Books, as far as we know the only copy available in New York City.  When I asked JHU co-owner Nick Purpura, a huge Chris Ware fan like myself, if he would be willing to sell it to Ware. He said "Hell, no." Sorry Mr. Ware.

1 comment:

  1. Gimme a break! It's not a bad comic at all. Maybe it's different from Ware's later stuff, but I still find the "punchline" of the story hilarious, and a very wonderful commentary on the flaws of authoritarianism. Sure, the art could have been better, but it was good enough, I thought, to get the story across. If Chris is really that bothered about it, he's SOL--there's a torrent of it, which means it'll be available *forever*, or nearly so.