Monday, September 21, 2009

Chris Ware’s Floyd Farland: Citizen of the Future

I’ve been following the work of Chris Ware for many years now, beginning with the second issue of Acme Novelty Library, which I purchased on sight at a small Florida convention back in 1993. His precise, diagrammatic art style is a perfect complement to his incisive narratives of personal failure and alienation. His graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) looks at a grandfather's miserable childhood to examine the events that shaped the titular man-child and his empty, unfulfilled life. Ware continues to amaze with once-yearly installments of Acme Novelty Library, and is currently dissecting the life of belligerent man-child collector Rusty Brown, via digressions into the past histories of Rusty’s Father and his best friend Chalky White. Regardless of the subject, no one else makes comics quite like Chris Ware, which leads one to wonder where all that talent came from.

Floyd Farland: Citizen of the Future is Ware's first published work, originally serialized as a weekly strip in The Daily Texan - the campus newspaper of the University of Texas - from 1986 and to 1987. The black and white comics boom of 1987 encouraged publisher Eclipse Comics to expand their line and seek out new talent, and Ware benefited from their success, as an Eclipse editor recommended Floyd Farland for reprinting. Once the reprint was arranged, Ware reformatted and partially redrew the story, but it still reads like the serialization that it originally was.

The story takes place in “the future” where technology and overpopulation have ruined society. A totalitarian state rules over all, and is constantly at odds with pretty much everybody. The rather shaky premise of the story is that everyone is in rebellion the government, except Floyd, which makes him especially suspicious and dangerous in the government’s eyes.

In the course of the story, Floyd is captured tortured, brainwashed, rescued, captured again, and mind-wiped. The punch line is that Floyd is so compliant, so unquestioning, that he can’t be brainwashed or beaten down, as he believes the whole ordeal is a silly misunderstanding. In the end, He himself becomes the new template and figurehead for this Dystopian society. At least, I think that’s what happens – the ending is pretty vague.

I've been running this blog for over three years, and have so far hesitated to run a feature about this comic. I understand that he now considers this work an embarrassment, but I respectfully disagree. It is really not that bad for a first work by a young artist and is easily one of the most interesting books to come out of the black and white glut mentioned earlier. An artist's early failings inform his later successes, and Chris Ware has nothing to be ashamed of here. That said, Ware’s work on “Farland” is a far, far cry from what he would evolve into.

The writing is very “Angry Young Man” circa 1987, what with the “Thought Police” and the “Totalitarian Government” slant. The art style is almost the exact opposite of his current style: crude, stark, and unpolished. Ware now applies an architectural precision to each page, but his early work is thick–lined, blocky, and chaotic. Background detail is abstract, when it appears at all, and human faces are blob-and-line cartoons. It is fortunate that most of the story is driven by exposition, because figuring out the action on some pages is nearly impossible.

Ware did bring a similar ironic detachment to the milieu and characters in Floyd Farland as he would to later works. As with those later works, I don’t get the sense that they are supposed to care about or “root” for anyone in particular. Floyd is not a hero, or even a good guy, merely a tool to be used by other players in the story.

Note that as the story ends, the last page of the story reverses the first, only now it is now Floyd Farland who guides the witless masses.

I was reading Acme Novelty Library for years before I realized that this oddball little black and white comic I had picked up in a quarter bin years before was created by the same guy. A few years ago, while filing comics, I pulled out Floyd Farland, flipped through it, and went running to the Internet to see if this was indeed that Chris Ware. This is not a great comic, but it was an important first step in the career of one of America’s premier graphic novelists, and as such is well worth examining.


Arkonbey said...

Like all of Ware's work (in my opinion), it is weak on story bout gorgeous. Page 4, especially the last two rows. He creates such solid scenes with just black and white. I actually prefer this to his later work (except for his hand-drawn typography, that is still awesome).

I wonder if his libertarian views have changed at all after college?

Brian Siano said...

And you have a hell of a collector's item there, too. I'd love to read it, but so far, all I've found is a single page that turned up in a Comics Journal interview. Thanks for running more pages.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

I bought FF when it came out; I remember the ad for it that appeared in Amazing Heroes or somewhere.

I met Ware at a book signing back in 2000. I mentioned Floyd Farland and he looked genuinely pained. I said that I enjoyed it at the time and still liked it; he replied "you're the only one!".

I would have brought it with me to get signed but I couldn't find it in time. Looking back I'm glad I didn't have it with me- he looked unhappy enough!

Jeff with one 'f' said...

PS- Dan Clowes was at the same signing. I mentioned enjoying Lloyd Llewellyn and he looked as unhappy as Ware!

Brian Hughes said...

Haw! Poor sensitive artistes.

macsnafu said...

As a long-time libertarian and comic fan, I must say I really got a kick out of Floyd Farland. Sure the art's a bit rough, but still good enough to tell the story. The point about Floyd being "too perfect" a citizen, and thus ends up undermining the society (because, after all, *nobody* really lives up to the propagandistic image that the totalitarian state pushes) still strikes me as a hilarious commentary on authoritarianism.