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Review: Roz Chast’s Going in Town, Leslie Stein’s Present and Chris Ware’s Monograph

Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York

By Roz Chast

Bloomsbury, 176 pages, $37

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Sometimes it's enough for cartooning just to consist of funny pictures. Certain crazed, raggedy images in Roz Chast's daffy Manhattan guidebook – the follow-up to Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, her award-winning memoir about her aging parents – had me laughing out loud. There's Chast, the native New Yorker, apoplectic in a crowd of gormless tourist types, or a vendor hawking off-brand lipstick with maniacal zealotry, or a babel of diners devoted to niche cuisine ("International House of Rabbit," "Kosher Fondue"). The book began as a gift for Chast's daughter, a handmade pamphlet of tips for her move from the suburbs to the borough for college, so unfortunately the guidance here is often beyond basic – this is how the subway works, or here are the museums to visit. This "love letter" comes alive only when its insights are clearly intimate and firsthand, as when Chast's lovable, curmudgeonly parents make appearances, cautiously "going into town" from faraway Brooklyn. Still, the artist's unpredictable, idiosyncratic drawing – an anthropomorphized radiator named "Old Clanky" on one page, a hushed portrait of Grand Central on the next – makes up for the book's often impersonal bromides.

Present

By Leslie Stein

Drawn & Quarterly, 168 pages, $24.95

Reading Leslie Stein's comics – drawn from evanescent moments in daily life and the curious memories they encourage to surface – always feels strangely immersive, like experiencing the inside of someone else's head. As Stein depicts herself wandering New York, tending bar, drawing comics and generally musing, she tinges reality with her own idiosyncratic palette, decorating each page with effulgent colour and expressive lettering. Doodling herself as an abstract, brainy tangle of hair, with two dots for eyes and a squiggle of a mouth, and leaving significant players such as her mom, dad and various exes off the margins of the page, Stein seems less concerned with detailing the outward facts of her own existence than she is with representing how those moments and memories inwardly feel. Her strips don't so much record her life as they retrace her wide-ranging, digressive thinking, turning reflections about childhood or encounters with oddball, sweetheart strangers – a doleful regular at her bar, uninhibited young students at her cartooning workshop – into modest, compassionate epiphanies.

Monograph

By Chris Ware

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Rizzoli, 280 pages, $80

On part of the cover of Chris Ware's career retrospective – a complex map of tiny and typically intricate drawings – the artist wordlessly diagrams how a molecule from the cereal that he ate as a child has now been incorporated into his metabolism, which particle will one day be released when the artist's roly-poly body expires, loosed into the universe as eternity proceeds apace. This is echt Chris Ware – a bewildering, heady, mordant and aching view of life that's at once atomized and universal, self-deprecating and grandiose, blunt and sophisticated. It's also, of course, a portrait in miniature of the artist's life, career, and thematic obsessions, all of which Monograph further catalogues over its oversized, artfully printed pages. Preserving the blue pencil roughs and Wite-Out dabs from the artist's otherwise mechanically perfect originals, the samples that Ware presents – and annotates – span from sketchbooks and sculpture to excerpts from his major books Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories, along with illuminating side projects such as historical strips about ragtime, or a disquisition on Chicago architecture. Even if you begrudge Ware his crushingly desolate worldview, Monograph will make you marvel at the gobsmacking craft with which he achieves it.

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