The first of three novellas following the intersecting lives of three women. The tag line reads “One night. One city. Three women. November.” The main focus of this installment is the titular “girl on the roof.” Dee has been hired by a mysterious man to decipher a code from the newspaper early every morning, then broadcast it from an illegal radio on her rooftop.
While there is clearly something unsavory and likely criminal about the purpose of the daily code, she does not know what it is. Her only crime is the illegal radio broadcasts, a minor crime that she is assured she will never be caught at. The whole mysterious noir setup is very reminiscent of 100 Bullets–Elsa Charratier’s art even recalls Eduardo Risso’s–and like that series there are signs of some kind of deep conspiracy behind it.
The pay is 500 dollars a day (cash, paid under the table). Dee quickly becomes a captive to the job: she’s been warned not to miss a day, but she can’t do much with the money without calling attention to it. When the day comes that there is no code in the paper, the game seems to be up.
In the meantime, we see some corrupt cops in action. And another woman who delivers groceries makes a 911 call about finding a gun in a puddle in an alley: setting up the second installment (the 911 operator may be the third person in the trinity). There is a lot going on here, a complex story that already promises multiple connections and a large cast.
Set a decade after the explosive climax of the Descender series, Ascender tells the story of the changed universe that resulted. Magic has taken the place of technology, and the ruler is a powerful vampire witch who calls herself Mother. The title implies a loving relationship, but really it’s more about control. So she is very unhappy that the rebel United Galactic Council (UGC) group is still active, and seem to have added magic to their technological skill set.
After an introduction the story opens with Mila–the daughter of Andy and Effie–trying to get by on the planet Sampson. She and her father have refused to join Mother as members of The Saved, which complicates their lives, but Andy values freedom above everything. The narrative does not immediately reveal who she is, so we don’t fully appreciate the connection to Descender, until Andy’s robot dog Bandit arrives. His arrival triggers the arrival of Mother’s security forces, and a flashback which reveals the history of Effie’s sacrifice to ensure the family’s safety.
They run to the ports on the shore seeking Telsa, Andy’s old partner. He’s convinced she can find them a spaceship to escape the planet. Mother’s militia shows up and Andy is run through with a sword. Telsa runs off with Mila, thinking Andy is dead. They are headed off-world: and the last page shows Andy in the water, returning to consciousness. Looks like another epic escape saga is being set up, with Andy trying to reconnect with his daughter, Telsa and Bandit. Nguyen’s watercolor artwork continues to be an attractive signature for the new series. It gives the book a very “handmade” look: I bet the original pages are gorgeous.
Chris Ware began work on Rusty Brown immediately after completing the acclaimed Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon Books, 2000). There are definite similarities between the two: both were partially serialised before being published in book form; both deal with frequently depressed, socially awkward characters; and both are massive collections employing lush, stylized art presented in a rectangular landscape format (with lots of tiny panels).
Set in and around Ware’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, the narrative follows six characters (plus Ware himself as an incidental character) whose lives intersect in different ways. Much of it is set in the 1970s, with everything emanating from a single day in 1975–this serves as a framing device for the story. But it is certainly not limited to the lives of the characters on that day. It goes backwards and forwards, so we see the school children grow into adults and the adults grow elderly, as well as seeing childhood events from the adult’s lives and parts of the lives of the children’s parents.
Some of the most interesting material does not involve the title character at all. The sequence on his father, William Brown, includes dramatic sexual history early in his career (which partly explains his marriage to Rusty’s mother), as well as a long sequence illustrating his only published writing, a science fiction story entitled “The Seeing-Eye Dogs of Mars.” The final section on teacher, school administrator and banjo player Joanna Cole is the only material completely unpublished previously. It is the only part of the story that explicitly addresses race relations (Cole is black, in an otherwise nearly all-white cast). And while Cole does not have a completely happy life, it is full, and presented with real sympathy for her struggles. When the daughter she gave up for adoption (and has been trying to find through research, although that was not clear before) appears, it is a positive ending to a book that is marked by very little joy.
Ware’s artwork is remarkable as always. His references to early twentieth-century cartooning and graphic design are rich and deep, extending far beyond mere stylistic quotation. In the course of the story he sometimes evokes design schematics, pointillism, and graphic lettering, among other things. The narrative is dark: these are characters who do not necessarily acquire wisdom as they age, and bad things happen to good people (sometimes to bad people, too, but Ware’s characters are not black and white). Reading this book is an experience like few others. Like it or not, it is a powerful demonstration of the graphic novel format.
There is an excellent interview with Ware about the book, including some art process illustrations here.
It feels like there’s a time jump (weeks or months, not years) between this collection and the previous arc. Jon and Suzie are completely estranged, and they both seem to be dead inside (although they both claim that “everything’s fine”). Suzie has a new boyfriend, but she is just going through the motions. Jon is working at a sex toy store (Cumworld: the sort of outrageous name typical of this series).
Jon is still working against the Sex Police, with the group of Sex Criminals that were introduced in the previous arc. Myrtle Splurge (aka Kegelface) has broken up with Jon’s therapist–who is now living with Ana, the aging porn star–but she’s still thinking about him, and is starting to push back against her boss Kuber Badal. After avoiding each other for some time, Jon and Suzy show up at a fancy dress party in the same ridiculous Freddie Mercury-inspired fetish outfit.
Suzy fires up her late father’s old computer, and finds herself conversing with him via text message, which is not the craziest thing that has happened in this series. She starts examining his old accounts, and discovers a shocking connection to Badal and a stock market insider trading scheme. Next thing we know, she and her mom are staying at a motel because their house burned down…and Myrtle comes into the Frozen Realm to tell her that Badal is probably coming for her. She runs to Jon and they reconcile. Everything is set up for the series finale.