I think that Chris Ware is to the contemporary comics world as John Updike is to American (prose) fiction. Not only in the sense that each is one of the marquee talents celebrated in their respective media, nor in the sense that each writes closely observed portraits of (often despairing, although far more so in Ware's case than Updike's) daily life.
I also mean this to apply to what they do well -- and what they don't.
In both cases, Ware and Updike are utter masters of their mediums on the micro-to-mid levels. Ware draws and colors with grace and clarity and beauty. And Updike is probably the best composer of English-language sentences since Nabokov. Further, each works superbly well on a slightly larger scale: Ware's page design is brilliant, among the best in the medium today; Updike's paragraphs too are graceful and carefully constructed. (Although one place in which the analogy breaks down is that Ware is more experimental than Updike.*) They are both celebrated for these talents -- their undeniable genius in simply drawing superb comics pages, or writing great English prose, respectively.
Here's an example of each, pretty much chosen at random. A paragraph by Updike:
Different things move us. I, David Kern, am always affected -- reassured, nostalgically pleased, even, as a member of my animal species, made proud -- by the sight of bare earth that has been smoothed and packed firm by the passage of human feet. Such spots abound in small towns: the furtive break in the playground fence dignified into a throughoufare, the through of dust underneath each swing, the blurred path worn across a wedge of grass, the anonymous little mound or embankment polished by play and strewn with pebbles like the confetti aftermath of a wedding. Such unconsciously humanized intervals of clay, too humble and common even to have a name, remind me of my childhood, when one communes with dirt down among the legs, as it were, of presiding fatherly presences. The earth is our playmate then, and the call to supper has a piercingly sweet eschatological ring.And a page by Ware:
-- John Updike, "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car" (from Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1963))
Brilliant, both, each in their own domain.
But I think both Ware and Updike fail at the larger levels -- character construction, plot, story. Updike, for instance, is a prose writer at the Nabokov level; but does he have any characters who are as powerful as Kinbote, Humbert or Pnin? If so, I haven't encountered them.** Ware designs pages as well as any artist working in comics today; but his overall stories are tales of unremitting bleakness -- a trick that is very difficult to pull off and still be interesting and worth reading. Beckett pulled it off; I don't think Ware does. Neither of them tells a good story, in a way that is occasionally scorned in modernist-influenced high-brow art discourse, but whose virtues, I think, can't be underestimated.
So I will continue to read both Ware and Updike, to learn about the possibilities of comics panel-and-page construction and the marvels of good English prose, respectively. But I usually find myself browsing rather than reading: since the shimmering, masterful surface is the point -- not the structure or the whole, which is usually less than the sum of its parts.
Thoughts? Rebuttals? Share 'em: I'd love to hear 'em.
* Ware, in turn, has (to my knowledge) no body of work analogous to Updike's extensive criticism, nonfiction and reviews -- where (as Baker says) some of his best prose appears. Actually, probably my single favorite Updike piece ever is his baseball essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."
** Even Nicholson Baker, whose fabulous book U and I first got me to read Updike, says that Updike is "our best writer", but not "our best novelist" (he says Iris Murdoch); I think that Updike's deficiency in story and character are what Baker is capturing here (although, granted, he's hardly one to complain on those fronts, having a very similar set of strengths & weaknesses to Updike.)