by Chris Ware. Pantheon, September 2019. 356 p. ill. ISBN 9780375424328 (hardcover), $35.00.

Reviewed June 2020
Missy Brown, Cataloging and Metadata Librarian, Pratt Institute, mbrown6@pratt.edu

rusty brown book cover

Life is hard for the folks in Chris Ware’s world. Rusty Brown chronicles one oppressively cold day in Omaha, Nebraska, over which readers are slowly introduced to the heart wrenching, interwoven lives of six characters attending or working at the same parochial school.

The title character, a bullied 3rd grader, creates a superhero alter ego named Ear Man to escape his sorrowful reality. At the center of Rusty’s struggles is his angry and depressed father, W.K. “Woody” Brown, who teaches at his school. In a former life, Woody wrote sci-fi comics as an antidote to a disappointing youth filled with career setbacks and romantic heartbreak. Rusty’s tormenter is a privileged yet fallible teenager named Jordan Lint. New students Chalky White and his big sister Alice carry the weight of a mysterious event that hurtled them powerless into their bitterly frigid new surroundings. Rusty’s teacher Joanna Cole leads an isolated life, deflecting challenging family dynamics rife with secrets while shouldering endless racist and sexist microaggressions, and finding her own escape in music.

The book’s bewitching design stands in complete opposition to its drawing style, where all are depicted with angry or sad clown faces. Those uninitiated to the Ware-verse may have trouble following the narrative thread through the twisting paths of its graphical elements.

The story ends with an ellipsis, because in 300+ pages Rusty Brown has only just begun to explore the inner lives of a group working through too-heavy a burden of unfortunate events. The door is wisely left open for future adventures. Rusty Brown wallops the reader with refreshing honesty. This paramount and timeless title will appeal to many audiences, though not to younger ones because the content is mature at times. Highly recommended for public, academic or high school libraries with graphic novel collections.