Thursday, June 25, 2015

Chris Ware, The New Yorker, Minecraft, and Interpretation

What is this Chris Ware cover about? Some feel confident that it’s a ‘trite’ image, unambiguously illustrating its maker’s disapproval of the scene it portrays: “those darn kids today, playing with computers when they should be playing outside.” In this reading, Ware is ‘cranky grandpa,’ and that’s the end of it. But this interpretation, and others like it, seem a little simplistic, taking an image full of things/information/relationships/design choices/etc. and reducing it to a verbal cliché. Why is our first reading -- our first reaction -- so often a didactic one? (Note 6.26: This post has been revised to eliminate some incorrect material on Minecraft and expanded with new observations.) {Click on images to enlarge them.}

Some things I thought about when reading and writing about the cover:

* What about aesthetics, the relationship between Ware’s geometric approach to cartooning and Minecraft’s somewhat similar visual approach, as seen when comparing the image framed by the window to those on the screens? The way cartoonists and video-games build worlds also parallel each other. These connections seem like clear “themes," at least as intentional as any commentary about kids and play. Style- and design-wise, the cover gives us reasons to think that Ware's attitude toward Minecraft might be positive.

Is Ware judging this scenario, or is he simply setting up a scene/series of ideas for our contemplation and enjoyment? If judgment is involved at all, might he have mixed feeling about the scene?

* The world outside the room is certainly designed to echo what appears on the screens (grass, tree, sky). The cover shows that virtual worlds are pretty compelling, that they may actually be more interesting than the 'natural' world (at least in its manicured suburban form). Maybe Ware, a parent, identifies with the kids. In Minecraft, users are gods, little demi-urges, just as cartoonists like Ware are . . .  So world-building, cartooning, creativity, parental sympathy, and aesthetic sympathy also seem like themes.

* What about the cover’s depiction of three versions of play?:
1. The discarded dolls are an imitative form (users pretend to be a care-giver, mother).
2. The ball near the image’s center (like the swing set) represents a non-imitative, less restrictive kind of play (in other words, it’s not programming kids for adult roles).
3. Minecraft represents both something imitative and more open-ended than what the dolls represent. Is Ware making a statement about a "hierarchy of play?" Maybe, but I doubt it. Ware doesn't seem like a "statement artist."

The yellow ball, which occupies an image's place of prominence (the center), does look a little lonely, though. (Note that the pink/red girl might be stepping on a ball.) Ware's work often communicates 'the pathos of objects': things can carry more emotional weight -- can even seem to 'feel' -- more than people do. At the risk of overstating things, there may be a  'spiritual materialism' at work here. This room is a curated collection -- and careful artistic rendering -- of objects that appear to have the kind of talismanic power that things have for children (and for nostalgic adults.) (Ware's work is kind of like that of the cartoonist Seth in this way; both show a lifelong collector's devotion to things.)

* What about perception and ‘frames of reference,’ or comics form and sequence? All of the frames/panels echo each other -- the screens, the window panes, the odd empty frame on the left. So perhaps the image has something to say about competing forms of seeing, maybe?  Something about enclosed spaces (rooms, screens, fenced in yards, houses) and perception/attention? When a cartoonist  (especially one known for formal innovation) uses so many panels in an image/illustration, there might be something interesting going on; and certainly we can talk about the image in terms of design, even independent of its content.

With all of these panels, the cover reminds us that a single image can be sequential, and that the sequence here (in contrast to one in a comic made of rows) is unstable: it can be read in many different orders; there is no definitive way through the image's 'units' (which seem like an ugly term to use when describing such an attractive image).

* What about gender and technology? Girls leaving dolls behind them to invent worlds? They appear to have just been playing tea and cake while dressing the dolls; cups are knocked over and three of the dolls’ four shoes are off. The girls seem to have left this play-world in a hurry . . . There’s a real sense of chaos toward the bottom of the image that’s replaced by an impression of order as we move up into the space of technology. Maybe Ware endorses their implicit ‘rejection of gender roles’ and the technology gender gap? (The cover is a male-free zone, with girls, girl-surrogates (female dolls), and girl avatars.) Or perhaps he's just documenting, with a kind of objectivity. something he's witnessed.

* Each girl is near a doll whose outfit matches hers. Note how different the poses of the girls’ bodies are when compared to their doll counterpart. The girls, comfortable and creative, seem to be rejecting those more restrictive poses. Lying on the floor, the un-bendable Barbie can never relax: she must forever pose, and even be propped up in order to stay upright.

On the topic of matching colors: in a balancing design gesture, the partially-shown lamp on the left shares the two-color scheme of the outfit on the girl on the right, just as the colors of the partially-shown doll on the right -- atop the bookshelf -- resemble the outfit of the girl on the left. There's what appears to a skirt at the bottom/center of the image; it's blue and red, with the blue part 'gesturing' toward the blue girl and the red part toward the red girl. Some of this mirroring seems to be related to how Minecraft can be played.

Another odd detail: a shrub visible through the window is blue (you can have blue trees in Minecraft.)

* The blue girl sits in a full-size chair, her doll’s play-chair almost fully hidden under the desk. This feels like some kind of ‘moving away from childish things’ -- or at least Ware sets up a relationship between these things. Like the dolls, a few books are strewn about, perhaps tossed aside for the more engaging Minecraft. Is Ware, a lover and maker of books, OK with this? In 2015, are books and dolls becoming more and more like artifacts of some dying world? Or, again, is this just something that happens in homes around the whole that Ware finds visually interesting, socially relevant, and/or 'relatable'?

Etc. Etc.

If you don’t like the  cover, fair enough. All such opinions are valid. But I think there’s a lot going on in it, more than can be expressed by a few words. It's a pretty dense image. (Sorry about the sloppiness -- I wrote it kind of fast, internet style.)