In November 2006, cartoonist Chris Ware published four different covers simultaneously for the Thanksgiving issue of the New Yorker. (For subscribers, which cover one received was happenstance.)  On the New Yorker website, however, Ware published a fifth cover—one that didn’t make it into print to grace the face of the magazine—and called it “Leftovers.”  (The image is no longer available online.) The following year, Ware came out with a large-format portfolio of all five of the covers, 15 by 20 inches each, numbered and titled: in order, we have “Stuffing,” “Conversation,” “Family,” “Main Course”—and “Leftovers.” [1]

The covers tell a story, although not a chronological one. They are linked by intergenerationality, and by space, tying 1942 to the Twenty-first Century through a single edifice, a residential apartment building in New York City, and through the figure of a man—sometimes he’s a man, sometimes he’s a boy—in yellow. In the first cover, “Stuffing,” he sits on a park bench, elderly and alone on Thanksgiving, in a yellow coat, feeding pigeons and staring up into his former domicile on the fourth floor of the building. In the last, “Leftovers,” he is the narrator. And while it is his decidedly adult voice (“Wait… It was Downtown…It was called a Downtown candy bar. How could I forget that?”), appearing in thin, wavery, uppercase black letters, which recollects in “Leftovers,” we see the narrator, visually, grow from small boy to young man in this final, proliferated installment of panels.  Ware’s first Thanksgiving cover is a single-frame image, as are most covers of the New Yorker; the second is halved into two images (locating us in the forties on top, followed by the aughts at the bottom); the third is comprised of four panels; the fourth is based on a grid of sixteen panels… And the fifth is based on a virtuosically dense grid of 256 panels. 

“Leftovers” is a stunning collocation of words and images of all shapes and sizes, of jagged zones and clusters of memory captured on the page that yet remain in unfixed relation to each other.  Its sheer visual weight is breathtaking. Taken on the whole as a graphic unit, an architected page à la Winsor McCay, it’s beautiful in the way a fully constructed, evidently difficult puzzle is; it rhymes and echoes, even on first brief glance; one sees that Ware has fit the pieces, the shards of past and present, together. One’s eyes flit up and down to the rich red, and the elegant forties typeface of the doubled “Up-town” and “Down-town” Milk Chocolate bars, and side to side to the echoing baby blue and white vertically elongated panels lining the margins—the Empire State Building on the left, and a life-size pencil on the right. Anchoring the profusion of fragments and bursts is a grey-shaded soldier in the center. 

And yet despite the design abstraction of its visual surface, within the space of the many subdivided frames, there is a complex story to be apprehended. The story, as one discerns it by reading clusters of panels that move both horizontally and vertically—there is no “right” way to read it—is about two brothers, one of whom died in 1942. In the way “Leftovers,” associative and non-linear in its organization, asks us to read and to look, constantly searching back and forth to fill in meaning, it is an image that is thematically about and yet also itself suggests in its form the act of memory.  As Art Spiegelman, one of Ware’s fellow cartoonists, has remarked, “Comics work the way the brain works: Picture-signs mixed with little bursts of language. PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE all scrambled and butted up against each other—the perfect medium for depicting MEMORY.” [2] Ware’s image makes this dazzlingly legible in the way practically no other comics work to date has been able to do. [3] The poetics of comics is one of distillation and condensation, a procedure of putting essences into play, and here we might say, following one of Ware’s own stated goals, that a single page image has the density of a novel. 

The savvy of “Leftovers,” both visual and intellectual, stems from the fact that it is about media and it is about genre (including those comics staples, superheroes and funny animals). It not only carries the inherent self-reflexivity of comics, a hand-drawn form that unfolds in juxtaposed boxes, but it also further calls our attention to different media—radio, drawing, movies, photographs, and the relationship of these media to each other. A 1942 photograph of the narrator’s soldier brother, evident as such because of its black and white shaded coloring, sits at the exact center; I like to think of “Leftovers” as offering us a picture and a picture frame at once, in which the latter is comprised of hundreds of tiny colorful memories, surrounding the supposedly more indexical stand-in for the dead. (In Ware’s rendering of this photograph, which makes an appearance in other of the New Yorker covers, the subject’s eyes are curiously elided; he seems to have no gaze at all, while the construction of the page focuses our gaze intently upon him, therefore aesthetically inscribing his frozenness and what Barthes calls the “flat Death” of the Photograph.) [4] In this way, “Leftovers” takes up and makes literal the question of: how do we “frame” an image of a loved one? 

“Leftovers” is about a cartoonist-soldier.  Discussing the work, Ware says, “I was surprised at the number of illustrated letters that soldiers sent home from World War II…. It surprised me, the number of letters that were illustrated and had little cartoons in the corners.” [5]  In panels at the top of the page, the narrator describes how he and his brother liked to listen to the radio—“Our favorite show was ‘The Adventures of Superman’”—and silent panels show them listening, “…until he grew out of it.”  They also “loved movies,” and “we both read the Sunday funnies and read comic books, too, when we could afford them.”  “For a while,” spidery text in an otherwise blank white space proffers, almost at the right-hand edge of the page, before an image of Rizzi drawing, “he decided he wanted to be a cartoonist.” Five panels earlier, in the same horizontal row, under an image of the two brothers walking, the smaller in yellow, accompanying the single declaration “He hated football,” Rizzi has one speech balloon: “Maybe you could write the story.” Here we have a typical example of the way the piece unfolds its narrative fabric: Rizzi’s comment, which in traditional left-to-right reading precedes any context with which we could understand its referent, finally makes sense if we return to it again after an illuminating anecdote. But before we may have the chance to even piece out this connection, we may notice that the pencil—“one of his pencils,” even, “sharpened with a pocket knife… and chewed…down to the wood” has practically the visual status of the Empire State Building in “Leftovers”; it is the only other panel, aside from the photograph, that takes up as much space.  It is also the only figurative panel that is unbordered; the pencil stands snugly, vertically, tucked in among the panels on the vertical edge of “Leftovers,” but it is uncontained; one feels, and the visual suggestion is, one could reach in and grab it.

As the visual predominance of this chewed, knife-sharpened archival pencil indicates, the status of drawing—and the idea of his dead brother as a drawer—is key to “Leftovers.” Rizzi receives a used 1928 Ford Model A for his birthday, devotes his waking hours to the car, and despite the fact that the narrator describes their parents as “Isolationists,” he “enlisted the day of the school Christmas dance,” presumably at 18. “Betsy Vanderbilt cried and cried,” Rizzi tells his little brother, “But it was worth it, because she finally let me feel her up.” The narrator’s brother is dead by Thanksgiving 1942, which the family, as yet unaware, celebrates by putting blueberry pie on the sideboard next to his picture. They find out later through a Western Union telegram—Ware draws both the telegram itself, and the envelope it arrives in, each as discrete, and not even continuous panels—that the brother was killed in basic training a day before Thanksgiving. And then his letters arrive—some weeks after, some months after. It is in this post-death space that the very last row of “Leftovers” finally gives us the auratic hand of the older brother. First, in the bottom left, we see a tiny unfinished comics story, “Ace Smith.” This comic-within-a-comic has two pages, each half an inch high; the panels are tiny, but the beginning of a story is discernible. “Looking back on it,” the narrator tells us, “I was still a little sore about how our one and only ‘collaboration’ had gone. I’d scripted a long adventure comic book, but he never even finished drawing the second page.” We also get two of Rizzi’s letters, each one-and-a-quarter inches high, in expressive longhand and covered with remarkable little doodles: ships, soldiers, superheroes, planes, hula girls, and a soldier with a thought balloon filled with a ready-to-serve turkey.

I go on at such length with these details because the “Leftovers” image Ware creates he creates as the final collaboration between older and younger brother. Like so many comics, Ware’s piece instantiates the thing that it is about. Rizzi—as he signs his letters—was to draw the story his little brother wrote. In their youthful partnership, the older brother, occupied with cars and girls, and then the army, leaves a collaborative story unfinished.  Here we have the little brother visualizing a different kind of “adventure comic book”; he picks up, in a sense, where Rizzi leaves off, filling out an unscripted story of his brother’s life in images from their life together. “Leftovers” represents the visual memory of the little brother, but we can see it further as the actual materialization of memory, and in that way its comics form is a continuation of the brothers’ initial co-created story. “Leftovers” draws our attention to the notion of memory itself, however intangible, however fleeting, as a medium. Ware has posited the form of comics as “a possible metaphor for memory and recollection” [6]. Here it is no metaphor. The shape of memory is concretized in comics form, and the pre-war collaboration, then, initiated between the brothers continues (with Rizzi as the reality-pocked superhero of his little brother’s life).  

Ware’s piece, appearing in 2006, is certainly about war, death, and commemoration, and its focus on WWII does not at all mask its intent to be a relevant commentary on the fallout of the Iraq War on the occasion of an American holiday centered on the family. In fact, its focus on the past makes its commentary on loss in the present all that much more forceful, if tacit. What is “leftover” in our memory of a person? What is leftover from a life? Ware captures fleeting bursts of words and images—and materializes those objects, however prosaic—that take shape to create memory. In its refusal to offer a fixed reading pattern, and its setting of the reader into a visual volume that forces an intimacy with details, “Leftovers” not only amplifies the interactive nature of the encounter between the image and the viewer, but it compels us interact with the materiality of memory’s durée.

[1] Ware, Chris. Thanksgiving (Acme Novelty Library 18.5).  Chicago, IL: Acme Novelty Library, 2007.  References to “Leftovers” will be to the printed edition. On its website, the New Yorker calls “Leftovers” a “companion strip” to the circulating covers.
[2] Spiegelman, Art.  “Meet Art Spiegelman.”  Bookpage.
[3] This piece is kind of a secret gem of the comics world, a piece about ephemerality—of memory, of life—that itself has appeared in ephemeral contexts.
[4] We might see “Leftovers,” then, as setting up a tension, despite rendering all of its elements by hand, among media of commemoration. Perhaps it indicating, with its central photographic image, what Barthes suggests: “Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory (whose grammatical expression would be the perfect tense, whereas the tense of the Photograph is the aorist), but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory." Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 91.
[5] Ware, Chris. “A Thanksgiving Feast” [Audio]. New Yorker, Nov. 27, 2006.
[6] Ware, Chris. “Introduction.”  Best American Comics 2007, Chris Ware, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), xxii.