I’m a severe procrastinator, yet I type these words eight days before this review’s publication date. At 5:19 am. This is the highest possible compliment I can pay artist Chris Ware, whose upcoming “book,” Building Stories (Pantheon, $50, out October 2) quietly defies any pre-existing comic conventions. I couldn’t wait to write about how ardently I recommend this collection.
Building Stories is packaged like a plastic-wrapped board game – board included. The board unfolds into four rectangular panels. Each features an exterior view of a three-story row house in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park (Ware’s neighborhood). Three floors, three apartments, three narratives (and occasional omniscient point of view from the actual building). Meet an apprehensive wife and mom, a jerk and his long-suffering girlfriend, and the elderly landlady who’s lived her whole life at that address.
Cartoons induce nostalgia, and with the board, Ware is encouraging adult playtime. Stand it up and make a tall three-dimensional residence that can be viewed from any angle like a sculpture. Construct a lofty zigzag so that the houses appear coupled together. Or crouch down over the flat board and let your eyes zigzag across the drawings’ variations, as if appraising a quartette of Warhol prints.
Instead of dice and cards, the box contains fourteen separate works to cull through – including two bound books, two oversized newspapers, two magazines, and an assortment of pamphlets, panels and chapbooks. Again, they interweave the narratives of the three aforementioned households, focusing mostly on the dark-haired mom who vacillates between mundane niceties and crippling second-guessing. The “graphic novel” misnomer masks the breadth of old and new creations compiled in this extremely innovative, fascinating anthology, a bold declaration for the wonders of pulp and ink in the digital age.
“It’s important to remember that [Chris’s] work is literature – it’s not purely visual. Readers should read it and engage with it as a work of literature and not just get knocked out by the cool cover,” said comic book writer Jessica Abel in a 2006 article in Chicago magazine (written by current executive editor Cassie Walker Burke; I was once her intern). Building Stories is truly beyond classification.
Ware is an acquired taste. When I first encountered his cartoons, I found them unsettling. Interspersed in his lush trees, vivid colors, elegant typography and architectural dexterity are flawed, often miserable characters. Shying away from nothing, Ware confronts isolation, depression, aging, amputation, abortion, suicide, sex, body insecurities, parental smothering, parental abandonment, love, marriage, unemployment, cancer, technology-induced disengagement, the existence of God and the end of the world. His work has been the subject of museum exhibitions and scholarship – I found a paper online from the Scandinavian Journal of Comic Arts called “Towards a Panoptical Representation of Time and Memory: Chris Ware, Marcel Proust and Henri Bergson’s ‘Pure Duration’”.
To me, Ware’s work elicits thoughts of both toned-down, gore-free Francis Bacon paintings and Goth-free Tim Burton films. The cartoons are droll, deeply insightful and always beautiful. He is not the first cartoonist to explore dark themes—from Edward Gorey to Ware contemporaries Daniel Clowes, Ivan Brunetti, and Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi. Lines and shapes are often shadowed in sadness; Charles Schultz exhibited plenty of gloom in his dearly loved Peanuts strip (think of Linus futilely waiting for The Great Pumpkin every Halloween).
Ware often saves his whimsy for his New Yorker covers (see September 17, 2012, among many others; my favorite, from the 2010 summer fiction issue, depicts “Literary Field,” a football stadium where the yard lines correspond with the progression of a writer’s career, from its origins in an infant’s syllabic screams to winning the Nobel Prize). Still, his heart wrenching illustrations occasionally translate to The New Yorker, such as the October 11, 2010 cover. The dark-haired mom and her husband sit at their kitchen counter, migraine-stricken, bent over a pile of bills, a checkbook and a calculator. On the floor, their pink-clad daughter surrounds herself and her pink toy cash register with hand-drawn dollar bills—a wordless encapsulation of our modern financial crisis and it’s inevitable effects on our youth.
Possibly the preeminent cartoonist of our time, Ware has contributed to an array of publications such as McSweeney’s and The New York Times Magazine while earning countless accolades. Despite his inclination to the morose, the forty-something Ware is grateful to be the rare artist—especially in his genre—who is able to financially support himself and his family solely with his art. In an email, Ware wrote, “I feel very lucky because of it.”