Chris Ware has been acclaimed as one of the great innovators in comics with his experimental, deeply human work in The Acme Novelty Library and the collection Jimmy Corrigan. His latest project might be his most unique yet – Building Stories, a box full of pamphlets, newspapers, booklets and even a fold-out board depicting the lives of an apartment building’s residents (and occasionally a bee named Banford).
Compiling stories that first appeared in such prestigious publications as The New York Times, The New Yorker and McSweeney’s, the just-released collection from Pantheon has already earned raves as not only one of the best comics of the year, but also one of the best collections of short stories in any medium. We got up with Ware to discuss this new collection, the uniqueness of print comics, the perspectives of his characters, and more.
Nrama: How did the concept for Building Stories as a collection come about?
Ware: The book began as a single strip about the woman living alone on the third floor of the apartment building, and it grew from there. Originally I'd thought that the fragmentary structure of the book would sort of democratically reflect the inhabitants of the building itself, but that idea started to seem simplistic and as it became clear that the woman on the third floor was the main character and that everything was also filtering through her consciousness, I let it develop along those lines — which I think (and hope) makes for a more interesting book.
Nrama: The collection is getting a pretty prestigious release -- experimenting with formats is a major part of your repertory, but it's rare to see a GN or fiction collection get a wide release that's a $50 hardcover -- let alone a box full of pamphlets and newspapers.
What were some of the unique challenges you faced in putting this together, and how do you feel the book's release in this format reflects changes to the perception of comics as a literary medium since you began creating cartoons?Ware: Honestly, I have no idea. If anything, I guess it shuffles the idea of a graphic novel slightly closer to the “art” end of the spectrum than to the literary, though those distinctions are sort of artificial. Mostly, I'd hoped to make an object that was compelling, forgiving, interesting, and if at all possible, beautiful, though I'm not sure if I succeeded or not.
We're living through a moment right now where the idea of the physicality of reading and even experience is being challenged in very strange ways, and I guess I wanted to make something that was still in favor of corporeality.
Nrama: On a different note about format -- the tales in Building Stories are very much objects in and of themselves. A great part of the experience comes from holding them in your hand, with the size and shape of each piece reflecting the intimacy or expansiveness of the tale within. I've been writing a number of interviews on webcomics, and digital versions of print comics on iPads and such have become increasingly popular.
What is your take on digital comics vs. print, particularly given on how you comment on the disconnect of social media and modern technology in several of the stories? What are some things you can do in print that you can't do with a digital comic, and vice versa?
Ware: Well, the main thing is that a page, unlike a screen, is generally not viewed as a hole through which to look; a large page of comics is simply at the moment not reproducible in an electronic format; a version of something like it is certainly available, but it's a compromise, and I didn't want to compromise.
There's still something to be said for media which don't plug into the wall and that one can lay on top of.Nrama: With the exception of Banford, the tales of Building Stories are from a female perspective. What made you want to focus on multiple female protagonists?
Ware: It wasn't a choice, it simply worked out that way. When I was in art school, I was told on at least a couple of occasions that I couldn't (not shouldn't, but couldn't) draw women because doing so would be unethical — I think the phrase at the time was “colonize the female body” — but it's a fundamental function of being a human being to try and understand what it's like to be someone else, whether that person is younger, older, darker, lighter, lesser or more that you, or of the opposite sex.
In some ways, it's the single most important skill a person can develop, and one that one keeps honing and revising one's entire life. Everyone, every minute of the day, is writing fiction. Every single assumption, image, story, idea or notion that one has about someone else is fundamentally imaginative, though we think we “know” and “understand” other people.
I found it utterly flabbergasting that artists, and particularly art teachers, would choose to limit themselves so drastically. I mean, the worst one could be was wrong, right?Nrama: When you began working on these stories, was it initially with the intent of forming a narrative -- or rather, a mosaic? If not, what was the point where you realized you could tie these materials together?
Ware: The mind is a very organized thing, and I don't think it's the role of the artist to impose a structure on it, but to find the structures within it. So I sort of write with that in mind, if that doesn't sound too pretentious. I genuinely believe that the form will always find itself if one allows it to.
Nrama: Do you have a particular preferred reading order for the stories, and if so, would you share it with us? There's a sort of internal order that becomes apparent as you're reading the tales, but the main effect of the box is that you tend to read them in no particular order. Was this by design?
Ware: Yes, this is absolutely by design. There is no preferred order whatsoever, nor should the diagram on the back (simply an attempt to enumerate the contents of the box s democratically as possible) be read as favoring any one over the other.
Nrama: A major theme of the stories featuring the character I'll just call “The ‘GOD!’ Lady” is motherhood, and the feelings of connection and uncertainty that come with being a parent. What is most interesting to you about that relationship, which is examined in multiple forms in several of your works?Ware: I like the name you've given her. For better or for worse, she's essentially my own doubts and uncertainties as poured into the form of my wife, who's otherwise a very respectable and accomplished Chicago Public School science teacher.
But the woman in the story constantly questions whether she's left something of herself behind in devoting herself to motherhood, which I don't think is necessarily all that unusual of a circumstance to find oneself, regardless of gender. She dwells on it perhaps a little too much, or maybe I dwell on it a little much.
More than anything, I'd hoped to show the painful and unremitting passage of time that takes a child daily that much farther away from a parent; one of my friends, an artist named Peter Power, once said to me that he thought parenthood was essentially learning how to say goodbye to someone for the duration of their life. I don't think he was too far off the mark.
Nrama: Another major theme throughout the “GOD!” Lady's stories is the difficulty in accepting happiness. That's a very universal human conflict, and I'm curious as to why you feel there's such a difficulty in feeling satisfaction with life, or taking responsibility for one's sense of well-being.
Ware: I think happiness is somewhat overrated; it's important as a sort of self-governing indicator of internal functioning, but it's a symptom, not a cause. Were our forebears —immigrants, pioneers— happy most of the time? Was it their aim to create a world where we could drive to a multiplex and see blockbuster superhero movies? I dunno.
Nrama: What's the experience of the gallery exhibitions (at New York’s Adam Baumgold Gallery and Chicago’s Carl Hammer Gallery) of the book’s original artwork been like?
Ware: Once I left art school I sort of gave up on exhibiting in galleries, because I found the experience — though I tried to think it through as much as possible — trying and complicated, from photographing paintings and sculpture to standing at an opening wondering if anyone was going to show up.
As well, the notion of books being inherently almost valueless and available to almost anyone seemed so much more honest and forgiving to me than producing one painting which would disappear into an upper-class household forever.
I realize that by working in print I've culturally devalued what I do, which has its disadvantages, but I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, because it allows for a more honest relationship between reader and writer.Nrama: And how did the paper building set you've created as a sort-of supplement come about?
Ware: I wanted to make the apartment building as a sort of paper-memory-model, though since I'd already decided to split the original artwork of Building Stories into two equal, symmetrical shows, that meant I had to make two of them. So it simply became easier to draw it and have it printed, though I don't really expect anyone to put it together.
It's really just an addendum to the book, which nonetheless tries to get at the isometric perspective I sort of self-consciously employ in some sort of real form; I think that when we look into models and toys our minds adjust what we're seeing into these more grommetricized sorts of memory-images, and they affect our perceptions, somehow — which of course accounts for some of the delight they inspire.
Nrama: Have you ever tried to tell a story in a particular format you just couldn't pull off? If so, what was the major obstacle? Are there other formats you'd like to try in the future?
Ware: Well, I'm not much of a writer. It always feels like roller-skating on oiled glass to me; I need pictures to hold onto or I start rolling backwards.
Nrama: Of all the novels/collections/graphic novels set in the same building, what's your particular favorite? I'm fond of Thomas M. Disch's 334 myself.
Ware: I avoided reading Life: a User's Manual by Perec throughout working on Building Stories so I wouldn't be influenced by it and I hadn't heard of Disch's book, so I'll add it to my list.
While working on the 24-hour chapter of the book which appeared in the New York Times magazine I discovered a quasi-graphic novel by cartoonist Allan Dunn called East of Fifth about the goings-on in a large Manhattan apartment building over the course of 24 hours.
And just a couple of days ago I found out about a British novel called The Unfortunates by the coincidentally-named “B.S. Johnson” – the acronym “B.S.” for Building Stories was only slightly intentional – which appeared first in 1969 as a box of 27 pamphlets, apparently only the first and last of which were intended to be read in order. He also apparently committed suicide, so that doesn't bode well for we writers-in-boxes.
Building Stories is in stores now.