We all have certain creators whose work we habitually return to that remind us why we love comics so much. For me, Mike Mignola, Dave Stevens, Eddie Campbell and Jacques Tardi all fall into that category. There is another name I need to add to that list – Chris Ware. This one might surprise some of you, if for no other reason than the notoriously tedious nature of his storytelling. It’s no secret that Ware’s books require some dedication from readers. Still, it’s hard to deny the level of skill that Ware employs in his cartooning, and the equally astronomical level of respect he has for the craft and history of comics. One of my personal highlights of attending last week’s Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland was not only meet Ware and buy an advanced copy of his latest book, Building Stories, but to also attend a panel where he discussed his latest magnum opus at length. Here are some initial thoughts following my first reading of Building Stories.
Walking through the halls of SPX with my new copy of Building Stories in tow, I felt not unlike I do whenever my wife wants to go to Ikea. I usually end up carrying a box the size of a small table of something or other under my arm, and I know it’ll take some time to construct the piece, but it’ll end up being some form of functional furniture. It’s really not until you crack Building Stories open that you really start to grasp the breadth of this project. It’s a box full of various sized comics in numerous forms. There are a few small folded strips, a larger hardcover (which reprints the original Building Stories found in Acme Novelty Library #18, a full newspaper full of comics, a folded game board complete with full diagrams of the building of the title, several large folded comics, and something that looks like a Golden Book that tells the building’s story in the building’s voice. It’s even worth pointing out the beautiful design work on the box front and back. I’m sure I left some items out, but needless to say it’s a lot of comics. When we unpacked the box Sunday night, it took up the entirety of our king size bed.
I know there are some of you that will see this book and all it includes and think it only solidifies Ware’s place as a pompous, pretentious creator. Truthfully, it is an unmanageable and unwieldy project, so on some level I can see why some might jump to such conclusions. Still, I think that’s a generalization of the artist and his work. Building Stories, while large and extensive, is a love letter of sorts, not only to the various forms of comics, but to printed media itself. It seems that Ware created a product like this precisely because he values the tactile experience of reading actual books, papers and comics, and wanted the reader to experience an array of reading forms, and not access the story via a computer screen. That doesn’t make him a cultural dinosaur, but an artist who appreciates the continuing value of the comic as a physical object.
Does this then only make Building Stories a glorified, gluttonous attempt to capture the fading zeitgeist of the printed page? No, it’s still very much a narrative, and one that operates with a keen sense of originality, made all the more significant by the fact that this sprawling set can be read in any sequence. Building Stories is, if nothing else, a celebration of the act of story-building. The stories follow the occupants of an aging row-house type apartment building, and even the building itself. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Ware’s fascination with architecture on display. Maybe a few of you will remember his collaboration with This American Life’s Ira Glass on something called Lost Buildings, which told the story of Chicago architecture of yesteryear. Here, though, we see Ware not only anthropomorphizing an inanimate object, but connecting that object to the notion of memory as it exists in multi-tiered layers. The building not only exists as a place where tenants’ lives are imprinted on the identity of the structure, but as something that lives and breathes on its own, inhabiting its own personality. I don’t think Ware was necessarily trying to mystify the mundane, but there is a feeling that he’s employing a new narrative space, at least in regards to his past catalogue of work.
Building Stories does contain some of the heavy, solemn elements of Ware’s past work, but it also sees the artist branching out. While a signifcant element of Jimmy Corrigan was the relationship between a father and son, Building Stories largely deals with female characters, how they grow and change over time, and how motherhood or the lack of children informs lives. However, these new elements don’t feel contrived, and I doubt that Ware made a conscious effort to focus on female characters because it was different than his last major work. If anything, it seems more that Ware’s own role as the father of a young daughter affected the kind of story he wanted to tell at this stage of his life and career. I’ll leave it to more learned critics to debate Ware’s success at writing female characters, but in my estimation, it does signify his growth, especially as a writer.
I could talk much more about what I think Building Stories means in the overall trajectory of Ware’s catalogue, or where it stands among the great works of his peers. If I wanted to, I could even take the salesman route and mention that this book is only $50, and that Marvel and DC regularly ask up to $100 for twenty-odd comics that you could readily find in dollar boxes at conventions. More than criticism or praise, however, I think the immediate importance of this book (to me, at least) lies in its overall beauty as a comic. The book feels like a full experience, and regardless of how you might feel about Ware and his wares, it’s hard to look at this set and not be impressed by the amount of work that went into its production. It’s a project that will deservedly receive lots of attention, and hopefully it’ll be something that grabs new readers who might be unfamiliar with this artist and his impressive work.
Chris Ware’s Building Stories is scheduled to be in stores October 24th, 2012.