Delving into Chris Ware’s massive, multilayered comics project Building Stories

Delving into Chris Ware’s massive, multilayered comics project Building Stories

Noel: Since finishing his groundbreaking graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, Chris Ware has primarily been working on two projects: the serialized graphic novel Rusty Brown, which has been running in Ware’s infrequently published comic-book series Acme Novelty Library; and Building Stories, which Ware has run in Acme as well as in scattered comics anthologies and general-interest magazines. This whole time, Rusty Brown has seemed like the next major Ware work, with Building Stories more of an engine for generating simple, poignant pieces for well-paying periodicals. In their individual installments, the Building Stories stories have been beautiful but fairly slight, following a set of typically Ware-ian protagonists—an old landlady who’s never known romance, a bickering young couple who used to be hip, and an insecure artist with a prosthetic leg—through their ordinary lives of dull jobs, plumbing woes, and sexual dissatisfaction. But now, Building Stories has been collected by Pantheon, as 14 different books, tabloid sheets, and pamphlets, contained within a large cardboard box. And I have to say, after spending a week poring over them all, I think this may actually be Ware’s best work, trumping both the still-uncompleted Rusty Brown and Jimmy Corrigan.

But before I get into why I think that—and whether you agree—Tasha, I think we have to talk about the format of Building Stories. Specifically: How do you read the damn thing? There’s actually a chronology to the individual pieces, but while the box offers a suggestion of where to read them, it doesn’t really recommend an order. Myself, I went roughly in order of length, starting with the thin little strips and booklets, and then working my way up to the tabloid-sized magazines before finishing with the longer hardback books (the longest of which was originally published as Acme Novelty Library #18 back in 2007, and which I reviewed at the time). Experiencing Building Stories this way, with the chronology all mixed up, was actually useful. The main protagonist of the graphic novel is that one-legged artist, whose story stretches backward and forward, from her lonely childhood to her eventually getting married, having a kid, and moving out of the building. Going at Building Stories the way I did, I encountered her first as a settled suburbanite, and then saw her a depressed post-grad working in a flower shop, and then returned to her turbulent college years, and throughout, I found that I recognized characters from her life I might’ve overlooked otherwise, because I’d already seen what was going to become of them.

This freedom that Ware allows Building Stories’ readers, to pick up the narrative wherever they choose, has led some early reviewers to call this something other than a graphic novel. Kirkus Reviews created a stir by dubbing it “a treasure-trove of graphic artworks,” adding, “they’re too complex to be called comics.” That’s the kind of talk that understandably irritates longtime comics fans. Dylan Meconis wrote a blog post last month called “How Not To Write Comics Criticism” in which she blasted what she calls the “this muffin is so good that it’s actually a bagel” tendency of mainstream book reviewers, who feel the need to claim that the best graphic novels somehow aren’t comics.

So I’m not going to do that. Building Stories is definitely comics. In fact, in breaking the medium back down to tiny units—some with the shape and weight of the kind of bought-today-recycled-tomorrow periodical that might be found on a newsstand—Ware has created something that’s more like comics than most graphic novels. That said, if ever a collection earned the dreaded “not really a comic” tag, Building Stories might be it, just because of the unusual way it’s put together. There’s another dimension to this novel, added by the opportunity for each new reader to go through it in his or her own way.

Or perhaps I’m overrating that aspect. Tasha, how did you read Building Stories, and did you think your order was the “right” one?

Tasha: I instinctively did the same thing you did, starting with the small folded strips and working my way upward in size to the big books, probably out of a feeling that I was starting simply and working my way toward the complex stuff. Except that this being Chris Ware, there is no “simple” end of the spectrum. Actually, the two little folded strips have given me some of the most difficulty. They seem to function like Möbius strips—there are comics on both sides, and no clear narrative beginning or end. You can read them in a circle. And because they’re so short, there’s less room for context, so it can be harder to interpret them. In one of them, there’s a moment where that insecure artist with a prosthetic leg and her daughter are sitting at a table, with the daughter apparently doing her homework. Then the daughter strikes herself in the head. The next panel shows the mother restraining her arm while they continue working. Then there’s a small panel with the mother’s extended hand, followed by a small panel of the daughter’s hand striking it. What’s going on here? Is the mother reaching out for the daughter and being rebuffed? Offering her hand for a high-five because they’ve finished the homework together without further violent incident? Offering her hand to be slapped to further prevent the daughter taking out her violence on herself?

These little details stick with me and haunt me more than the issue of how Building Stories as a whole is meant to be read, because it’s simultaneously such a big question, and not really the point. If I had to make a suggestion, I’d say the best way to start with the project is to read the installment patterned after a Little Golden Book, because it introduces the building that gives Building Stories its name (in one sense of the word) and provides an overview of the inhabitants whom we see over and over—the aging landlady, the fighting couple, the one-legged artist. It provides a good backbone for all the series, and it’s a good foundation for what Ware is building in the other sense of the title.

But I think the point of the presentation is that everyone gets to make their own choices about what order to read it all in, and how to mentally assemble all the pieces. Ware has expressly said that Building Stories’ segmented, piecemeal nature is about memory, and how our pasts exist as jumbled fragments in our heads that sometimes can rise up and overwhelm us with their intensity, but in other cases lie fallow for years. We see the memory theme come up over and over—when the one-legged artist hears that an old boyfriend called her mom, and it provokes sudden huge, intense emotion. Or when she thinks about how much time she’s losing as the days blur together without leaving significant pieces behind. Or when later, as a wife and mother, she hears from another old boyfriend and immediately falls into the emotional intensity of her younger years—just for a few days, until her current life asserts itself, and the old boyfriend starts to seem needy and pathetic to her. The way the story jumps back and forth in time even within the individual books or strips or pamphlets further extends the theme, and the way every person will assemble all the pieces differently seems to be part of the point.

In that sense, I can almost see claiming that Building Stories is “too complex to be called comics,” because it’s meant not just as a bunch of comics, but as an interactive comics-based experience curated by each individual reader. Too bad the Kirkus review didn’t seem to be saying that at all; the “too complex” thing seems to just be a tossed-off dismissal of every example of the medium except this one. Which smacks of the kind of “This isn’t a genre novel, because it’s good” pigeonholing that leads people to dismiss broad swaths of media even at their best, because everybody knows those media aren’t worthy of attention. It’s insulting and ignorant. And man, that Dylan Meconis blog post you linked to is a smart, epic answer to that flavor of ignorance.

But I don’t think it’s insulting to say that Ware seems to be doing something here where linearity isn’t the point, and where he doesn’t want anyone establishing a set order for reading all these pieces. To that end, the pieces aren’t named—we can’t say “Start with [Title], then move on to [Title]” because there are no titles. The characters don’t have names either, which makes references difficult. And I’m curious as to why. I’d suspect he’s trying to make the characters more universal, except that they’re so specific and detail-rich; it’s hard to take someone as an Everywoman when she’s a one-legged, weight-obsessed, depressive failed artist with a complicated emotional backstory. What do you think Ware is getting at there? And do, like me, obsess over little ambiguities in his work as much as these big overarching ones?

Noel: Oh, I definitely think about what Ware leaves dangling. For example, our artist friend finds out at one point that her late father cheated on her mother, and there’s a suggestion—never confirmed—that the artist’s architect husband is having his own affair, given that he “works late” a lot, and given that she admits at one point that that they don’t have sex all that often. The lack of names for the main characters seems to me to be a way of suggesting that whatever their distinguishing characteristics, ultimately they’re all just dumb humans, who’ll keep making the same mistakes their parents did, and never realize that they’re doing it. Case in point: The artist dresses her daughter in the same kind of princess costume she herself wore when she was a little girl, and she hires a nanny for her daughter after working as a nanny herself in her 20s.

Well… wait. It’s inaccurate to say that none of the main characters have names. There is one: Branford, The Best Bee In The World, who is both a character in a story that the artist reads to her daughter and an actual bee who leads a pathetic little life outside the apartment building. Branford is featured in two of Building Stories’ pamphlets, both of which serve largely as comic relief, similar to some of Ware’s past exercises in dark slapstick, like his “potato man” comic or his “Big Tex” strips. But they’re relevant to the book as a whole. One of the longest and largest of the artist’s stories opens with her exasperatedly muttering “god” to herself, as she’s jogging toward a shaft of sunlight on a tree-lined street, and Branford’s stories are also about his relationship with a god represented by sun and plants. So really, the Branford Bee stories may be the key to unlocking Building Stories, which is full of people buzzing around mindlessly, following their impulses while fooling themselves into believing they have a plan and a purpose.

Not that I’m implying that Building Stories requires “unlocking,” as though it were somehow impenetrable. It’s actually very easy to read and enjoy, for reasons I intend to get to later. And it’s not all that hard to grasp, necessarily. You’re absolutely right to zero in on Ware’s insistence that the novel is about memory. Something else I noticed from reading the stories out of chronological order is that the artist keeps romanticizing parts of her life that we know she found absolutely miserable at the time. One advantage to Building Stories’ format is that it allows Ware to compartmentalize the individual pieces of the story well, giving each its own perspective. In other words, the college and post-grad versions of the artist has no awareness of the woman who’ll become a stay-at-home mom, and the reverse is just as true: she doesn’t remember who she was. (For example, there’s a subtle repeating gag in two of the stories about a college friend she keeps failing to realize is gay.)

There are two ways to take this theme of rolling misery: It’s either incredibly bleak, or oddly hopeful. I tend to take it as the latter, but maybe that’s because—lack of a name aside—the heroine of Building Stories is the most nuanced and relatable character that Ware has yet created. She’s not a complete social misfit, like Jimmy Corrigan or Rusty Brown; she has friends, and a stable(ish) relationship, and a kid she’s trying to raise as best as she can in a world she worries is sliding into oblivion. She’s not depressed all the time; she just thinks she is. She may not see it, but we see how she veers from being annoyed at her husband to thinking he’s the sweetest man in the world, and how her lows are balanced by some nice moments. Plus, Ware makes it clear that time will pass, and she’ll eventually be nostalgic even for the days when her loved ones died. Because of the way Building Stories is structured, there’s no definitive end for this character, which means there’s always the possibility of a better day.

I do have one big beef about Building Stories that I want to address before I get back to admiring it, though, and it’s related to what I just said about the lack of a definitive end. My main criticism is that I don’t know why Building Stories is just these 14 pieces, and not more—or less. There’s an arbitrariness about it, almost as though Ware decided to drop the project before it was really finished, or before it sprawled beyond any reasonable containment. The building itself ceases to be a part of the story at a certain point, and the other inhabitants—the old landlady and the bickering couple—barely figure into the book as a whole. This is really the artist’s story, and it could’ve easily continued. In fact, at San Diego Comic-Con, the Pantheon booth was handing out a free strip-sized Building Stories pamphlet that doesn’t appear in the box, and Drawn & Quarterly is selling a Building Stories paper model kit that contains a few more small details about the place and its residents.

So here’s a pointed question: Is Ware really being innovative with this grab-bag approach, or is he just disguising that this isn’t really a graphic novel at all, but just a bunch of loosely connected stories? Thoughts, Tasha?

Tasha: I confess I don’t see the close relevance you see between the two Branford Bee pieces and the rest of the material, and when you draw a parallel based on one muttered “god,” it feels to me like you’re straining to make a connection that Ware hasn’t made overt. I drew some of my own conclusions about how Branford fits in, largely based on the contrast between his stories and the artist’s daughter’s reaction to them: We spend Branford’s pieces inside his head, which is a dark place full of doubts, confusion, and suffering. His life is miserable on all fronts, he fantasizes about escaping it, and he loathes himself for it, at great length. And the artist’s daughter, without analyzing or explaining her interest in any way, expresses delight over his funny stories and what a fun character he is. All of which makes me wonder if Ware is drawing a parallel between Branford and the similarly self-doubting, self-hating one-legged artist, and between her daughter and us as readers, who are looking down on her pain in the same way, taking it in as entertainment. 

Or maybe it’s just that Ware’s characters are all relentless, vicious self-critics. (Like Ware himself; note the first exchange in the interview I linked above, where the interviewer asks what he’d say to a new reader tuning in for Building Stories, and he answers, “First of all, I would probably apologize, because I feel compelled to do that for everything I do.”) And maybe the Branford Bee material doesn’t really link closely with the rest. It does feel like that to me—like it’s far outside the story, and questionably relevant. In that sense, Building Stories feels random and grab-baggish to me.

But mostly, the material holds together for me as a unified work with a unified thesis. I wouldn’t call it a graphic novel simply because that suggests a physical format this doesn’t have; it’s more like an art collection. That said, I don’t think there being more of it that isn’t included in this set, or more stories potentially left to tell, in any way obviates the material we do have, any more than, say, Maus I wasn’t a graphic novel because Maus II was coming along, or the first Harry Potter book wasn’t a novel because J.K. Rowling had more books on the way. Maybe what’s included here feels arbitrary, but what open-ended story doesn’t? It’s up to the artist to decide when a piece is done, and it’s up to the same artist to decide later that no, it wasn’t done, there’s more to come. No, Building Stories isn’t a single tightly wound start-to-finish narrative, but nothing about it implies that it will be, from the title to the artist himself. Chris Ware for me has almost always been more about mood and process and intricate execution and metaphor and intense, keenly observed emotion than about an A-to-B story. (Except maybe in “The Seeing Eye Dogs Of Mars,” my favorite of his works. But even that is a self-contained story with ties to a much larger whole.)

He’s also always been about that tone of barely contained despair, which you definitely see as more hopeful and open than I do. I’ve struggled at times with the raw miserablist emotional content of Ware’s work, while being drawn back to him over and over because he’s such an amazing designer. (I have a similar relationship with Lars von Trier, though Ware is kinder by far to his female characters.) Where you see an open-ended opportunity for growth and better days, I see characters mostly going slowly but steadily downhill, like that landlady, with her idealized past, her struggling, doubtful present, and her future, clearly indicated as a coffin. Or the squabbling couple, whose relationship once meant so much—and clearly still does, but only in their heads, not in their interactions with each other. The artist is the only one whose story offers hope, in part because the first half of her life is so aimless and filled with turmoil, which doesn’t seem to have carried over fully into her adult life.

The one place Building Stories feels incomplete to me, though, is in the lack of connective tissue between that character’s unfocused, unhappy younger years and her married-with-kid life. We see her at places along the way, but never get the story of her romance in the detail devoted to, say, her painful au pair period, her failed relationships, or her day-to-day mom life. And I honestly wonder whether Ware just doesn’t have it in him to portray what might have been the happiest part of her life. Do you think there are other reasons why that part of the story is missing?

Noel: I tend to agree with you that Ware feels more comfortable writing and drawing about people who are in blue periods (which in Ware comics typically run from birth to death), and I also agree that this is his main weakness as a storyteller, that he doesn’t vary his pitch much. But I do see the highs and lows of the artist’s life in Building Stories as reasonably well-connected, even if Ware doesn’t always flesh them out. In that Little Golden Book, for example, which takes place over the course of one September day in 2000, the artist shows the flirty side that will win her husband’s heart, and she’s already starting to obsess over the news she hears on public radio, which will become a more significant character trait later. So I see it as all mixed together: the positive and negative aspects of the heroine’s life. It’s just that she’s more focused on the negative, and only recognizes the positive fleetingly, or on reflection.

Something else I found funny from the Golden Book: In one panel, the artist’s future husband grumbles about how he hates “the Internet,” while later in his life, we’ll almost never see him without an iPad perched on his chest. Even though I feel like the format of Building Stories makes it somewhat unsatisfying as a graphic novel, I do love the way it allows Ware to slip in little jokes and references like this, without being heavy-handed about it. The husband’s Internet-aversion and iPad addiction are disconnected, placed in separate books about different times in his life, and never expressly commented on by anyone. Readers get to make that link for themselves. (Along those same lines, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss my God theory, Tasha. It’s not just in the oversized comic about the artist dealing with death that the word is set apart; “god” is also set apart from the regular text multiple times in the story about the bickering couple, which is the one that actually begins with the jerky ex-rocker accidentally killing Branford.)

Similarly, people who read just the Golden Book would come away thinking Building Stories was relatively upbeat, since the “24 hours in the life of an apartment building” gives way in its final page to a look ahead to 2005, when the artist is married and a mother. That’s mainly what I mean about the hope in the book: Take certain passages out of the context of the whole, and Building Stories can seem like the story of a sad young woman who got her life together. And because of the way Building Stories is assembled, readers are actually encouraged to create their own context, simply by virtue of the randomized order in which they read.

And whatever my qualms about whether Building Stories comes together as well as it could’ve, I can’t say enough about what a pleasure it was to read as a 14-part mosaic. Each individual piece is just so masterfully paced and illustrated, with clever rhyming images and little epiphanies. Whenever I finished one, I was in no hurry to pick up the next one, because the feeling of completing each book was so satisfying, like watching a particularly fine short film (or feature, in the case of the longer stories). Ware is limited, I think, by his preoccupation with depression, but I’ve been impressed over the past half-decade by how much he’s grown as an artist. He seemed to emerge fully-formed with that first issue of Acme Novelty Library, with a purposefully rigid cartooning style and a formal command that he could’ve stuck with for the rest of his career, and profitably so. But just as with the recent “Jordan Lint” issue of Acme, Building Stories sports more detailed facial expressions and body language—and a subtler use of color—than Ware deployed on Jimmy Corrigan.

Ware’s arc as a cartoonist is kind of the opposite of Building Stories’ arc. In Building Stories, everything seems terrible, except in retrospect; and with Ware, each book seems unbeatable, until the next book comes out and beats it.

Tasha: And I would argue that one of the reasons for that is that he does have such a narrow focus that he’s driven to keep coming up with creative new ways to address it—new avenues into people’s heads, new layout methods to indicate the action moving from one ways to express their moods, in parallel or contrast or conjunction with each other. One of my favorite pieces in this collection is that oversized installment you mentioned, where Branford dies—essentially, it’s just two gigantic two-space spreads on cardboard.

But it’s classic Ware, a sort of giant flow chart with different people’s thoughts and actions leading to each other. And on that first giant page, we see the artist painting her nails before a blind date with someone who answered a personal ad. She examines her painted toes and the blank, too-regular toes of her artificial foot. And then she goes to the diner and waits for her date, imagining a series of faces for him. He stands her up, and she goes home to bed alone, and one of the last things we see is her prosthetic leg sitting by the bed—with neat little red toenails painted on it. The whole sequence is wordless, drawn so simply and with such tiny, often sub-postage-stamp-sized images that you can barely make out her face in most of them. But in one dialogue-free page, you get such an exacting portrait of hope, courage, determination, disappointment, and despair, it’s breathtaking.

And that’s why I don’t mind I don’t have a problem with Ware’s insistence on studying depression and loss and self-hatred and helplessness over and over: His stories aren’t just wallowing, they’re exploring. We’ve talked a lot about the one-legged artist, whom we see the most of here, but in the end, I’m just as struck by the fighting couple, and the way Ware shows us the difference between what goes on in their heads and what they say to each other. The man is endlessly sabotaging a relationship he desperately needs, by thoughtlessly verbally attacking his partner even when he’s at his most vulnerable and hopeful about their future. The woman has an entirely separate relationship with him built up in her head, but every time he speaks, that bubble pops. The emotions are similar to what the artist is going through, but the execution is radically different.

And that’s why where you wanted to savor these artworks one at a time and you hesitated to move on to the next one each time, I tore through them at a fast clip, each time wondering what the next one would bring. Reading Building Stories for me was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without having any idea what the final image would be—and always with the sense that there was no fixed final image, Ware just wants to see what each reader makes out of it. It’s an awfully satisfying way to read a graphic story.

And ultimately, what all the disparate sizes and shapes of these pieces did was prevent me from zipping through the story at the rate I might have with a conventional book. They force readers to consider an order, to put a variety of distinct physical items down and pick up new ones, to wonder in each case why this story is a double-sized, four-panel, two-inch-high folded piece of paper, while this other one is a gigantic newspaper broadsheet, and a third one is two double-truck panels on cardboard, to see each part of the story as discrete, even though they’re all a unified whole. Ultimately, as odd a choice as it all seems, I think the set gains a great deal from its unusual presentation. It gives every reader the chance to, as the title suggests, help build the stories.