Interview—Chris Ware on ‘Building Stories’
Once in awhile, a graphic novel or other comics-related product appears that can’t be ignored. Maus was one, Ghost World another. The latest is Chris Ware’s Building Stories.
Ware is a Chicago cartoonist whose work has mostly been championed by alt-comics fans, at least until 2000’s Jimmy Corrigan. Building Stories expands on that work by introducing new, innovative formal elements.
Recently, I interviewed Ware for the Vancouver Sun. Here are the questions and answers the Sun didn’t have space for. Most of these are questions asked as a comics fan, so watch out for falling fanboy-isms. I should also thank the cartoonist for his carefully considered answers to my sometimes out-there questions.
Ware is the rare cartoonist whose art is matched not just by formalist experimentation but also by his storytelling abilities (and, relatedly, his empathy for his fellow human beings). He’s demonstrating all these talents to varying degrees in his comics series Acme Novelty Library, in related toys (like the Rusty Brown lunchbox—more on which later) and in his 2000 blockbuster graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.
But Building Stories is the best yet distillation of his talents. It’s a story told in pieces (14, in different sizes and formats) that come in a box. It’s beautiful to look at, fun to browse through, hard to fit into a bookshelf. It’s the conversation piece of the year, and it might break your heart.
Shawn Conner: You’re receiving these tremendous (and deserved) accolades for Building Stories. But who are the contemporary cartoonists everyone (not just comics fans) should be paying attention to?
Chris Ware: Anyone who respects the reader with a seriousness of purpose and subject without veering into sentiment or falseness. As a cartoonist I think I can sense this laziness/fallaciousness in some young cartoonist’s drawings (as well as its opposite — an urge to see and feel something honestly without worrying about style or renown) though I don’t know if regular civilians can, or if even my opinion is correct in this regard. (Probably not.) But I don’t like playing favorites with living cartoonists, though I’ve edited a couple of anthologies which give a fairly accurate sense of my personal taste — and again, which shouldn’t necessarily reflect or influence anyone else’s.
I do think we’ve gotten to the point that the fiction we more (“literary”? I dunno) cartoonists are writing should begin to be judged against that of our prose contemporaries. I’m not saying this because I think we’re better, but because I think it would maybe benefit us to be treated a little more fine-toothedly, and because I think we have similar aims, however awkwardly we’re trying to handle them. I really think that single-author cartooning, being a solitary, self-analyzing sort of activity, could ideally be as soul-plumbing an endeavor as novel-writing or filmmaking, though maybe I’m just starting to lose my mind.
SC: If I’m not mistaken, parts of Building Stories were in the Krazy! exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery five or so years ago. During the exhibit, there were pennants or flags for the show on light standards on main thoroughfares in the city, and Krazy Kat was on the pennants. I remember thinking, “I never thought I’d see the day….” Have you had similar experiences, where comics culture has appeared in places you never thought it would? (obviously not Avengers/Dark Knight-type comics culture).
CW: Sure, starting with bookstores. (I’m old, so it still sort of surprises me to see them there.) And museums, though when the MCA Chicago invited me to have a show in 2006, the curator Lynne Warren told me that they were actually the first museum to exhibit underground comics as art in the early 1970s. For better or for worse, comics exist as a perpetually approachable, unpretentious and eminently affordable medium, all of which I consider to be to its distinct esthetic advantage, and something which I hope won’t change.
SC: Building Stories is likely to introduce your work to a whole new, perhaps non-comics-reading audience, possibly moreso even than Jimmy Corrigan. Are you ambivalent/conflicted about mainstream attention?
CW: Not at all. I have absolutely no control over these things at all and I’m extremely grateful if even one person cares.
SC: How will comics and non-comics fans relate differently to Building Stories? Have you noticed a difference in the approach to the book from comics and non-comics media? If so what are the differences?
CW: A fellow named Bill McGuire came up to me in Minneapolis and said that his 82-year-old father, John McGuire, had picked up Bill’s copy of Building Stories and surreptitiously read it over the course of a couple of days. Fearing the worst, Bill asked what his dad thought of it, and his father said he’d had no problem understanding it at all, saying it was “really sort of like the way you get to know a girlfriend, finding out a little bit about her at a time,” so that story was rewarding to hear. Though beyond anecdotal evidence, I have no idea how anyone reacts to anything I do, nor maybe is it healthy for me to know.
SC: Is there something – a part of a novel, a short story, a non-fiction piece – of Wallace’s that you could see yourself illustrating, if so what? [Note: earlier in the interview I’d asked about David Foster Wallace re: Ware’s statement that Wallace’s posthumous The Pale King was “the first great novel of the 21st century.”]
CW: Since I don’t consider comics illustration but an attempt to write with pictures, I’d say no, especially since David Foster Wallace’s animus is so intimately woven into the tissue of his words. Plus it I’d imagine it would take me two weeks to only get through the density of one of his paragraphs. I’m jealous of writers, because they can write their way past mundane things that we cartoonists have to Google Image search for. Not that such a thing is a crutch, however — it’s a distinct advantage of prose of which I’m deeply envious.
SC: I just noticed that a Rusty Brown lunchbox went for $89US on eBay. Now I wish I’d bought (at least) two. Will you be issuing Building Stories lunchboxes?
CW: The lunchbox just happened to be a convenient object through which to distill the feeling of the Rusty Brown story, which revolves around a universally-loathed lonely nine year old boy lost in his own commercially-brainwashed world of heroes and fantasy who eats school lunch alone. Building Stories acts as sort of its own distilled object, I guess.
SC: I was at a book store the other day when a guy came in and asked for a copy of Building Stories. However, the store was sold out and the store owner said he could order one for the guy and have it in for the end of the week (at a 10 per cent discount). But I’d just come from a comic store a couple doors down where they had a copy of Building Stories. I wanted to say something to the customer (who may never have set foot in a comic book store before) but I didn’t. Did I do the right thing?
CW: I have no idea. You might have set in motion a series of events that would’ve cured cancer or shifted us from an oil-dependent economy, so in that case, I’d have to say no. But that’s probably unlikely.