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Chris Ware:

Building Stories

When is a book more like a game? When it’s a graphic novel that comes inside a boardgame-sized box and in fourteen different parts, from one-tiered, concertina-folded strips to giant broadsheet supplements. Instead of trying to squeeze a decade’s worth of his story’s diverse serialised formats into a single unified tome, as he did with Jimmy Corrigan (2000),Ware atomises Building Stories into a multi-faceted print object, adding unseen materials to fashion “something to hold onto” in our digital, virtual age. The puzzles start immediately on the box’s lid (above) with the title’s rebuses: the ‘B’ stands next to a bee; the ‘IL’ becomes Chicago’s state of Illinois; the ‘ding’ becomes a doorbell chime, all clues for what awaits within. So is the base of the box, which offers a cutaway drawing of the apartment building, the setting and occasional narrator of these stories mainly about its elderly landlady and her tenants - a couple whose childless marriage is crumbling and a single woman, who quickly emerges as Ware’s principal focus.



Ware introduces this woman from the start on the front lid, sleeping in an appropriate foetal position and in a half a close-up. With the lid removed, three vignettes gracing the outside edges of the inner box (above) reveal her partner, child, florist’s job, left prosthetic lower leg and worried worldview. Without a jigsaw puzzle’s finished picture to guide you, in what order do you begin piecing this together? You’re welcome to join me for a few minutes in this video below, as I take my very first look inside the box and examine the contents:


So, where to start? One system for a reading sequence could be by increasing scale, as the stash of ‘paper technology’ arrives shrink-wrapped, piled up from biggest to smallest. Topmost is a letterbox-shaped, wordless booklet of our sleeping heroine’s fragmented dreams of raising her daughter. The third page already demonstrates a heightened sensitivity in Ware’s drawing, when he shows two subtly nuanced close-ups of her face, asleep and then startled awake, not at home but in a maternity ward. Though still with dots for eyes like Little Orphan Annie or Tintin, these uncommon portraits are in marked contrast to Ware’s preference for small, simplified heads, often from behind, as if to leave their features and feelings to our imaginations.

These occasional portraits mark a change in Building Stories by allowing us to engage with Ware’s characters at emotionally charged points in bigger panels and greater detail and realism, lessening their iconic remoteness. Oddly, for a cartoonist whose stated goal is to make readers feel, Ware rarely spotlights expressions on faces, as if all the actors in a play or film spent most of their time facing partly or wholly away from the audience. His wariness of overt emoting and caricatural exaggeration comes through in the page ‘That Girl’, showing a girl’s flushed face at her “blubbery” departure from her boyfriend at the airport, which makes our female narrator “deeply envious.”

Ware also goes to great pains to leave this main female protagonist unnamed. Nobody ever seems to address her by name; when a former schoolmate seeks her attention over a reunion dinner, he simply calls her “Girl”. This unnaming reinforces her disconnection from others. During her creative writing class, she listens to another female student complain about someone’s assignment: “I mean, who are these people—doesn’t the old/young woman have a name? Why am I supposed to care about her anyway?” Here Ware is anticipating his own readers’ potential reactions. Building Stories may be the most concerted and apparently counter-intuitive attempt in any graphic novel to take us inside the life, thoughts and emotions of one fictional, unnamed character and make us care. That he succeeds, without the manipulative heartstring-tugging of cinema or theatre but with comics, is all the more remarkable.

Further insights are gleaned from two folded concertina strips (above). In one, a repeated snowy street scene tops and tails a looping narrative as our freezing female lead bemoans the family she almost had; in the other she strives to understand her growing daughter. Memories and imaginings are already blurring; she later reflects how some events which never happened can be “almost as real to me as memories.” Ware adds a circular panel to mirror each other at the start and finish of each side of this zig-zag comic, like ironic distortions of Bill Keane’s cosy Family Circus newspaper cartoons.

Ware also pays homage (below) to the American newspaper strip pioneer Charles Forbell (1884-1946) from a century ago, whose staircase-structured example of his Sunday-page feature Naughty Pete in 1913 (shown here beneath Ware’s tribute) made a huge impression on the young Chris Ware when he discovered it in The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Strips edited in 1978 by Bill Blackbeard.


Other characters, such as the landlady and the iconic bee from the lid, get their briefer turns in the spotlight. Branford the Bee tells his life from his entomological understanding, so humans are giant pink land whales, glass is hard air and his faith in God, whose eyes are the flowers he licks, is almost unshakeable. However deluded, he seems the most contented with his lot.

A board-book with a gilded spine, evoking America’s Golden Books for children, provides a time and place, September 23rd 2000 and a three-floor, 98-year-old Chicago apartment building, which observes events across that single day of its occupants. We are told that the building “...accidentally catching a glimpse of itself in the glint of the windows across the street, sighed.” Building Stories is a book of sighs, of characters looking at themselves in disappointment, if not despair, as they struggle with unfulfilling lives, unrealised dreams, unrequited loves, yet finding something, however ephemeral, to help them build their stories. When the florist finally holds hands with a potential boyfriend, she writes how “...a time-lapse tulip bloomed in me, somewhere in the vicinity of the lower abdomen.”

Earlier, when she was an art student, she struggled to explain her paintings: “I guess they’re about the intersection of loss and recognition… and the spaces we create to negotiate them…” She could be summing up Ware’s main theme and technique in Building Stories, whereby we can turn back the pages and find one again, whenever we choose, much like the way our brains can access a real or imagined memory. Emblematic of this is one episode set in her childhood bedroom at her parents’ home, when she remembers and visualises as she falls asleep where three earlier versions of herself were sleeping in the same room, “because it helps me keep all the pieces in place.” In the organising of time into space in comics, nothing disappears, every piece, every moment has its space, like a row of photos on a shelf, the daisies that link and loop together into a daisy-chain, or the set of comics housed in this box.

Posted: October 14, 2012

This Article originally appeared as a book review in The Independent newspaper.

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Building Stories
by Chris Ware
(Pantheon / Jonathan Cape)