Chris Ware’s boundary-pushing new comic book drives its narrative by fusing architectural framing devices with reader interaction, discovers Rory Olcayto
Chris Ware’s new comic book is called Building Stories, which might mean it’s a collection of stories set in buildings.
But the title could also be a description of how we process everyday events into a coherent narrative. When you get your hands on Ware’s 263-page extravaganza, actually a board game-sized box with 14 separate publications contained within (books, pamphlets, newspapers and other printed formats) you’ll see it means both of these things. There is a twist, however. There is no suggested reading order. You, dear reader, are required to ‘build’ your own story.
There is a twist, however. There is no suggested reading order. You, dear reader, are required to ‘build’ your own story
Ware is a popular American cartoonist who trained in painting, sculpture and bookbinding before gaining fame in the 90s with his comic book series Acme Novelty Library. Today, he is widely considered to be more in control of his chosen medium, more on top of his game, than anyone else in the field. Yet Ware’s books don’t cover the same kind of ground as other titles that have been given the establishment nod such as the Holocaust in Art Spiegelman’s Maus or the Iranian revolution in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
Instead Ware’s stories are about ordinary people and ordinary events that anyone might experience. Days spent in a single room of your house. Going shopping. Dinner with friends. Feeding your newborn baby. Or how a flooded toilet can feel like the end of the world.
The magic is in how Ware merges traditional comic book panel techniques with graphic design and superb figurative art, rendering the lives of his subjects in forensic but compelling detail. They directly follow on from ideas in Richard McGuire’s Here for Spiegelman’s Rawanthology published in 1989 (Black box, AJ 25.05.12), which showed the corner of the same room at different points in time causing a rhythmic narrative to emerge. In most of his work, but explicitly in Building Stories, Ware uses architecture as a narrative framing device.
Each of his protagonists lives on a floor of a Chicago tenement. There’s an elderly spinster on the ground floor; an estranged couple share the first floor; and a one-legged art school graduate on the top floor, whose comings and goings and private thoughts give the story an emotional core. Because there’s no first and last book to read, you can create your own version of how it all fits together. For Ware, the feeling you have when you read Building Stories takes precedence over a definitive narrative.
Ware says it is his way of showing ‘how houses and buildings affect the shapes and structures of our memories, and how these shapes can continue to live on in our minds for years or decades once the buildings are gone’
Events take place over decades, spread over various publications, but mostly in a few key locations. One of them focuses exclusively on a day in the life of the tenement – 23 September 2000 – with each page representing an hour’s worth of activity. Ware says it is his way of showing ‘how houses and buildings affect the shapes and structures of our memories, and how these shapes can continue to live on in our minds for years or decades once the buildings are gone.’ The last page jumps forward five years and we get a sense of the sub-prime boom in full effect. A signboard outside shows a new development on the plot. ‘Urbanview’ it reads, with an image of Neo-Modernist edifice – ‘Only one left!’ The back cover shows a wrecking ball at work.
Spiegelman stated in his 9/11-inspired comic book In the Shadow of No Towers that ‘comics are architectural structures – the narrative rows of panels are like storeys of a building’. He would later observe that the word storey, a horizontal division of a building, is derived from historia, a medieval Latin word meaning a row of windows with pictures on them. Ware’s Building Stories is the place where the bubbles of this curious Venn diagram, architecture, storytelling and comic book design, overlap.