Over the last quarter-century, Chris Ware has built a sterling reputation as a maker of graphic novels, some borrowing from their comic-book sources and some looking ahead into the museum galleries of the future, all working with themes of urban alienation. Small wonder that his new masterwork, Building Stories, finds Ware visiting a world of sometimes bewildered, sometimes unhappy people living in an overstuffed apartment building on the edge of downtown Chicago. All strive, but all endure.
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Recently, Kirkus caught up with Ware to ask him a few questions about his new book.
How did you hit on the idea of the multiple-format presentation within the box of goodies that is Building Stories?
A box of books was something I’ve been wanting to do since 1987, when I suggested it as the second project to the publisher of my first comic book—a request which was justifiably rejected (I was only 19, and my work was barely publishable). I tried out the idea at least three times in small edition and art school one-off projects, but it wasn’t until the whole idea of Building Stories started to come together for me in 2003 that I built up the courage to suggest it to Chip Kidd and Andy Hughes at Pantheon two years later. Amazingly, and maybe due to the perceived fear that publishing is somehow atrophying, they accepted it, and Andy figured out a way to make it affordable without sacrificing any of my original ideas.
Some inspirations included Joseph Cornell’s boxes, Marcel Duchamp’s museum in a box, various toys and boxed sets of children’s books, Taschen’s Kubrick Napoleon book, a series of amazing 1930s British detective books called Herewith the Clues that contained real clues, and almost everything McSweeney’s has done. (I have a congenial—I think—aesthetic give-and-take with McSweeney’s, having designed and edited one of their quarterlies and having worked on some of their other projects. They’re really at the forefront of all of this stuff; when the histories of the collapse of publishing are written, McSweeney’s is going to be one of the reasons that there won’t have been much of a collapse to write about.)
There’s no proper beginning to the book, no real end, it seems; all of Building Stories is an in media-res sort of affair. Are we missing a piece of the puzzle by thinking that? Is there someplace where you’d like us to begin exploring, that is to say, or are we better to pursue it on our own without any such helpful hints?
One of the most important aspects of the book is that there’s no place to start and no beginning or end, so yes, definitely. Without sounding too pretentious, I’m aiming for something along the lines of the first, disorganized thoughts one might have when waking up; i.e., I doubt very much anyone has ever taken a deep breath, stretched, and said, “once upon a time....”
I guess in some way I’m reversing what I normally do, which is to collect disparate periodicals and stories, but here, they remain all broken up. It is important how the pieces are formatted, because I’ve tried, however awkwardly, to emulate how I think our brains edit and start to fit memories together as the experiences which created them grow more distant; we construct beautiful explanations for things that may actually have little basis in reality. Not that this approach is in any way new, though I think the idea of constructing a piece of readable visual art around the idea is hopefully mildly interesting and maybe even slightly moving, though I suppose that’s hoping for a lot.
There have been other big books and lavish productions in the graphic-novel world before Building Stories, but somehow it seems that your book, among other things, heralds a kind of “new normal.” Where do you see the graphic novel, in terms of look and feel, three or four years down the line?
The hardcover comic book is already a pretty strange and potentially beautiful object (which makes it all the stranger that so many of them seem to be so thoughtlessly designed; a shelf of graphic novels—unless they’re published by Drawn and Quarterly or NoBrow or PictureBox or Fantagraphics—almost always looks embarrassing. I frequently have to make new jackets or spines for my books just so I can live with them).
As for a direct answer to your very direct question, I doubt whether graphic novels will start coming out as boxes of books or will suddenly have to sport gimmicks or tricks to attract attention, at least I hope not. Though I do hope that cartoonists continue to think more and more about how the materials they employ fit together and express their story, rather than simply making a nice-looking “package” (a horrible word) for their efforts. However pretentious it sounds, a book is a sort of site-specific installation of an idea, and as an artist, one can choose to ignore that, but one should probably have a good reason as to why.
What’s next on your plate?
Continuing to work on Rusty Brown, a seven-chapter, very, very long graphic novel which is just as experimental as Building Stories (but within the traditional confines of the page, not outside of the binding). And not much other than that. These things take a while, sadly.