Chris Ware was already thought of as comics' most meticulously detailed and formally inventive artist. His ability to arrange text and images on a page goes so far beyond your standard news rack comic book, that readers are often left wondering if he's even working in the same medium. But his latest graphic novel, Building Stories, barely resembles anything we've seen from comics before. Partially inspired by Marcel DuChamp's Museum in a Box, it's a dizzying assortment of 14 separate booklets differing in size and format. The segments range from small, handheld vertical strips, to oversized table-top newspaper pages; from faux LIttle Golden Books digests, to gatefold board game cardboard. The story, which has previously run in snippets as New York Times strips, New Yorker cover fold-outs, and McSweeney's Quarterly features, took a decade to complete. Its story follows the life of one unnamed woman in glimpses of her melancholy youth and later married life. Some of its separate volumes detour to focus on the people living around her in the old apartment building of her single life (including the thoughts and feelings of the apartment building itself), and the petty agonies of a nebbish bee who gets briefly stuck inside her window.
Like all of Ware's work, it walks a thin line between laugh-out loud-but pitch-black humor and gut-punching existential dread. But unlike his previous books, which zoomed backwards and forwards through the mundane lives of their protagonists in an author-guided tour, Building Stories can be assembled and read in any number of ways. Its title doubles as a gentle pun on how the reader takes responsibility for consuming it. In both an intellectual and a physical way, it's interactive to a degree that makes clicking links on a tablet seem small and crummy.
At 7 PM this evening, Ware joins Charles Burns (author of the modern classic forest mutant/teen-sex parable comic Black Hole) at The Strand book store in Manhattan, to talk about their new work, and the current state of the graphic novel. Ahead of time, we sent him a few questions about his magic box.
Your work often supplies hints and maps for readers to follow the text in a specific way, and this still shows up in the flow of some in the individual booklets. But there’s an unusual amount of choice given to the reader in deciding how to read all these separate parts, and seemingly no single right or wrong order. Were you nervous about giving up some control over how the work is experienced? Did you spend much time agonizing over the fine line between delighting a reader with choices, details, and variety versus overwhelming them?
Chris Ware: I sort of figure that readers are more or less up for the challenge, and whatever in the box that might pique their interest is what they'll pick up first. There's absolutely no proscribed order, and the diagram on the back of the box isn't intended as any sort of a guide; the book is simply a stab at trying to get at the three-dimensionality of our memories, and the way we constantly reorganize and rebuild them to make new versions of others and ourselves. It's also (hopefully) supposed to be beautiful, and to inspire some degree of affection on the part of the reader, though I realize such reactions are a solid uncertainty.
How is the narrative is affected when taken in different combinations/sequences? Do you think the end result of reading them all in any order adds up to a similar impression at the end, or are there very different versions of this story told depending on differing ways people have read it?
The narrative itself won't change since the internal chronology will still assemble in every reader's mind eventually, but the sensations of how the narrative feels will definitely vary, i.e. whether what something someone reads which seems to be in the present is actually in the past, and vice versa. I'd hoped to get at the genuinely strange experience of trying to imagine as a single person what it's like to be married, and what it's like as a married person to look back on one's years of lonely singleness—and all the variant selves that ultimately exist in between, and within us.
What have you got against bees to curse them with so much anxiety?
Nothing; it's more of a joke about maleness than anything else. As near as I understand it, female honeybees do all the work, and the particular male bee in Building Stories just feels bad about it. (As sub-plots, he 1) also doubts his own virility because of this urge to "be nice" and 2) inadvertently hybridizes two flowers planted outside the building's basement window.) The bee strips themselves are supposed to be part of the improvised imaginary world that the main character dips into to tell her child bedtime stories and the various narrative roads and paths that she could, but doesn't always, take, as based on my own experiences of making up stories for my own daughter.
Comic strips and comic books (or at least long-running ones) have commonly involved a kind of forced stasis, where characters don’t really age or age very slowly, and can exist for years or even decades inside the same situations. Is the focus in your work on viewing characters over a long period of time, aging, changing, remembering, dying, a commentary on the medium itself? Do you think the comics medium is an underutilized tool for capturing the full arc of a life?
Sure; it's the one medium where one can place two images and write "30 years later" above one of them and still have them exist comfortably in the same space, to say nothing of having this pictures speak directly to the reader without any cloud of art history tempering their meaning. Comics allow a writer to create a pictographic map of how memories line up and inter-relate, a map that within a book can then grow into a three-dimensional model, through its coincident narrative alignments and interpenetrating images.
Beyond all of this, one can also put these books into a box and see what happens.