AS HE DEMONSTRATES with every one of his droll, moving, meticulous publications, Chris Ware is one of the most fascinating storytellers we have, one dedicated to extending and elasticizing the medium of cartooning. His new “publishing experiment,” as he calls it, is Building Stories, a book Publishers Weekly declared “one of the year’s best arguments for the survival of print.”
Building Stories is both a collection and a magnum opus, a mosaic both intimate and epic. Within a large, decorative box are fourteen separate but inter-related “units” of different formats — pamphlets, newspapers, hardcover books, and even a Little Golden Book-style children’s book — across which Ware depicts the stories of a group of apartment dwellers, each of whom develops distinct emotional mechanisms for dealing with loneliness, regret, and memory.
Ware spoke to the Los Angeles Review of Books about his process, his ideas, and his belief in the supremacy of the book.
Casey Burchby: Did this story germinate in a piecemeal way, as reflected in the way it’s organized in the final book? Or were you filling in a larger story as you worked on it?
Chris Ware: The book is pretty piecemeal, really a collection of short stories, or memories — an attempt to get at something of the way one stores away, recalls and rewrites one’s experiences, however disgustingly pretentious that might sound. (It’s also about getting married, having children, friends and parents dying, losing a sense of one’s purpose, and abandoning creative ambition.)
CB: Do these stories have any root in your own experience living in an apartment?
CW: The apartment where about half of the stories are set is a loose blend of the two buildings in which I lived before my wife and I moved to Oak Park (though we still live only one block from the city of Chicago). The apartments were both in a neighborhood called the Ukrainian Village, near Wicker Park, where a lot of artists and musician-types lived in the early nineties because it was considered affordable, though it eventually became unaffordable as part of the ongoing process of dark ages/renaissance/mannerist real estate renewal (i.e. “gentrification”) that all neighborhoods in large cities undergo — and, of course, of which I was a part. I can remember being led through an apartment by a real estate agent in 1991 that opened into a Jacob Riis-type tableau of an extended Eastern European family sitting on the edges of their beds, frozen; he walked me around the people as if they more or less didn’t even exist. I frequently wonder what happened to them. Needless to say, I didn’t rent that apartment.
CB: With work as detailed and as graphic as yours, I’m wondering how you organize the story prior to starting to work on a page. Do you draft the story in prose? Or do you sketch pages first? What are the first steps of the process?
CW: I don’t draft or script; the drawings and stories form themselves out of the images and what they suggest as I draw them, along with the memories they might dredge up. There’s really no way I could plan these things; the connections and coincidences that occur have to happen on the page. I’ve noticed that there’s a sort of nervousness on the part of the reader as to when exactly it is that the writer or artist starts winging it, as if that information has to be taken into account when assessing whether a story is believable or not, but it seems to me that writing an outline or a script on typing paper is just as much winging it as drawing directly on the page, and the latter approach allows the composition and scale to structure and shape the story, as well – which only taking notes or making thumbnails does not do. I do erase. I also have general ideas, themes, notions — whatever you want to call them, but I think that scripts come too perilously close to turning the process into illustrating words, which overlooks the inherent power of what cartooning — essentially a key to visual memory via the structure of language — can be.
CB: Do you work in pencil and ink, and then color pages digitally? Approximately how long does it take you to complete a single page?
CW: Yes, blue pencil, and then brush and ink with pens for the straight lines and white gouache for all the mistakes. It takes about 40 hours to draw one 20″ x 28″ original page, depending on the size and complexity. This single drawing might divide up to two or four printed pages, depending on how I’ve planned it. However, with this book I usually drew a spread (i.e. two facing pages) on each 28″ x 20″ horizontal piece of Bristol.
CB: Many of your characters are trapped in self-doubt, the world indifferent to their plight. To what extent is this idea an autobiographical one?
CW: 101%, I suppose. At 44, it’s pretty clear I’m not going to suddenly become remorselessly confident unless I suffer some head trauma. Though I think this cautiousness does have its advantages as it lets me see what I’m doing with perhaps a little more clarity than someone who can impress him- or herself with a flashy ink line. I like to imagine that self-doubt is also maybe a symptom of empathy, though I’m probably fooling myself.
CB: A related theme running through Building Stories and through much of your other work is loneliness. For your characters, loneliness is often a self-reinforcing thing that they have trouble escaping from. Does loneliness have an upside?
CW: Well, sure — it can be more conducive to self-questioning and musing, though it can also take that musing into nuttiness. I think solitude can actually be a preferable way of life for some people; I’ve tried to present the condition in this book both ways. As I’ve gotten older I’ve occasionally found myself nostalgic for earlier periods of solitude, though I realize that’s also likely a false nostalgia, as I know there was nothing I wanted more during those periods than to not be alone, whatever that means. My wife has joked that if anything ever happened to me, she’d gladly live out her life without anyone else around. I think it bugs her I’m home all the time; such is the life cycle of the cartoonist, however.
CB: The title Building Stories could refer to the tales within the apartment building featured in the book, and it can refer to the act of creating stories, as you do. To what extent is Building Stories an attempt to revive an interest in the possibilities of the printed book? Are you leery of e-books, Kindles, and the rush to hop on the digital bandwagon?
CW: Yes, very much so, though I don’t mean to dismiss them, as I think they’re great for news and transitory information. I do think that when it comes to art, books offer a sort of reassuring physical certainty for the ineffable uncertainties of life, but then again I’m 44 and don’t tweet or have a Facebook page or participate in most of the things that blunt the textures of experience in favor of delivering them up more quickly to your friends, so maybe that’s just me. I find it very telling that the regular selling point of this or that new version of technology is that it’s “higher resolution.” What does that mean, exactly? It’s like admitting the inherent superiority of life while still trying to sell some sort of living death instead. I am absolutely convinced that sitting in front of a screen for long periods of time damages the brain and alters one’s brain chemistry. You can feel it happening — you start surrendering more and more of yourself until, eventually, you recoil and think, “Ugh. I feel gross.” I think it’s colloquially known as “Swearing off Facebook for a While.” It’s so incredibly difficult to voluntarily remove oneself from these reassurances that our lives are significant that sometimes we forget that life, actually, isn’t very significant — which is sort of reassuring, too.
Anyway, yes, I think there are plenty of things that books can do that e-books can’t, like all the beautiful oversized books that Sunday Press publishes, Taschen’s amazing experiments, and pretty much anything McSweeney’s ever does.
CB: Did you have a difficult time selling this concept to publishers? Were there any challenges in getting the finished product to reflect your intentions?
CW: Oddly, Pantheon was ready and willing to do it, though it took me a lot longer to finish than I thought it would. Andy Hughes, the production manager, balanced out the demands of printing and assembly to keep it all relatively affordable (if considered separately, the hardcover could alone be half the cost of the book itself) and Dan Frank, the editor, never asked me to change anything, though again, I think he got pretty tired of waiting for me to hand it in. These complicated comic books take a long time, unless one reduces them to a length of around 48 pages or so, which some of my contemporaries (with much longer book lists, I should add) have (probably wisely) chosen to do. The hardcover in Building Stories alone is 48 pages, however. I don’t know what’s better, but I know I prefer longer books, at least when it comes to my own stories.