Chris Ware Explores "Building Stories"

Chris Ware is one of the most acclaimed cartoonists and illustrators of his generation, having received numerous commendations and awards from the comics world, including multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards. Already well-regarded for his work on "Acme Novelty Library," Ware's reputation was cemented with the release of "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth" in 2000. That book, which was named best album at the 2003 Angouleme International Comics Festival, received the Guardian First Book Prize in 2001, the first time a graphic novel had received a major book prize in the United Kingdom.

Since then, Ware has continued creating comics while working as an illustrator and cover artist for many publications, most notably "The New Yorker." Ware has designed everything from book covers (Penguin Books' edition of "Candide" by Voltaire) and album covers to movie posters ("Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"), while producing animations for the television series "This American Life." The artist's work has been featured in a number of solo and group art exhibitions, and he was invited to exhibit in the 2002 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

His new book, more than a decade in the making, is "Building Stories." Calling this project a 'book' is perhaps misleading. Instead of a single volume, it is a collection of pamphlets and books telling a nonlinear story centered around a small apartment building and its residents. Ware, who is a guest at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival this Saturday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, spoke with CBR News about his latest project.

CBR News: Chris, you had a strip titled "Building Stories" that ran in the New York Times Magazine. Was that where the comic began? And when you first started on this, did you know then the size and scope of the project?

Chris Ware: The story started as a series of one-shot strips in 2001 for a Swiss magazine named "Hangar 21," the regular requirement of which was that each be lettered in both French and German. Conversant in neither, and not tempted by the idea of lettering anything twice, I did a series of mostly-wordless stories about the inhabitants of an 1890s Chicago apartment oriented around the four floors of the building and the seasons of the year. The New York Times' "Funny Pages" chapter appeared a few years later, and after it'd become clear that the original idea had metastasized into a longer book, I continued doing strips for the magazine "nest," "The New Yorker" and anyone else who asked me, though there are about 50 or more pages in this book that haven't appeared anywhere before. The format of the book became apparent about three years into it, and the original idea to break apart the story around the inhabitants of the building-loosely inspired by Krzysztof Kieślowski's ten-part "Decalogue" film-gradually changed as it became clear that the entire story was being filtered through the consciousness and mind of the woman who lives alone on the top floor of the building. All of which hopefully makes for a more interesting and less predictable book.

Are you very interested in plot? I ask this because "Building Stories" really feels like a collection of events and memories and not something that has a plot running through it. It felt like life and how we arrange it, in a way.

Yes, I'm interested in plot, just not as much in this book, that's all. Tthere's no mystery to be unravelled or any hidden secret that will explain everything; the book is simply an attempt to recreate, however awkwardly, the three-dimensionality of our memories and to try to make a story than has no apparent beginning or end, much like our memories, which we can enter from any direction and at any point, which is also the way we get to know people, i.e., a little bit at a time. And yes, the title points both towards the way we put together and take apart memories to make stories about ourselves and others, as well as to the structure of a building itself.

I was wondering if you could talk a little about your page layouts, because some of them are quite detailed and complex with a lot of panels. It feels as if you're trying to convey sensory information on the page with this jumble of memory and information. Is that your intention and how well do you think this works?

Sounds good to me; I'd say you're just about dead on there. I don't really think it's up to me to decide whether what I've done works or not, because frequently the pages I think I've failed at are the ones that I somehow hear seem to communicate most directly to this or that reader, maybe specifically because I think I've failed, or not "given it my all," which sometimes maybe clouds the story or off puts the reader, though this is certainly not my intention.

At what point did you decide to include the bee's stories as part of this project?

The character of the bee was there from the very beginning as a link between all of the characters and how people affect one another (because of random incidents between the occupants, he hybridizes two flowers planted in front of the structure.) The bee stories that appear elsewhere in the book are representative of bedtime stories the main character tells her daughter -- both stories told and those that are untold, or those that occur to one in the course of verbal improvisation and which would be inappropriate for a child's ear. He's also something of a locus of empathy, which is really the overall point of the book, because when we make up stories about other people or animals, what we're really doing is trying to understand. We put ourselves in their place -- or, put most simply, to empathize with them.

In a recent interview with Sean Collins for Rolling Stone you said: "The real power of comics is writing as you draw." In a project like this, which is so complex, how much are you planning ahead before you sit down and draw the page? How do you work?

I don't script my stories only because I've found that doing so limits the possibilities for my own experiences, memories and associations to affect the course and direction of the narrative as I work, which I believe is one of the real esthetic advantages of comics as a medium. Comics should not be illustrated text, but stories told with pictures. And if one is working from a script, then one is not entirely writing with images, it seems to me.

The look and design of this and of your other books, which vary in size and dimensions, is something that's obviously very important to you. At what point did you feel that "Building Stories" would be best done as a series of pamphlets and books rather than a single volume?

As you asked earlier, the format occurred to me about three years into the book, which, as an object, is supposed to be something of a dream image and to represent the sum total of the main character's abandoned creative urge.

You've worked with Chip Kidd and the people at Pantheon before. What has the experience been like in putting "Building Stories" together?

Very pleasant and supportive. The production manager Andy Hughes went out of his way to realize my ridiculous and somewhat untenable vision, to say nothing of perpetually reassuring me that it would be well printed and the colors properly balanced and richly saturated. If it hadn't, the result would have been tantamount to a novel having been published shorn of all its adjectives and adverbs.

Ware will be a guest at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival this Saturday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. More information is available on their website.

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