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Chris Ware’s Building Stories

Graphic Stories Within Multi-stories

by CHARLES R. LARSON

First, the box containing Chris Ware’s fascinating graphic novel—or, perhaps more accurately, graphic stories: 11 ½” x 16 ½” and 2” thick, lavishly decorated with images from the contents.  The timing of the release of Building Stories was obviously carefully aligned with holiday shopping.  And what hip reader wouldn’t consider himself/herself the lucky recipient of such an inventive gift?  Now the contents: “14 distinctly discrete Books, Booklets, Magazines, Newspapers, and Pamphlets” to quote the description on the back of the box.  More importantly, the sentence immediately following: “With the increasing electronic incorporeality of existence, sometimes it’s reassuring—perhaps even necessary—to have something to hold on to.”  Hence, no Kindle version of this one.  You’re going to have to fork out $50 and hold it in your hands.

Which is to say that Building Stories is VERY tactile. I couldn’t help running my fingers over the various textures of the sections, the thicknesses, the shapes, and the bindings of what the box contained.  That must tell me something about my preference for reading things I can hold in my hand, no matter where I am, and not having to keep something charged.  All right, I’m a Luddite, a fossil, locked in the past.  So the first thing I can report about Ware’s graphic something is that it feels very good and looks even better, beginning with the first section on top of all the others when I opened this Pandora-like box and began releasing its contents.

That first section is untitled as are almost all the others.  It’s a skinny 3” x 9 ¾” pamphlet (almost like a flip book), drawings only, totally without captions.  Since it begins and ends at night, the opening and closing panels are in shades of black and brown, illustrating a woman asleep in her bed. Quickly, we discover that she is pregnant and that below the knee of her left leg she has a prosthetic device.  After the baby is born, the panels burst forth in colors, especially pinks and greens.  The woman holds her child in her arms, a cat nearby.  The father enters the sequence but not nearly as often as the woman, who obviously is responsible for most of the childcare.  And the child, a girl, begins growing.  After diapers and potty training, we see her playing outside in a park, then assisting her mother in the kitchen, followed by swimming, then beginning school and playing with other children.

Soon, there are additional scenes outside the home: at a fruit market, a clothing store, followed by scenes with the father and all three of them watching TV or a video.  Then—almost at the end—taking a bath and getting ready for bed, followed by panels showing only the parents in bed, sleeping together, but concluding with the woman alone in her bed again, as in the opening illustrations.  The sense of the woman’s isolation in the midst of her marriage will reappear throughout many of the ensuing sections, an obvious leitmotif that reinforces a thought by the woman in the last section of Building Stories: “regular people living everyday life.”

That insight is crucial to a reading of Building Stories.  These are forgettable people in many ways, but the unsung heroes of our societies, for most people never get their fifteen minutes of fame.  Instead, they live, work, marry and have children but nothing unique ever happens to them, and if you wrote a novel about such people you would have to be pretty damn talented to keep the reader turning pages.  Ware knows that, which is why it is the graphics that engage us with his “novel,” and give meaning to the almost forgotten lives of his regular people.  And this is also why the larger pamphlets and books in Ware’s opus describe situations and tensions so normal to all of our lives that his everyday characters come very much alive as we read through section after section of this amazing panorama of normalcy, presented to us in increasing—almost bigger-than-life—illustrations.

What do we know about Ware’s unnamed heroine with a prosthetic device? Well, much of her adult life she spends in a flat in a three-story brownstone in Chicago, with an old lady, who owns the building and lives in one of the other flats, plus a young couple living in the third.  The building’s roughly a hundred years old and has gone through various renovations.  The woman is lonely and depressed much of the time.  (“I’m stupid, I’m stupid,” she tells herself.)  She was an arts major but never found work in that area after college.  The narrative frame is during the first decade of this millennium. Recently, she’s worked for a florist and taken a creative writing class.

Later, after she marries Phil, and their child Lucy is born, and the three of them move into a house in Oak Park, her father will be diagnosed with cancer and suffer a slow death.  A close friend, named Stephanie, will commit suicide.  In the recession, Phil fears that he will lose his job.  And the cat, Miss Kitty, will die of old age.  There’s remorse from these three deaths but joy, also, from Lucy, and—finally—an explanation of the injury that led to the loss of her left foot.  In the final panel of the last section of the box (assuming the order in which they were packaged), Lucy asks her mother what she will look like when she grows up, followed by a series of direct questions: “Will you love me?”  “Will I make you happy.”  “Will I be the most important thing you ever do?”  And then, two final illustrations, without captions, that provide the soothing ending to all the recent traumas of death in the young mother’s life.

In a kind of tromp l’oeil overview of the three-story apartment building near the end of the one cloth bound-book in Building Stories, the text includes the following question, “Who hasn’t tried when passing by a building or a home, at night, to peer past half-closed blinds hoping to catch a glimpse into the private lives of its inhabitants?”  The question provides a major insight into the modus operandi behind Chris Ware’s eclectic approach to reveal character, to build a story from the most common materials available to an artist: inner vision as the focus for detail, color, line, and form; for though I have described individual illustrations and some of the panels of Building Stories, I have ignored the way they interact with one another, because of their proximities.

Thus, the largest “pamphlet” of the collection (the size of a traditional newspaper before they were cut down in size) the opening illustration (two-thirds of the page) shows a tree-lined street, lush in its green and brown tones (for the trees and the houses).  There’s a single word at the bottom of the illustration: “god,” presumably the reaction of the protagonist’s thoughts when she first encountered the site of the house in Oak Park.  The illustrations in all of this section vary in their size and significance: quickly reiterating child raising, the distancing within a marriage, but—always—the love of a child.  In the middle of the two center pages of this huge section, there’s a life-sized drawing of Lucy’s face, probably when she’s about eight years old, with a lovely expression, surrounded by a halo of green trees.  And that picture—like so many others—is situated in the midst of several dozen others. Some are inside squares, others in circles, some framed and others not, in what I take to be the core of Building Stories: children, the next generation.

There is so much more that could be written about this book, such as the way it is rooted in our current time: references to Obama, the recession, for example.  Or, the overlapping and repeated stories on the same theme of ordinary people, living their ordinary lives, embraced within the multiple stories within the buildings in which they live.  Above all, the illustrations of a genius unleashed by mixed media, ultimately making us feel good about our losses and our loneliness, our dreams and our expectations.

A magnificent undertaking by any measure.

Chris Ware: Building Stories
Pantheon, 260 pp, “41 x 28.5 x 4.5 cm x 14 individual easily misplaced elements,” $50.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.