The Architecture of Building Stories

Chris Ware's newest graphic novel, Building Stories, published by Pantheon in October, is actually fourteen discreet books, booklets, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets, all contained in printed box. More than ten years in the making, the work imagines the inhabitants of a three-story Chicago apartment building, including the protagonist, a thirtysomething woman who has yet to find someone with whom to spend the rest of her life; a couple who can hardly bear to be in each other’s company; and the elderly landlady who has lived alone for decades.

"With the increasing electronic incorporeality of existence, sometimes it's reassuring—perhaps even necessary—to have something to hold on to," Ware writes in an author's note of sorts to Building Stories. "Thus within this colorful keepsake box the purchaser will find a full-apportioned variety of reading material ready to address virtually any imaginable artistic or poetic taste, from the corrosive sarcasm of youth to the sickening earnestness of maturity—while discovering a protagonist wondering if she'll ever move from the rented close quarters of lonely young adulthood to the mortgaged expanse of love and marriage."

For readers it’s a veritable treasure chest, a deeply layered narrative that can turn, as those familiar with Ware’s work have come to expect, on the subtlest of gestures, on the simplest poetry of a character’s heartbreaking monologue. But for writers it’s a rare opportunity to see the architecture of storytelling stripped bare, to witness an artist at the top of his game as he not only writes his way through the inner lives of his characters, but also transforms his adjectives and adverbs into a stunning visual narrative.

"I don’t place a premium on either the images or the words; I try to let both suggest the direction of the storytelling, from the phrases that occur to me as I’m writing to something as uncontrollable as the gesture of a character when I draw him or her," says Ware. "Sometimes even an accident of the pencil will create a strange movement of the head or hand that changes everything entirely.... I don’t think this approach is really that different from what regular writers do, either; as I understand it, we all have these alternate realities playing in our minds—false memories about both real and imaginary people...."

"I don’t script anything," Ware says, "because then all I’d be doing is illustrating my words, which to me isn’t cartooning. Cartooning is a mysterious process that involves writing with pictures and seeing what recollections they dredge up and superimpose as one reads what one has drawn (which, hopefully, is analogous to what happens when someone else reads them too). The mind is a very organized thing, and organically produced comic strips illuminate its structures in a strange and very tangible way, I think."

"Though my reading of poetry is humiliatingly limited, I realize what I’m aiming for is almost a kind of synesthesia, which I guess is the clinical description of poetry," Ware says. "I also consider the artist Joseph Cornell—whose work was a big inspiration for Building Stories—to be as much a poet as a visual artist.

"The format [of Building Stories] is both an attempt to get at that non-beginning/non-end of every story that we have within our minds, and also at the notion of immersing oneself in a memory to the point that one can almost lose all sense of the present," Ware says. "I wanted readers to experience something as if it were happening right in front of them, but then discover later that the story actually happened in the character’s distant past, with all the uncertainty that suggests. I hope for the inverse of this experience as well."

"A book, if taken care of, communicates so much about its time and writer, from the tiny, crinkly pages of the leather-bound miniatures of the 1880s to the crappy, wood-pulp paperbacks of the 1970s—it shows what our culture values at any given time," Ware says. "You also don’t have to plug them in or try to find a vitamin-D-deficient computer whiz who knows some outdated compression code to read them. All you need is a working eye and a brain and you’ve got one of the most mysterious interactive experiences ever invented."