The Color and the Shape of Memory: An Interview With Chris Ware

Kevin Larimer
From the November/December 2012 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Whether it’s hanging on the walls of an art gallery, displayed on the cover of the New Yorker, buried in the bins at an underground-comics shop, or arranged alphabetically on bookstore shelves between titles by, say, David Foster Wallace and Virginia Woolf, the work of Chris Ware resists definition. Fans of his Acme Novelty Library, an irregularly published comic book series (each new edition of which sells an average of twenty thousand copies) see him as a luminary among alternative cartoonists, a group that includes R. Crumb, Gregory Gallant, Art Spiegelman, and others, while many readers of his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 2000) consider him a literary artist who combines evocative artwork and emotionally charged writing to create complex interior and exterior landscapes—a complete world—for his characters to inhabit.

It’s no real surprise then that Ware, who was born in Omaha in 1967, attended the University of Texas in Austin and (briefly) the Art Institute of Chicago, and lives with his wife and daughter in Oak Park, Illinois, has garnered such diverse awards and honors. For example, he has received numerous Eisner Awards (named for pioneering writer and artist Will Eisner and sometimes referred to as the comic book industry’s Oscars), as well as the Guardian First Book Award, which he won for Jimmy Corrigan in 2001 (the first time a graphic novel had won a major book award in the United Kingdom). The book was also named one of the “100 Best Books of the Decade” by the Times of London, and Ware’s work was included in the 2002 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

What is surprising is how quickly Ware can dismantle one’s preconceived notions of genre, leading the reader far past traditional definitions of what literature—or comics—is and isn’t, and deep into his fictional characters’ inner lives, with all their attendant fears, neuroses, recollections, false memories, and lonely wanderings. (In his book Chris Ware, published by Yale University Press in 2004, Daniel Raeburn points out that Jimmy Corrigan, “a mind-boggling polyphony of space-time hallucinations and emotional associations centering on loneliness and the birth of the modern world, has sold eighty thousand copies to a worldwide audience, most of whom would never set foot into a comics shop.”)

Now, more than ten years in the making, Chris Ware’s new work, Building Stories, published in October by Pantheon, takes the discussion about genre a step further by challenging the reader’s expectations of form and format. Not content with several hundred pieces of paper bound between two covers, Ware envisioned Building Stories as something utterly unique: fourteen discrete books, brochures, newspapers, and pamphlets, none of which has a clear beginning or ending, all contained in a printed box. The graphic novel, as Pantheon continues to call Ware’s work, imagines the inhabitants of a three-story Chicago apartment building, including his 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. 

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.

Do you see the “visual” and the “literary” as two distinct aspects of your work, or are they merely two sides of the same coin?
I’m thrilled that I can be asked questions from both literary and visual-art perspectives, though recently many of the art questions seem to be more about whether hanging comic artwork on the wall is a good idea or not, which is sort of a dry question. As for the literary, I guess I’m less plot-driven than most cartoonists, at least with Building Stories, which turns much more on tenuous metaphors and loosey-goosey connections in the main character’s life than anything else. There seem to be more than enough plot-driven books and comics already, and I find the hard-to-pin-down shifts of the mind and one’s sense of self more compelling as subjects, though that’s not to say that an experimental comic book can’t make sense—and, hopefully, be a worthy attention-competitor for any interesting movie or novel.

Creatively, however, 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. Sometimes even an accident of the pencil will create a strange movement of the head or hand that changes everything entirely (and I have to believe that these accidents aren’t always so accidental). 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—and whether one uses words or pictures to make them readable defines whether one is a writer or a cartoonist, I guess.
Would you define yourself as a writer or a cartoonist then?
I’d love to consider myself a writer, but for purposes of Schedule 1040-ES and general truth-in-lending, I call myself a cartoonist. It’s also more fun to call myself that at parties, because to most people cartooning sounds like a fun job, even though it’s really life-chewing drudgery.

Cartoonist” brings up an interesting question of terms. In a lot of essays your work is referred to as “comics,” but of course Pantheon has released it as “graphic novels.” Do you see a significant distinction there, or are these simply marketing terms?
The generally agreed-upon story is that the term “graphic novel” was coined by the artist Will Eisner to distinguish what he envisioned comics could be versus what they had been, and also as his sad bid for artistic legitimization. As he once put it, and I’m paraphrasing something I actually heard him say, he hoped one day to be “invited to the party I’d previously only watched from the outside.” Though I avoided the term for years, I’ve since come to use it, as it now, amazingly, means more or less what Eisner dreamed it would and what Art Spiegelman proved it could. (Besides, the term “comic book” at least dates back to the 1830s and, I believe, refers to cheaply produced pamphlets of jokes and song lyrics, not just collections of cartoons.)

Finally, being a cartoonist means that you don’t consider yourself too fancy, though “graphic novel” also can sound like a synonym for Fifty Shades of Grey, so that’s a little bit of a problem.

As for your process, what comes first? Do you write the text, with images to follow? Or do you “envision” the story first? Or is it, perhaps, a more organic process than that implies?
No words or pictures, just lots of dishwashing and other mindless tasks. For some reason during these moments of mammalian staring, the least-guarded things pop into my head—as I mentioned before, what I think of as false memories. But once I actually start drawing, a different process takes over, with the drawings on the page suggesting all sorts of new things, based both on my own memories and ones I’ve made up. Beyond this and some planning notes and an outline, I just start at the upper left-hand corner or the center of the page and see what happens, which is something maybe I shouldn’t admit, but it’s true.

I don’t script anything, 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.

If you were working exclusively with words, do you think you’d be writing novels or memoirs—or poetry?
I’d probably try to write novels, but I’d just rewrite the first page over and over again. Writing in words only feels like skating on oiled glass to me. I need something solid to grab or I start rolling backward.

Who are some of the writers who have inspired you? Any poets? In a number of panels, especially in Building Stories, whether you intended it or not—it’s poetry.
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. 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.

I’d probably pick James Joyce as my favorite English-language writer, and Tolstoy as the greatest who’s ever lived, and then add in Chekhov, Updike, Nabokov, Melville, Flaubert, Proust, Cheever, Hemingway, Maupassant, Maugham, Woolf, and Strindberg. John Steinbeck was the first writer who made me cry (thanks to Mrs. Byers, my seventh grade English teacher). As for contemporaries, certainly Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, and Alice Munro. Last year I read a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, and a little Charles Dickens.

The presentation of Building Stories is so odd and uniquely compelling: the story in pieces. What was your thinking behind the different formats, including short books, brochures, newspapers, and pamphlets. I assume it is a deliberate attempt to disrupt the typical A-to-Z order of making one’s way through a story. Is this a commentary on traditional modes of narrative?
The format 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. 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. This possibly too-rarefied approach nonetheless seemed like a fresh bet on how to treat memories on the page, to break them apart and allow for more of the multiple connections and overlaps that happen naturally within us…. Finally, and I don’t want to give too much away here, but the book itself is supposed to be an entirely imaginary object, which, hopefully, syncs up with a strange experience pretty much everyone has at one point or another.

As I mentioned before, Joseph Cornell’s boxes and dossiers were an inspiration, and I can’t take credit for the idea of a box of books, either (even if I did suggest it to my first publisher in 1987). Most recently, McSweeney’s has issued many such things, and there was also a strange burst of this sort of “ephemeral” publishing in the seventies and eighties that inspired me as a kid. Though I worry that the end result might seem a little too precious or “enchanting,” this feeling is, I hope, tempered by the tone of the stories themselves. Overall—if I can say this without sounding like a jerk—it’s intended as a serious, sober book.

Do you do all of your drawing and writing on paper?
Yes, indeed. I am very old-school—pencil, ink, and brush on Strathmore 500 Series Bristol board. Can’t think any other way.

What does your revision process look like—do you, like a writer replacing an adjective or an adverb, find yourself laboring over the expression on a character’s face, or revising a character’s stance in a certain panel? Or is there more of a flow to those kinds of decisions as you proceed in the story?
I do a small amount of editing once I scan it into the computer sometimes, but it’s always 98 percent there on the page. The adjectives and adverbs mostly come in when I color the pages.

I think it’s interesting that you see yourself as less plot-driven than most cartoonists. Do you see these longer works—Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories—more as character studies, with the character in your new work being the building? Can you talk a bit about your idea to use a building as the structure of your new novel? It reminds me of that Walt Whitman line, “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
That’s very kind of you to say, and I wish I felt so confident. I guess if “character study” is the usual term, then yes—although Jimmy Corrigan was probably much more about history and causation of character, however pretentious that sounds. Building Stories is more of a portrait told from the inside out and then dumped into a box. The "building as character” comes from the main character’s overreaching for meaning in a creative writing class and accidentally finding it; i.e., every home and building we choose to live in reflects or contradicts our childhood and what we want ourselves to become, and homes can even form the shapes of our memories—which also sounds way too pretentious, but is something I do believe.

While reading your new work I was struck by how much you’re able to communicate in just one panel, often without the use of words. It may take a literary novelist whole pages to describe the loneliness of a woman stepping off a curb to go get groceries at the store, yet you’re able to convey whole inner worlds in just a few panels. The cumulative effect of this is astonishing. After finishing Jimmy Corrigan, for example, it felt like I was stepping out of a dark movie theater into the blinding sun. It was a little unsettling, actually. Can you tell me a bit about the opportunities—and the limitations, perhaps—in communicating so much through what are sometimes rather straightforward visual images?
That’s very generous of you, and I just wish I felt the same way. Much of the time, I feel frustrated by the brittle inefficiency of comics and yearn for the flexible transparency of words, so I try to find ways around the “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” of comics, adjusting the pictures with contradictory passages of text or some such thing.

If I’m feeling optimistic, comics do seem to allow for representing simultaneous levels of experience and consciousness, and I think they also reflect (and are born of) the way we as adults reduce the world to templates and abbreviations that prevent us from truly living in any moment. And despite what I say, I do like the comic strip’s directness, since it’s one of the only static visual arts left where being straightforward is still standard operating procedure. And generally comics are fun to read, or should be.

When I first started Jimmy Corrigan I felt very confused by all the faces staring back out at me on the page, as it seemed to scotch most of my chances for real empathy, like I was trying to tell someone “I love you” in a theater fire. Stealing from [Japanese artist and printmaker] Katsushika Hokusai, I ended up self-consciously limiting myself to only showing the few protagonists’ faces (which also seemed to reflect the constipated and constricted nature of the main character, so I guess I lucked out there).

Can you explain how you use what I would refer to, in layman’s terms, as “jump cuts” in your work? For example, you communicate so much by drawing a character standing next to her bed in one panel, and in the next panel you draw her from a different point of view, this time lying on the bed. Another even simpler example is the image of a flower and the subtle change in the angle of its bow from one panel to the next. You seem to be working on a very emotional level there, and I’m wondering if you could explain your thinking behind it.
I wish I could, but there’s absolutely no governing idea to such shifts; they come from what the page demands and how much time I’m putting into each panel and how those panels read as a sequence. Where I’m working in what I think of as a theatrical mode, I try to present the experience of seeing/feeling a person moving in real time and in the present tense, with all the natural and unnatural gestures that such “acting” entails. If I’m drawing a character lost in thought or replaying a memory I take a different approach, layering things. Sometimes I try to indicate that the character is lying to him- or herself by the unbelievability of the gestures (with which the history of comics is rife). And of course, there’s portraying the awkward embarrassment of trying to imagine one’s future. I can’t predict how any of this is going to work, however; it just happens as I’m drawing.

Earlier you mentioned Will Eisner’s thoughts about graphic novels and how he hoped to be “invited to the party.” Is this outsider perspective something that influences your work as well? I ask because that invitation or acceptance seems to elude your characters, albeit on a very different level. The plight of the outcast seems to be a frequent theme.
It used to, but not anymore. I’ve been generously invited to many parties, though I can find the experience upsetting, as it makes me doubt myself more (not a pursuit that requires any encouragement). I recently asked the fiction writer Aleksandar Hemon—whom I greatly admire—if he was ever afflicted by self-doubt and he said, “Oh, yes, of course—this whole business of literature; really, what is it for?” I said that wasn’t exactly what I meant, that I meant the sort of self-doubt that doesn’t let you trust yourself enough to even pick up the pencil to work or feel that you’re good enough to even try. He looked at me for a second and said, “No, not really.”

Do you find that self-doubt can actually be an asset in your work as a cartoonist or as a writer?
Whether it’s an asset or a hindrance, I guess I’m stuck with it. I suppose in some way self-doubt might define what I do, if not having originally affected my childhood decision to become a cartoonist—the idea of being an artist or a writer having been too intimidating. I will admit to a little suspicion of those who travel in clouds of pure self-confidence, however, both as to whether the self-confidence is genuine and then also, if it is, if it should then simply be considered hedging toward arrogance. I do think that an artist should try to have what I think of as “alien eyes” (which means the striving to see things as dryly and grimly as possible, including one’s own work), and a lack of self-confidence can certainly help in this regard. Of course it can also paralyze you, but anyway….

You’ve referred to your new work as an “experimental comic book.” Would you say Jimmy Corrigan is experimental as well? If so, I think it says something interesting about the genre: You’re one of the most well-known and celebrated cartoonists in the country and you’ve achieved that by being experimental. Yet the writers who have achieved a similar level of popular acclaim have done so by working in a more realistic vein.
I’d consider David Foster Wallace and John Updike and even Leo Tolstoy to be pretty experimental. Really, “realism” seems just as difficult as any disorienting fantastical stuff does to me (or more); just simply trying to honestly get at that undertow of life slipping away, of memories drifting, of you and the people you love growing up or growing old while wanting it all to slow down, constantly guessing what everyone is really thinking and how they’re living, all the while rewriting what you think it is you think about them and yourself and what you’re actually going to do with your life—that seems plenty urgent and odd enough. Even George Saunders seems to me to be writing about all of these same things, but in a sort of way that feels very primal and almost unspeakable.

When you think about it, everyone is a fiction writer, because any time you imagine what a person is thinking, or how he or she lives, or whether or not he or she finds you attractive, you’re writing (or drawing, if one thinks in images), though we like to file it away as if it’s reliable information. The film Tokyo Story distills this palpable feeling of life more perfectly than pretty much anything I can think of; it’s that feeling we first become aware of as adolescents and then spend the rest of our lives finding ways to euthanize.

How do you feel about the migration from print to e-books? I imagine a cartoonist has a very specific perspective on this. Considering your new work, which is being delivered to readers as a box of beautiful and varied objects to hold in their hands, I assume you prefer ink on paper. But can you see any opportunities for your work on the screen?
I love books. They’re my life. They’re pretty much all I care about, look forward to, and covet, other than my family. However, it makes perfect sense to me that newspapers, magazines, gossip sheets, and whatever are going electronic, because they all contain disposable information and are intended to be as up-to-date, like “news,” as possible. Newsprint was the fiber-optic cable of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it’s an increasingly untenable business model. I should add that I come from a family of newspaper people—my grandfather, mother, and great-great uncle (who won a Pulitzer Prize)—so I’m speaking somewhat sacrilegiously here. I’m sure that publishers will continue to cater to those nostalgic for their morning paper and coffee as long as it’s affordable, and I’m betting we’ll see “luxury” editions of newspapers made available the same way LPs have been, insofar as getting one’s news is an aesthetic experience—at least until the grid shuts down; then all bets are off.

As for art, however, Updike, in his address at BookExpo America in 2006, highlighted a tenuous and delicate connection between art and print so beautifully that I’m loath to mangle it, but he suggested that books provide an “edge,” or a defining boundary, between readers and writers—and, as fixed rather than malleable vessels for information, between art and the world. I very much believe in and covet this boundary, and I don’t think I’m alone. I am also not at all worried about the collapse of publishing because there are those who don’t care about such boundaries and would actively prefer to create without them; I’m sure there will indeed be more and more people reading text on their iPads and iPhones every day, but there are also hundreds of thousands of people out there who love the considered finitude of books just as I do, and as long as we’re alive (like the aforementioned newspaper readers) books will live too.

Additionally, there’s something already so weightless and ineffable about what writers and artists do that I think it almost needs the certainty of paper and print as a sort of poetic contradiction to make it work. I generally feel cheated and disappointed in any e-purchase I make for that very reason; in art school terms, the form and the content just seem too much the same. However, I’m sure there are great, life-changing things to come in the boundary-less media, and I think that’s swell.

Finally, 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. 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. To me, having drawings move on the screen or music playing in the background always feels tantamount to introducing car horns and sound effects to classical music, or courtrooms to dramas—if you have to resort to that sort of stuff, something went wrong somewhere. 

Kevin Larimer is the editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.