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

Kevin Larimer

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.