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At the Still Point of the Turning World: Chris Ware’s Building Stories and the Search for Structure in the Contemporary City

To mark the release of Chris Ware’s decade-in-the-making Building Stories—a box of fourteen print artifacts ranging from cloth-bound volumes and newspapers to broadsheets and silent flip books—The Comics Journal is featuring a series of essays from the contributors to the 2010 volume The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking (University Press of Mississippi). Each contributor is revisiting the argument they made in that edited collection two years ago in light of the newly released work, speaking to the ways in which Ware’s comics have either transformed in that time or are returning to the themes of his earlier publications. We hope these first thoughts give rise to a spirited discussion about a novel that will shape conversation in the medium in the years to come.

There’s something sublime about Chris Ware’s new Building Stories box set. Packaged as a collection of 14 interrelated, though randomly sequenced stores, the set is simultaneously awe-inspiring in terms of its beauty and outsized creativity, and daunting, representing as it does a full-blown exercise in narrative exhaustion. Tasking himself with not just telling the story of the titular building, Ware seemingly wants to capture nothing less than the full experience of life itself for the building and its inhabitants. To do so, he challenges the reader both in terms of the sheer amount of material presented and its arrangement, or, more properly, lack thereof. In fact, given his goal of exploring the interrelated stories of the building, the characters who at various times live inside it, and the myriad ways their pasts, presents, and futures intertwine, it’s impossible to separate the box set’s random, nonlinear assortment of strips from the stories he tells.

More than simply an exercise in narrative innovation, the overarching impression after completing Building Stories is that of a project obsessed with lived experience of time, both in regards to the lives of the characters contained inside and more broadly with respect to narrative time and the artistic possibilities inherent in forgoing conventional notions of sequential storytelling. Two years ago, in my article, “Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories,’ Gentrification, and the Lives of/in House,” which was focused on the Ware’s 2005 strip from the New York Times Magazine, I noted that Ware’s commitment to nonlinearity, his penchant for combining the past, present and future in a single frame, humanized the building and personified it as a living, sentient character. In that article, I focused almost exclusively on the building’s characterization, minimizing the lives of the characters who also populate the strip. Noting that Ware fully personifies the building, granting it a voice and providing it with a long and rich history in the Chicago neighborhood where it’s located, I argued that Ware’s strip, in humanizing such an aging structures, critiqued a system of urban renewal that strips buildings of their artistic, and affective value. Situating the strip in the context of debates over gentrification and the transformation of urban space, I suggested that he offered a corrective to the overhaul of 21st-century cities that have taken place in the name of a never-ending push for progress.

Now, with Building Stories’ publication, which culminates more than 11 years worth of work, I realize that the scope of my argument was hopelessly narrow. While I continue to see echoes of the debates over urban space littered throughout the box set (for instance, in the strip I initially examined, which is included here in the form of a classic Little Golden children’s book, or when the protagonist bemoans the changing neighborhood surrounding her apartment, and later, after marriage and motherhood, when she worries about living in a home on the edge of a transitional neighborhood), Building Stories the box set has shattered my understanding of the strip, based as it was on one small excerpt, suggesting that such debates form only a small part of the backdrop of the lives of these characters.

And yet, while my initial argument fails to capture the scope of the project as it now exists, my sense that Ware is using the building to get at something essential about urban life in the 20th and 21st centuries is only more solidified. More specifically, Building Stories is able to fully play out the relationship between buildings and their inhabitants, pointing to the way the former exist as a testament to our desire for order and structure in an environment that seems to actively thwart such desires. Today, more than ever, cities are defined by a near constant sense flux which has the effect of leaving us feeling disoriented and overcome by a flood nostalgic memories, both real and imagined, for cities as they used to exist and the lives we lived in those past iterations. In the face of the provisional nature of the urban experience, buildings offer at least the possibility of order and structure, no matter how messy the lives of the inhabitants they contain.

Ware assembles Building Stories as the literal embodiment of this messiness, self-consciously subverting linear narrative conventions in the box’s structure in order to reflect and shape the stories told inside. Throughout the strips, time constantly shifts and circles back on itself, which parallels the circuitous nature of time in our daily lives. Whether it’s nostalgia for a better time in our lives (i.e. the woman who reminisces about the early stages of her romance with her wannabe rock-and-roll husband) or the constant awareness that we’re surrounded by the histories and stories of others (i.e. the future couple in the same strip that was taken from the iPad App he did for McSweeney’s) time for Ware’s characters swirls and eddies about them in such a way that the past and present are hopelessly intertwined.

At the same time, though, the building, until it is finally demolished, remains through the generations, a fixed point on a city block that is transformed around it. Reinforcing this sense of the building as a fixed, more permanent structure are the many isometric representations that populate Building Stories. Frequently depicting the building as a cross section, rendering interior space as a series of isometric schematics, Ware highlights how, on a daily basis, the characters in the strips play out their lives in spaces that order and provide structure, in direct opposition to the messiness outside. Through these isometric representations Ware literalizes the paradox of life in a city like Chicago as they have the effect of fully inscribing the contours of a character’s daily existence in the building, with the prescribed, cordoned-off nature of life it suggests, while simultaneously bringing into stark relief the disorganized, circuitous nature of life that takes place outside its walls. As Building Stories reminds us, a building is both a fixed testament to history and a permanent reminder of the city as it was as well as a possible bulwark against the chaos that can at times reign. Serving as a comforting space in which new histories are made and played out, it provides a much-needed citadel for characters attempting to navigate the changing cityscape.

 

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16 Responses to At the Still Point of the Turning World: Chris Ware’s Building Stories and the Search for Structure in the Contemporary City

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  2. Eddie campbell says:

    I’ve been waiting for somebody to properly address the isometric projections.

  3. Peteykins says:

    It seems like with this new work, there’s more than ever a ton of special pleading to try to convince people that it isn’t utterly boring to read the damn thing. Building Stories is, to me, the Heaven’s Gate of comics: utterly impressive, beautiful, masterful, etc., etc., but almost utterly impossible to appreciate once you get past the dazzle.

    But, well, obviously I’m in the minority on this one.

    • TimR says:

      Yeah… I wonder though. Maybe people are just sort of being polite. I know that at least for me personally, I was really into the early work, but somewhere in there I reached a tipping point and had just had enough. It’s still impressive I guess, but I’ll admire it from a distance thank you. I’ve barely even clicked on these reviews, I only looked at this one because your comment caught my attention. And when I do try to read the review, mine eyes glazeth over. It could be I’m getting stupider year by year.

    • Derik Badman says:

      I actually found the outward dazzle of the of the formatting/packaging/etc. is the less interesting part once you actually read all the parts of Building Stories. It distracts from the really well told/drawn story of a life that Ware created.

      • Eric Hoffman says:

        I disagree. I didn’t find the packaging/formatting at all distracting. In fact, Ware is abundantly clear why he chose to package it in just such a way – that such formatting could only be done in the print medium. To me, it is a testament to the power of the printed media as well as a physical manifestation of the (often oppressive) sense of nostalgia and the past that permeates Ware’s work, this one included.

      • Eric Hoffman says:

        Instead of writing “power of the printed media” I should have written “the potential of printed media” – meaning – as R. Fiore righly points out below – that Ware’s books are always entirely aware of their physical presentation and are experimentations in form offered by printed media (words + pictures on paper) alone. I can think of numerous other examples Fiore doesn’t mention – page foldouts, glow in the dark ink, etc.

      • Carlos Claro says:

        I totally agree. I’m in the process of checking what has been written about BS so far, but I didn’t find yet a review or essay that goes much beyond the formal aspects of the work. On BS case, form is also content, of course, but there’s much content that goes beyond that. Nobody seems to want addressing the psychological and sociological aspects of the story being told. That’s perhaps because Chris Ware cuts the bone on the nature of the middle-class and upper middle-class WASP living on contemporary US and it hurts. Ware delivers a devastating social critique and nobody’s safe within it. In my opinion, that is what really matters on BS and the rest, being brilliant, is little more than fireworks when compared with the true core of the piece. The failure to recognize that is evidence that CW is absolutely right: we live in constant denial and struggling to escape ourselves. And failing miserably at it…

  4. R. Fiore says:

    There’s certainly a danger of this sort of thing becoming precious and gimmicky, but there’s a bit of an optical illusion going on here. The pattern of Ware’s career so far has actually been to work his material into coherent books, albeit books in large formats. He also creates objects and quirky little projects that he puts on sale, bizarrely elaborate book jackets and things like the Thanksgiving portfolio. Therefore you can get the impression that the Building Stories is a step along the way of Ware becoming more obsessive and gimmicky, when this is not actually the case. Where to look for signs of the precious and gimmicky is not the package but the individual page compositions, which can become elaborate.

  5. Darryl Ayo says:

    I guess you can call this…

    …a “literary construct.”

    • R. Fiore says:

      What I say is that it’s a shame the title “Building Stories” couldn’t have a double meaning, like “Duck Tales.” Then it would be perfect.

      • Dominick Grace says:

        Doesn’t it have a double meaning? Stories about those who live in this building, and the construction of stories?

      • R. Fiore says:

        We are having our little joke, you see.

  6. Tony says:

    I don’t know if anybody else has noticed another double meaning: it’s a box and it’s a book, because it has a spine.

    One of the sides of the box is designed like a book spine in case you want to shelve it as a regular book. Of course, you can store it horizontally laying on a flat surface, but you can “erect” it vertically on a shelf like any other “book”. The two larger sides of the box look exactly the same, except that one of them has the name of the author and the logo of the publisher written perpendicularly.

    http://i47.tinypic.com/293ixjb.jpg

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