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Ware and ‘When’ (and What About It)

All across Berkeley, citizens of my demographic had been startled by their latest New York Review of Books.  Since I was the only person they knew who read comics, they accosted me at the health club and café and between sets at Freight and Salvage.  “Who is this Chris Ware?” they demanded.  “Should I put aside The Radetsky March for him?”

I had read Jimmy Corrigan and several issues of Acme Novelty Library.  I could answer the first question.

I ought to pick up his new thing, I decided.

The first day I left it on the dining room table for contemplation.

I thought, What is a book?  What rises to art?

I recalled Joseph Cornell’s boxes and Duchamp’s valise.

“B u il ding S to r(eyeball)e S,” the lid said, its letters of carefully orchestrated, varying sizes and fonts.  Some lay on sides; all floated amidst symbols and pictures – a building, a baby, a ring.  My gaze lodged on a rectangle in the lower right corner, framing a sleeping woman.

Is it, I thought, a dream?

A six-pound, two-ounce, sixteen-and-one-half by eleven-and-one-half by two-inch dream.

It contained, the lid said, “14 distinctively discrete Books, Booklets, Magazines, Newspapers, and Pamphlets.”  The capitalizations were deliberate, I thought.  So was the omission of the designation “Comics.”   It screened that pigeonhole from the dismissal of that slotting.  “(S)ometimes,” said the lid, “it’s reassuring – perhaps even necessary – to have something to hold on to.”

The second day I slit the cellophane wrapper.

Inside, wrapped in further cellophane, were brightly colored, variously sized and shaped items, from which portions of cartoon strips confronted me.

The inner aspect of the lid quoted Picasso: “Everything you can imagine is real.”

The third day, I slit the inner cellophane and decided to progress top-to-bottom.

ii

The first item was a fifty-two-page, nine-and-three-quarter by three-inch, wordless cartoon pamphlet.  It focused on a woman with a (presumable) husband and a daughter.  The husband is usually absent. The daughter grows from infancy into pre-pubescence.  She and her mother hug, swim, pick flowers, buy clothes, swim.  (Who are these people, I wondered.  What of significance about them am I missing?  What will I learn?)  Of the three, the woman registers the most emotion, and the emotion she registers most seems to be worry or concern.  The second item was a three and one-half-by-seven-inch, twice-folded sheet of paper, with cartoon panels on both sides.  It tracked a solitary woman along a snowy street, despairing over her “dead end job” and “dead end life.”  Once she “almost had a family” but now she is alone.  (Is this the same woman, I wondered.  What happened to the man and girl?  Were they another dream?)  The third item was a similarly sized, similarly folded sheet of paper, with cartoon panels on both sides.  It focused on an unnamed woman, her daughter (“Lucy”), and an unnamed “daddy” (somewhat absent).  The mother is concerned about Lucy; Lucy is concerned about life and change.  Except for one partially obscured detail linking Item Three to Item One, it is unclear if any of these characters are the same characters from either of the previous items.  This was partly frustrating and partly charming, and it certainly left one engaged and aware of how stories “work”:  what we, as readers or viewers, expect; what we require; what our role is in the process in the “making” of a story.  The fourth item, “Bradford the Best Bee in the World,” was a thirty-two-page, soft cover booklet, illustrated in the broad style and written in the cute language of a “child’s”book.  But the book imparted information about bees which may be beyond the ken of even the brightest junior naturalist.  And before its cliff-hanger ending, it inquired into the nature of God and the transmigration of souls and raised gender issues and revealed Bradford to be tortured by impure thoughts, all of which seemed unlikely to have been intended for children.  (Is Lucy reading this, I wondered.  If not, who is its intended audience and how does it fit within this work of Ware’s?)

The next three items, a seventeen-page hard cover book and a pair of sixteen-page soft cover booklets, focused on a century-old North Side Chicago triplex.  In the first, some strips centered on an elderly woman, the building’s owner, who lives on its first floor. Some centered on a married couple, who live on its second.  Some centered on a solitary woman – the same woman, the same detail confirms, as that of Items 1 and 3 – who lives with her cat on the third.  And a few centered on the building.  The action occurs on one day in September 2000, except for the last page which occurs in 2005.  The second of these three items centered on the couple.  Most of it occurred in the “present,” but two pages were set in 1991 –  and two in 2156, as if Ware wanted to demonstrate he could jump anywhere he pleased.  The third centered on the elderly woman as she recalls her past.

All the residents are unhappy.  The elderly woman has lived in this building her entire life.  Her father died when she was a child; her mother died after a lengthy illness, during which the woman cared for her.  She had studied art; she had worked in a department store; but, except for her parents, she never had a significant relationship.  The couple met when he was a rock musician.  Now he is a night watchman and she works days.  When they are together, they fight.  The solitary woman had hoped to be an artist or writer but is neither.  Her father is deceased; her relationship with her mother is strained.  She has met a man (Phil) to whom she is attracted, but she knows he will not call her.  She has, it is revealed, lost her left leg below the knee (the detail I had mentioned previously).  “What makes lives turn out as they do,” she wonders.  This speaks for all the residents – and resonates for us.

The building is not unhappy.  It is matter of fact.  It has seen 301 tenants, it informs us, 29 broken hearts, 11,627 lost childhood memories, 5 spiritual crises, 65,418 orgasms, 13,246 light bulbs…  It is all the same, it infers.  Things and hopes, they come and go.

One of the remaining seven items, a twelve-and-one-quarter by eighteen-and-one-half-inch, four-page “newspaper,” “The Daily Bee,” related the next chapter in the Branford cliff-hanger.  Another, which folds out into a quartet of sixteen-by-twenty-one “pages,’ revisited the residents of the triplex – with a surprise appearance by Branford, now drawn and written in conformity with Ware’s handling of the triplex’s world.  (The effect was illuminating.  It suggested that, as the form in which Branford had been presented previously had caused my “adult” sensibility to dismiss his life and musings as “childish” and laugh at the silliness of and errors in his thinking, so might a greater consciousness dismiss my “adult” attempts to understand of the mysteries of the cosmos.  It suggested also that all “comic books” be treated with respect.)

The remaining five items focused on the solitary woman.  (As far as I could tell, she is never named.  I shall refer to her as SW hereafter.)  Four of the five centered on her post-triplex life.  In these she has a husband (Phil!) and daughter (Lucy!), with whom she lives in a house in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park.  (In the item in which she lives in the triplex, a detail suggests that she indeed was the woman in Item 2.)  The couple and elderly woman are absent, but Branford is the central character in a book Lucy enjoys. Phil is essentially content and  Lucy  essentially untroubled.

But SW worries about her weight and the oil crisis.  She worries about potential disasters, natural, political, economic, social.  She feels guilty at her treatment of one former boyfriend and angry at how another treated her.  (Both contact her within a brief period, slightly straining a reader’s credulity.)  She is rocked by the deaths of a foetus, a friend, a pet, a varmint.  (Two of these deaths coincide so neatly that even Ware’s credulity is strained.  He reflects this by having SW chastise God for inflicting such an “obvious” “metaphor” on “the script of my life.”  But if any creator is to be held accountable for this strain, it is Ware.)

The aspect of these two deaths which bothered me was my inability to fix them in time.  In Item 13, they seem to occur in 2011.  (Obama is president, and a funeral is held on Friday, September 2; and 2011 is the only year after his election in which that date fell on that day of the week.)  But in Item 8, which is set in 2009 (according to the date on a cell phone), the two deaths have already occurred.  Perhaps this confusion represents Ware’s venture into the realm of parallel universes.  Perhaps it is a consequence of collecting pieces created over a period of years  into one unified work by a publisher whose editing budget was insufficient.  Or perhaps it results from an artist unwilling to re-write and re-draw enough to achieve consistency.  This is understandable but frustrating because one of the joys of Building Stories comes from engaging with Ware’s use of time.

iii

The work is an amalgam of puzzles, and a major one is trying to determine what is happening – or has happened – when.  Time is fluid to Ware, and he uses the comics medium to demonstrate this masterfully.  Time can shift from panel-to-panel, let alone page-to-page.  Decades collapse in the width of a border line.  The existing moment dissolves into dream or memory.  One must pay attention to a character’s size, hair style, dress color.  One must be aware of calendars and signs on buildings.  One must recognize that “Mr. Kitty” is not “Miss Kitty.”  One may think he has grasped the here-and-now, only to quickly realize his mistake.  (I was certain I had located a “present” in four panels at the end of Item 8.  But second thoughts pulled that rug from beneath me too.  The Lucy in these panels is an adult, and since she was unborn in 2000 and in first grade in what-looks-like 2011, that “present” must be “future” – at least what remains “future” for some years yet.)

Frequently, within what passes for a “present,” great portions of the narrative will occur in a “past” or “future.”  Characters spend so much time looking back or looking ahead, while barely registering their “now,” Ware calls the entire idea of  “present” into question.  All of time seems to exist as simultaneously as if he was channeling Krishnamurti.  (This supposition gains support from Ware’s omission of  page numbers.  While making it hard on someone who wishes to refer from his notes back to the text, it reinforces the idea that to think in terms of events proceeding in linear order is to be in error.  The physicist Julian Barbour has proposed that the universe be considered “a stack of moments,” like a deck of cards, which may be “shuffled and reshuffled arbitrarily to give the illusion of time…”; and Ware, who tells readers it does not matter in which order his items are read, may be suggesting that his  bindings be loosed and his pages treated in this fashion.  I half expect his next work to arrive as a jigsaw puzzle which, once completed, spreads across the floor in one gigantic “page.”)

SW is the primary character for Ware’s explorations.  She is, from when first met, back and forth across decades. a troubled soul.  On the North Side, she is possessed by a “hopeless loneliness.”  In Oak Park, she is imprisoned by life’s “unfairness.”  The disappointment which burdens her most is the imagined cost of her untaken paths.  Because she did not become the artist or writer she was “supposed to,” she fears she has been a “failure.”  All she can summon to balance against this accusation  is Lucy.  At times Lucy’s “joyful reality” makes SW promise never to feel badly again.  “I am happy,” she insists.  “Finally, I am happy.”  But the last images Ware leaves us with is two panels of SW’s face, blank and glum, after Lucy has asked her, “Will I be the most important thing you ever do?”  Her relationships and residences may have changed, but, as the Buddhists put it, “Wherever she goes, there she is.”

Ware’s use of the comics form to enhance the emptiness at his character’s core is superb.  If he possesses the illustrative chops of a Hal Foster or Alex Raymond, he resists all temptation to demonstrate them.  He does not render a richly detailed, lushly foliaged, deeply dimensioned world.  The life he sets forth is narrow, stunted, cramped.  Few possibilities for beauty enrich it.  Few periods of excitement enliven it.  The deepest emotions are registered through the slightest alteration of the dots and lines that constitute facial features.  The glories of speech are reduced to undecipherable squiggles, when overheard through a muffling wall, or converted to simplistic glyphs as if Ware was an Egyptian primitive employing a stylus on papyrus.  Emphasis can be attained by merely darkening or enlarging the letters that form a word.

If Ware does not have the huff and puff of extensive plotting to keep his readers churning pages, his technical skills motivate their flipping forward.  The variety of the size and shape of his books and pages and panels keep his readers alert and engaged.  The variations of his lay-outs send the eye on entertaining slips and slides.  Sometimes Ware sets them upon carnival rides, as when he provides gaze-directing “arrows” which slip through windows he has drawn and slither under doors.  One of his favorite devices involves centering a page (or a two-page spread) spread with an image that, while not sequentially connecting to the narrative unfolding around it, enhances that narrative thematically.  These images can also take on their own narrative progression, moving from a naked woman, to her skeleton, to (presumably her) vagina, to a “painting” of a vagina, to an orchid’s blossom.  Even his inchworm-like approach to story-telling can resound within a thoughtful reader.  One nods his head approvingly at his capturing how life works.  Yeah, one affirms, when you meet someone new, they rarely come with paragraphs of expository background information attached.  And, yeah, you don’t know from jump street which of them will prove significant.

Ware is also adept at documenting the nothingness at his characters’ cores. He will devote an entire page of a sixteen-page book to a solitary figure sitting silent, pining or regretting, not noting a single thought.  The author of a 300-page novel would have to spend nineteen pages repeating the same sentence to equal the effect.  The director of a ninety-minute film would have to hold his camera steady for nearly seven at a woman in a chair.  Readers would fling books at walls.  Moviegoers would stomp and whistle.  Under Ware’s spell, though, one just smiles and looks again to make sure he has not missed anything.

iv

Toward the end of Building Stories, Ware has SW ask herself why a “‘great book’… (can’t be) about regular people living everyday life.”  She poses this question after rejecting for vacation reading Proust, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Moby Dick, and Ulysses.  It is unclear why she does not consider Stephen Daedelus and the Blooms (or, even, Ishmael and Swann – ships and wealth notwithstanding) regular people or their lives uncommon.  Perhaps she means to ask why a great book can’t be written simply and straightforwardly, without ornate prose or symbolic overload or reference to Virgil and the Bible.  And perhaps SW’s thinking is to be distinguished from Ware’s for, while he has created a work about the ordinary lives of ordinary people, it is not simplistic or straightforward and seems to owe a debt to Joyce and Proust and, even, Melville.  But positioned at the end of Building Stories, as SW’s question is, it seems reasonable to conclude that Ware is asking to have his work measured against the literary greats and not dismissed because it is light on homicide or sex abuse or passion or whales.

By the way he frames SW’s question, Ware seems to accept that literary greatness can not be achieved by technical mastery alone.  Something which speaks to the human condition is required.  And for an evaluation of “Building Stories” in this regard, SW is, again, key.  She is its only fully developed character.  The elderly woman and the married couple vanish once she leaves the triplex.  Lucy is primarily a goad to prod reactions from her and Phil a more-or-less one-dimensional moon orbiting her gloomy sun.  And with SW, I confess… disappointment.  From her shallow insights into her discontents, to her chirps of protest against Starbucks and cell phones, she seems a familiar figure in contemporary literature.  She has suffered parental betrayal, romantic disaster, personal loss – and my jotted notes of “Beautiful,” “Sad,” “Poignant” remind me that at times Ware treatment of them broke through beyond the commonplace; but these moments were fleeting.  My body was never shaken into increased awareness, nor my soul truly stirred and educated.

Even SW’s amputated limb vexed more than moved me.  Having chosen to afflict his central character thus, Ware, in my estimation, did little with it.  I couldn’t help wishing he had ventured more deeply into its implications.  He does not reveal the amputation’s cause until his work’s final page, as if he has been withholding a mystery-solving clue; but little, really, has been made of the loss to this point, and the revelation does not seem to shed sufficient light on what has gone before to justify dramatically its concealment.  SW seems not only less driven by her loss than Ahab, but less effected than Captain Hook.  I would agree with Chekhov that if you are going to hang an amputated leg on the wall when the curtain rises on Act One, it better be stuffed down someone’s throat by the end of Act Three..

Building Stories is wonderful in many ways.  I credit Ware for engaging with the ordinary.  I credit him for waging this engagement beyond the familiar ground of the autobiographic.  But while “wonderful” is “very good,” it is not “great.”  For “great,’ you must stride further that Ware has managed, and, to me, SW’s unstuffed leg seems related this unreached goal.   Ware has handicapped SW in a way that may not seem true to her as a literary character, but it seems true to how all of us – readers and writers, reviewers and the reviewed – hobble through our days, all of us gifted in some ways and limited in others.  For Ware, at this point in his career, these limitations seem to assert themselves in the scope of his vision.  Life has more to offer artists than he has accessed.  There is more beauty, more hope, more blessings, and more grace.  There is greater pain and deeper pits of despair.  There is more wisdom to be unearthed and shared.  But Ware is still young.  He is talented and dedicated, and he has – if Krishnamurti and Dr. Barbour will excuse me – the time to discover more and mine it.

 

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18 Responses to Ware and ‘When’ (and What About It)

  1. Allen Rubinstein says:

    That is a fabulous write up, and encompasses my feelings exactly. Building Stories, after plowing through all its pieces, struck me as a magnificent artifact that is less than the sum of the parts. All the awards and its presence on nearly everyone’s top ten list is strange when practically nobody has written about what the work actually accomplishes. It leads me to believe that a hefty chunk of the people who’ve bought the big, fat box are blown away by it without having actually sat down and read the thing. Personally, I found his last few chapters of Rusty Brown far more affecting, putting Building Stories more in line with Quimby the Mouse minus the sick humor. Ware sure does love his formalist bells and whistles.

    The emotional stuntedness of his work (“life sucks”) remains as flat as those wordless panels you described. I couldn’t be a bigger fan of Ware’s comics, but even I was getting bored by the thirteenth segment. I think of Eddie Campbell’s Fate of the Artist (and his follow-up Monsieur Leotard) as how to twist the comics language into a pretzel and come out with a satisfying mix of characters, moods, ideas and meaning. Ware’s work is as grand as the final note of The Beatle’s A Day in the Life… played sixty-seven times.

    Here’s my impression of a person sitting down with Building Stories for the second time:

    Okay, I read this one.

    I think I read this one.

    Did I read this? She has a kid. Was that the one…? Wait a minute…

    Why is the building talking on the cardboard thing?

    I’m sure I must have read this, but I can’t remember anything.

    Who’s the old lady again?

    What’s going on?

  2. Allen Rubinstein says:

    You know, thinking about what I just wrote, I hope it doesn’t come across as too mean. Reading what he wrote about a Comics Journal message board thread in his sketchbook gives me pause about commenting on his books. Just taking in the self-loathing from those two volumes shows a man who has yet to find his spiritual center. I hope for his sake that there’s an uplifting work in his future somewhere.

  3. On the missing limb: not to start a flame war through a willfully uncharitable interpretation, or claim that the work is an unassailable masterpiece, but…to argue that Ware should have fired the amputated-leg-gun by end of the final act is borderline insulting to anyone with a physical disability. Granted, your criticism is aimed more at the fact that he appears to “conceal” its cause, but that seems to put undue weight on the limb’s significance within the work, or the placement of the “revelation”. The disability affects her life in some ways, making it worse in some, but it doesn’t completely determine that life. To chide Ware for doing “little with it” sounds, at least to me, uncomfortably close to chiding an author for not making a bigger deal that her protagonist belongs (say) to a racial minority, or is not a heterosexual. Even granting that “doing more” might have fit with the broader themes of the book, so what?

    One might even interpret your deflated is-that-all-there-is response to the “revelation” as part of the point, to emphasise that such things are not the puzzle key to unlock a life. I didn’t have that response, and I’ve only read the damn thing once so far, so I dunno how plausible that reading is.

    As I say, not trying to read you in bad faith, or pick a fight; this complaint just seems odd to me.

    It might also be worth noting that physical disability is, of course, a frequent trope in Ware’s work — Jimmy Corrigan’s crutches, the conjoined Quimbies when one of them sickens and dies, that disembodied head of Sparky the cat.

    • Scott Grammel says:

      Seems to me that the weight Ware himself puts on her physical limitation requires some commensurate literary importance, but even if he hadn’t, expecting the unusual characteristics of an author’s protagonist to have artistic relevance is hardly an unusual or outrageous one.

      For my part, my copy of Building Stories is still sealed-mint-in-box, because I am as fond of Ware the Social Realist Cartoonist as I am of Maggie and Ray, Jaime Hernandez’s inexplicably beloved (both within and without the stories) female and male everyschlubs. I find the free and imaginative expression found in something like Ware’s last God/Superman storyline more personal, more interesting, and far more artistically satisfying. (For this reason, actually, the bee story in BS is one of the few parts I’m truly eager to read.)

      As to how I can have any opinion of BS given the above stated personal constraints, bits and pieces of the story have been coming out for years, no? Even that limited exposure to Ware’s brightly-colored miserabilism has been enough, so far, to keep the cellophane on the box secure.

  4. Dominick Grace says:

    This review pretty much captures my feelings about the “book”: lots of great parts, but adding up to a disappointing whole. As for the missing limb, it seemed to me like a pretty trite and obvious metaphor for the character’s emotionally crippled state.

    It’s brilliantly executed to be sure, but one of the funniest moments (for me) was when she complained about books not just being about ordinary people. Um, maybe because whiny, depressed folk like her get tiresome to read about after a while?

  5. David Apatoff says:

    I stopped reading Ware’s work a few years ago when I concluded that, at least for me, the nutritional content in his stories was not worth the substantial time commitment needed to ferret it out.

    But Ware is clearly a talented and very sincere fellow, so I have occasionally wondered when it might be time to go back and give him another try. Thanks to Bob Levin’s insightful review for making it clear that the answer is “not yet.” Levin is certainly correct that “Ware is adept at documenting the nothingness at his characters’ cores,” but the bookshelves and theaters are already groaning under the weight of far more intelligent and excruciating treatments of human despair and pain. If you are truly interested in the existential void, what (other than a lack of literacy) would motivate someone to pass by Dostoevsky or Brecht or O’Neill or a hundred other artists in favor of Ware’s anemic and repetitive treatments?

  6. James says:

    Holy mackerel….the beating after the flood of love. I am still thinking about how to parse a response to Building Stories after the publishers were kind enough to send me a review copy—I’m thinking that longer, more developed “graphic novels” may deserve some time to settle in the mind before jumping to judgement on them. I feel the same way about other books that the authors gestated over years…the response might want to season a bit, as well. I do feel confident to say that pretty much anything Chris Ware does is certainly worth reading and taking any single critic’s judgement as a reason to not bother is giving someone else’s opinion way too much credence. And of course, by all means feel free to ignore the judgements of anyone who is too lazy to even open the box but nonetheless feels the need to foist their views on the world.

  7. I think some of the reviewer’s misgivings about the work are fine in so far as he found them limited but I think it really must be pointed out that his reading order is only one of scores of possible reading orders. Therefore to land one of the perceived shortfalls of the work at the feet of it’s story structure is misguided. If the item that explained the amputated limb was read first and the item that mentions that she is happy with her life and being the mother of Lucy was read last then you get a completely different interpretation.

    It is one of the achievements of Ware and of Building Stories that there are so many varied interpretations and readings to be had simply by allowing the reader to structure the work by whatever method the choose (largest to smallest, vice versa or by role of a die). It goes beyond gimmick and gets to the core of where meaning might lay in text. Ware offers it up to us and is brave enough to let us in, to let us be a part of the creative process of bringing meaning to his art. Now that is something no other comic creator is doing. Why is he doing this? Maybe his renowned self loathing means he doesn’t trust himself to construct a meaning and present it to the reader with confidence or perhaps it is an act of supreme self confidence. He could be saying that he has created a work that has so many readings (as do all our lives) that I trust in the reader to create their own, to bring themselves to the table, to build their own story.

    In essence it’s a bit rich to have a go at the author for shortfalls in structural elements when you’re the one that has structured that particular reading in the first place. Reread it and restructure it. What do you see then? And who is responsible for the meaning you find there?

  8. john retallick says:

    By the way. I thought the review was a fine piece of writing. Thanks to all at TCJ for your continued work.

  9. patrick ford says:

    Did I miss the part where Levin says the book is a sum less than it’s parts?

  10. David Tiegen says:

    I don’t know why none of you have brought this up, but I will. In Jimmy Corrigan, much like “SW”, Jimmy has hurt his leg and uses a crutch. Though most of the details surrounding this injury go un-revealed, the story makes it known that Jimmy has no real concept of the injury itself and rather just prefers there be a cast and a crutch for him to have. Now, if you guys have looked for answers to why this seemingly meaningless injury is incorporated into the story, then you may have found (i believe there are a few interviews, and it is even on the inside jacket of the book) that Ware believes it is his crass leap for metaphor. But reading Ware’s work involves the loudness of symbols. As the article displays, it is the how of his stories that does the telling, much more than the what. This is why you cannot expect Chekhov to apply to Ware. You can only apply such an assertion to single panels where the crutch or the leg appears. Much like Dalhi’s own use of the crutch, it is used as a common word or an insignia. It serves to remind you that this character is one of those people who seems to carry something larger than grief. If you wish to see the leg/crutch as merely a prop then you are only reading a quarter of the book.

  11. patrick ford says:

    The review is largely a rave. Levin is simply holding Ware to the highest possible standard, and his conclusion is Ware is knocking on the door.
    I think the review is constructive without being condescending. There is an argument that the message of Ware’s writing could be sharpened by allowing in a bit more light. There would be a greater contrast if glimmers of genuine happiness were acknowledged.
    It’s not all as cold as that, and allowing for real tenderness, love, and laughter would only enhance the story.

    • Bob Levin says:

      I wish to thank everyone who took the trouble to respond to my article. The quality of these responses was quite high, and as an author I am grateful. Mr. Jones raises an interesting point about whether I’m being disrespectful to the disabled. As I wrote if Chris Ware hadn’t made it seem like he was issuing a revelation on his last page, I might have left this alone. It did seem like a “Rosebud” moment though. Additionally, as a bit of a confession, I was proud of my line about Ahab and Captain Hook, and if i had skipped the amputation, I would have had no way to use that one. So perhaps I was putting my own writerly pride above the manuscript’s “truth.” (I had forgotten Jimmy Corrigan’s lower extremity problem, and I thank David Tiegen for bringing it into the discussion. Maybe I’ll take another look at that too.)

  12. It’s not the formalist stunt of packaging Building Stories as a board game of many parts that impresses me. It’s the depth of observation, the densely textured evocation of phenomenal experience, the ways in which Ware has taught comics to pay attention to the minute processes of living. And it’s also the humanity. Though Building Stories does show life from terribly bleak perspectives—hell, at moments the protagonist contemplates suicide—it is not tonally interchangeable with Jimmy Corrigan, and indeed startles me with just how much farther it has gone beyond that earlier work. There is light as well as sadness in Building Stories, and there is more than a facile despair prompting the work.

    To take but one example, the book’s evocation of parenthood is as honest and probing as any I have ever seen. When I read Building Stories, I progressed from the large hardcover focusing on the protagonist’s loneliness and losses to the little oblong pamphlet that wordlessly evokes her experience as a mother. The new perspective that that little pamphlet brought—the extraordinary layering of experience there, and its evocation of the joys and terrors of parenting a child, which Ware conjures with more insight and courage than anything I’ve seen in comics before—that stunned me. The author of Jimmy Corrigan ought not to have been able to write that. Ware is not the same author he was a decade ago.

    Regarding the protagonist’s loss of limb, her disability, it is not merely a metaphor. It is an ineluctable and often painful part of her life that is confronted directly again and again. To say that Ware does little with it is to ignore many significant episodes in the book. I’m mystifed by that claim. Ware doesn’t treat that disability simply as (in Eliot’s terms) the objective correlative of, or excuse for, his own notorious melancholy. He explores it often, and usually matter-of-factly, as an essential part of the woman’s character: part of her self-imaging, or self-conception. The way he uses it is not a stunt: it’s another part of his effort to extend the attention of comics into little-explored areas of everyday experience.

    So, much as I always enjoy seeing Bob Levin work on particular comics, I disagree with much of the above review.

    • Eddie Campbell says:

      I was trying to compose a thought along the same lines as Charles, but he expressed it much better than I was doing, so let’s say I second that.
      Eddie Campbell, in transit in Italy

  13. Dan Steffan says:

    A thought provoking piece, as is everything Levin writes. I only recently got a copy of Ware’s box of goodies and — while I am still digesting it all — my initial reaction is one of stunned recognition of what he has attempted to do. Having followed the original appearance of some of this material in the New York Times Magazine, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but what I found when I slit the cellophane on the box was something different entirely.

    Taking Ware at his word that it could be read in any order, I started reading from the bottom of the box — attracted by the size and format of the large newspaper story — so I got a lot of the contextual information about who SW was, how she lost her leg, her family, et cetera before venturing on to the other stories. That gave me insight that Levin didn’t get until the end of his reading path and it made much easier for me appreciate a lot of the little details of her life that were spread throughout most of the rest of the work.

    I was amazed by the layers of empathic back story that was indeed stacked up as idealized by Dr. Barbour, each story adding new details to the accumulating whole. By the time you’re done reading you have absorbed a great deal of SW’s life of worry and self doubt and recrimination, all of which shapes her into the flawed character who is, nonetheless, compelling and recognizable and believable. I know people like her. I may even be a person like her.

    The drawing in the huge newspaper story astonished me. It is so beautifully realized. Ware has stylized his drawings into a type of modern pictographic worldview, the simplicity of his rendering the result of years of hard work. Throughout the project his figures are beautifully drawn. They have weight and their body language is amazing to follow. He may not be putting in conventional details, but the slump of a body, their posture, or the way they hang their heads just so speak volumes about the characters. The heavy weight of life hangs on them in every panel. Ware doesn’t discard the character’s humanity just because he has stylized their appearance.

    And yet, in the close up portrait panels there is a great deal of humanity in the rendering. Those big close ups of SW when she meets up with her old friend at his church are heartbreaking. The close up of Lucy or the newborn baby offer a touching realism that communicates a compassion for the characters that I found quite moving. In the end you legitimately feel like you know something of their lives.

    As for the missing limb, I think many readers may be over thinking it. Because I started reading where I did, I knew what happened to her leg and then went on to witness the ways in which she continued through her life without it being much of a handicap — she regularly goes jogging in the story, for instance. For me, her leg injury was just a very clever device that Ware used to make SW easily identifiable in all the stories in the box. Even in the simplest, smallest panels you can see that telltale line on her calf that indicates that the young mother we’re watching is indeed the same person as the college student that was featured in a different story. It ties her to all the stories, but also acts as a symbol of the kind of strength of character that she seems to think she lacks — which makes her that much more interesting to me. It’s just part of who she is and it doesn’t really impact the storyline at all, though we come to understand some of the impact it has had on her.

    I loved the layers of stories stack on top of each other likes floors of a building. In the end I had a really good idea of what her life was like, her weaknesses, her strengths, and her love for her daughter. I thought all of that was quite an achievement in or out of comics. By the time I was finished reading it I felt like I sorta knew her. It didn’t need a conventional ending per se because it was a portrait of a life in progress, like the ones we all lead everyday. I was amazed to see all the thoughtful and complex emotional characterization and I was impressed by the innovative and experimental mastery of both the art and design.

    I suspect it will be a long time before somebody else has the skill and opportunity to improve on Ware’s work in BUILDING STORIES. Is it perfect? No. But it sets the bar awfully high for whoever might try to follow in Ware’s footprints. It will take profoundly talented person to take the next step.

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