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.