Building Stories


Building Stories

(Editor’s Note: The following were received on 14 separate slips of paper. We publish them here in no particular order)


In just some building.

A nameless woman sobbing

at a life injust.


Email exchange:

Hi Rob-

The Comics Journal asked me to review the new  “book” by Chris Ware. It landed with a crash on my doorstep and WTF>?!?!?: it’s enormous and intimidating….taking up half the space on my couch for the past few days and I can’t bring myself to even carefully break the tight plastic wrapping ‘cause that would be the first step to having to sit down, read it, and review the durn thing! What can I even begin to say in a review???!?!?!



Hey Paul-


Don’t bother opening it. Here’s your “review”:

“Chris Ware has done it again! Ware continues to dazzle and amaze his fans with breathtaking groundbreaking work! There’s never been a book like this before! A new standard is set! Chris Ware has done it again!”


I’d like to actually take a look at the thing next time I come by…maybe we can carefully break the tight plastic wrapping together.


How To:

  1. Hold “Building Stories” container in both hands and give it a gentle rattle.
  2. Feel the heft.
  3. Carefully break the tight plastic wrapping without damaging the box, or “cover”.
  4. Take a quick skim of the contents. Count out the 14 individual components. If any are missing, repack and contact the vendor.
  5. Do not overlook the valuable information printed on the inside of the lid.
  6. Before reading, make sure that your reading area is well lit. If you use glasses while reading, wear them. A nearby magnifying glass is recommended.
  7. You may choose to read the 14 components in any order including but not limited to:
    1. Starting with the top most object in the prepackaged pile and work one’s way down like a miner.
    2. Smallest to largest.
    3. Largest to smallest.
    4. Other.
    5. Please be sure to return all components to the box when reading session is complete in respect to future readers.

Fortune cookie:

“Sorry. You will continue to be plagued by self-doubt and remain unappreciated by those around you.”

Real Estate ad:

This 14-story charmer is built to exacting standards. Solidly constructed by master craftsman yet luxurious and appealing. Many distinctive features. Easy access to visual cortex. Some TLC needed. Must be seen to be believed.

Discussion Group Topics:

1. Does the fact that the main character has no name make her easier to identify with or, rather, does her anonymity make her more of an “Everywoman”?

2. In addition to having no name, the main character also has no left leg below the knee. Does this make her nobly imperfect and thus more sympathetic, or is it just a device for the author to explain why it is so hard for her to get a date?

3. Does the reader construct his or her own narrative by choosing the order in which the 14 booklets are read? Since the author is intrigued with the formal properties of his medium while passionate about describing the inability of modern Americans to meaningfully connect except by accident, is this experience any different than a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book?

4. In addition to themes of loneliness and self-doubt there is a wistfulness that pervades the entire enterprise. How does the character of the wise, old self-reflective building, which narrates several passages looking back on its melancholy history of housing indifferent tenants, evoke such wistfulness?

5. Why does something as insignificant as the bee that buzzes in the margins of several of the booklets, rate a booklet of his very own? Why does only he rate a name in a world of nameless humans?

6. Does the title “Building Stories” refer to the fact that most of the actions in the narrative occur within an aging Chicago brownstone, or to the notion that the reader is building stories by using the 14 booklets within to construct an overarching narrative of their own, or to the fact that (as Art Spiegelman has pointed out) stories in a book and stories of a building come from the same Latin word: “historia”?

7. In this digital age do you think that the artist is making a “statement” by creating a book that is so decidedly bookish?

8. Upon finishing this “book” do you want to: Give up any aspiration of yourself as a cartoonist? Wish there were more cartoonists as thoughtful, smart, and competent as Mr. Ware? Be nicer to those around you…even the bees?


Warning: This is one of those recipes for experienced bakers only. It’s not for everybody and not easy to pull off.

Multi-layered cake:

In a large mixing bowl combine:

2 cups of ground humans

1 bucket of a modern America that encourages isolation and loneliness

Stir vigorously until ground humans are thoroughly lost.


1 cup of self doubt

½ tablespoon of tears

A pinch Parenthood as bitter-sweetener

Bake at 350 until ingredients are warm and firm.

Frosting (Chill all ingredients to sub-zero conditions)

5 cups rendered chicken fat with chicken fat removed leaving just the rendering

Using precise strokes, combine rendering with a jumbo-assortment bag of panels, perspectives, moments, and environments.

Add artificial coloring.

Apply frosting with steady hand and straight-edge. The surface must be absolutely precise, blemish-free, and ice-cold, disguising the warm, sweet inner layers.

Serve with tea and sympathy.

Quote for my students to ignore:

“I don't draft or script; the drawings and stories form themselves out of the images and what they suggest as I draw them, along with the memories they might dredge up.”

-Chris Ware, Interview with Casey Burchby for The Los Angeles Review of Books, October 25, 2012.


There once was a cartoonist named Ware,

Who made complex comics “ligne claire”.

Some critics would cry

“I cannot see why!

Yet no mistaking the who, what, or where.”

Creative Writing Exercise:

  1. Write from the point of view of someone of the opposite sex without being condescending, artificial, snotty, or stupid.
  2. Imagine that character writing an assignment for a creative writing class about the building he/she lives in as told from the point of view of the building.
  3. While you’re at it, write this story in her/his own handwriting style.
  4. …and while your at that,  imagine everything else and everyone else in the building through the imagination and the experience of your imaginary writer of the opposite sex.
  5. The only requirement in this assignment is to do all the above and make it all 100% real and believable.
  6. Extra credit for ingenuity, pathos, and humor.

Exchange at SPX 2012:

Dan: “Hey, Paul, how would you like to review “Building Stories” for The Comics Journal?”

Paul: “Gee Dan…I dunno…There are so many aspects to it…I just don’t know if I could even begin to communicate the complexity of such a revolutionary enterprise in a traditional book review.”

Dan: “I’ll get you a free copy.”

Paul: “When’s the deadline?”


Q.: When is a book not a book?

A.: When it is e book.


Dear Paul,

My boyfriend has given me a copy of “Building Stories” to read. We share a lot of the same tastes, but I am put off by the prospect of having to read all those little panels…and what if I don’t like it?

Please advise.

-Confused English Major


Dear Confused,

I know, I know…on first encounter “Building Stories” seems like a geeky guy thing. But as an English Major, you know that some of the greatest guy  stylists are also some of the greatest softies. Fellas like Hemingway and Raymond Carver put up a macho, no-nonsense front to disguise the fact that they are very perceptive about the human condition and actually have something vital to say about how we interact (or don’t interact) with each other.

Ware is up to the same game here. Instead of clipped sentences and moderate use of adjectives, he is working in a rendering style that is crisp and precise. But underneath this burnished, chilly surface he is extraordinarily perceptive and opinionated. Like both Hemingway and Carver, Ware can catch you unawares with how warm he can be.

Unlike Hemingway and Carver, however, Ware creates believable female characters. His depiction of motherhood might bring you close to tears.


A Dream:

So I was starting to write a review of “Building Stories” and was really struggling. It was late at night and I had been working on it for several hours. I went to brush my teeth, and came back to read what I had written with clean teeth. It was such a pathetic attempt to nail down and pigeonhole this sprawling, metafiction, that plays with time and space so inventively yet remains deeply human, that I just trashed it all and went to bed.

That night I dreamt of the review. “It had everything in it … my diaries, the stories from my writing classes, even stuff I didn't know I'd written … and you know, it wasn't bad.”

Then I woke up.