The Diagram of a Life

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.

I don’t know whether I can do this.

My assignment was to unbox Building Stories and read or re-read its contents, then to connect my old essay on Ware’s diagrams with the new book, to update my thinking or see it confirmed in the massive new undertaking.

There are, indeed, a few diagrams in Building Stories, including a huge four-season, four-fold cardboard screen that ties all the narratives (even “Branford Bee”) together in four moments at the eponymous four-story building. (I have to count the basement as an architectural story to make the pun work.) There are even diagram-like pages that I have already written about: some of Building Stories appeared, as ACME Novelty Library #18, early enough to be discussed in Drawing Is a Way of Thinking. On these two-page spreads, the comics that carry the story appear in discrete chunks around a single panel or image (an empty room, a gynecological art-school painting, an orchid) that, abstracted from sequential reading, shades our awareness of everything else around it.

Probably I could repeat or even clarify my claim from that essay that thinking about diagrams gives us new ways to imagine reading juxtaposition on the comics page. Ware’s diagrams and diagram-like passages short-circuit time, making connections of meaning instead of narrative chronology.

But I think writing more about these diagrams and this book might be too much for me.

I finished reading Building Stories about an hour ago, and I’m already late on my deadline. Building Stories is big. It takes time to absorb. Even unpacking all the materials from the box requires time and space that I should have been giving to other things. (I have fantasies of building the paper model of the building that Drawn & Quarterly was selling at SPX, but those are mostly fantasies about having enough uncommitted time to assemble a huge, delicate, detailed model.)

And, you know, maybe in Building Stories Ware’s comics have changed since I last wrote about them. Here, at least, his characters seem to have more capacity for happiness, as well as a deeper sense of disappointment in themselves—it’s hard to think of Jimmy Corrigan or Rusty Brown as a failure, after all, since neither ever had much potential for a happy life, but the characters in Building Stories know compromise. The unnamed main female character (art-student/amputee/lonelyheart/florist/mom) is better rounded out, more humane, better observed than any character I can remember reading in any comic ever. She certainly feels a character written by a grown-up—I read a lot of creative writing by undergraduates, these days—and not just a projection of the cartoonist’s insecurities. But these observations don’t have anything to do with Ware’s diagrams; I seem to be straying from my assignment.

Ware’s comics may have changed in the last couple of years, but as a reader of them I may have changed more. Maybe we have changed for similar reasons. I have a kid now; I am writing not merely under TCJ’s deadline but under a more immediate one: in an hour or two, my son comes home from daycare. Right at this moment, I should be doing the work I’m paid for, not writing about comics. But I know Chris Ware knows what it’s like to budget time between work and parental care. As with so many other difficult emotional tensions in Building Stories, he nails it.

For all the hard things that Ware’s unnamed protagonist in Building Stories has to face, the thing I personally can’t get over is the way maternal commitments crowd her daily time and diminish her imagination of who she might become. Discovering that her best friend from art school has died alone, she finds her old notebooks, and falls into the despair of someone whose imaginative life has fallen behind her. Under a large (life-size) panel of her daughter grinning down as she pins her to the summer grass—the image the protagonist is seeing at the moment she’s called inside to hear about her friend’s death—there’s a sequence of panels where she makes the predictable (and ultimately Warean) realization of “what a terrible writer I was, how stupid and trite all my ideas were, and really, what a bad artist I was, as well.” Because of the arrangement of the page, we have to see this disillusionment dwarfed, even crushed, by her devotion to her daughter.

Probably at this point I should say nothing about the notebooks under a veil of dust on my own shelves, or my own creeping suspicion that between job and fatherhood I am daily narrowing my opportunity to write anything of durable value.

If you unpack Building Stories and read the pieces in order from top to bottom, the last line of the book is the protagonist’s daughter, maybe about ten years old, asking, “Will I be the most important thing you ever do?” This question (unlike the previous ones) has no reassuring answer. The next two panels are silent, with the notional camera drifting up from a straight-on elevation perspective to the ceiling-corner isometric perspective so common in the rest of the book. This staggering silence is juxtaposed (a few inches away) with the question in the preceding sequence, about why there are no “great books” about “regular people living everyday life.” It’s a harrowing question. And a wonderful one. And a harrowing one again.

I don’t know whether I can deal with it right now.