The Toc Toc of “Nothing, Really”

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.

When I first saw Chris Ware’s work at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, “Building Stories” and its representation of a woman with a prosthetic limb were  magnetic—I was totally flummoxed. (To make a “Building Stories” style association, this sensation wasn’t unlike my reaction to hearing the squeak of my Radio Flyer wagon for the first time after getting hearing aids: surprise colliding with a deep, deep interest.)  Here was a woman with a disability, one that the visual language of the strip represented plainly, while the verbal register glossed over it almost completely.  The essay I wrote for The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is A Way of Thinking (TCCW) started from this basic interpretive conundrum: Was her short leg “just there”? Could disability ever not matter, not mean anything?

Disability studies has outlined the ways in which representations of disability in literature and mainstream culture often reduce disability to a mere symbol of radical otherness, deep loss, personal tragedy. Or, on the patronizing flip side, such representations suffuse disabled people with the rosy glow of the saintly, the overcomer, the supercrip who triumphs “despite” their impairments. Much of my essay in TCCW is devoted to explicating the ways in which “Building Stories” manages to render the protagonist’s disability banal, subdramatizing it. I argue that Ware’s drawing style colludes with mundane details like Saran-wrapped apples and socks on bedroom floors to create an aesthetic that can include details like shower handrails and prostheses in a generalized space of ordinariness. I also address the small moments where the protagonist’s disability does come up in the narrative, showing how their relation to other contradictory moments keeps the comic strip as a whole from settling into one fixed understanding of disability’s significance.

With ACME Novelty Library 18 and the additional pamphlets and magazines of the just-released Building Stories box, however, the interpretive conundrum that got me started on Ware’s representation of disability has changed, and dramatically.  Rather than encountering a disability that’s visually present but verbally absent, readers meet with very explicit mention of the protagonist’s body at various points in various texts: we get an origin story; strangers murmur “her leg”; a husband’s co-worker exclaims that she’s like a superhero; and the narrative intimates that her loneliness is related to her short leg.  On the back of the novel, Ware’s “promotional” copy seems to still elide disability, writing that readers will discover “a protagonist wondering if she’ll ever move from the rented close quarters of lonely young adulthood to the mortgaged expanse of love and marriage.”  The pictographic listing of the “14 easily misplaced elements,” however, shows them open to pages particularly engaged with her anomalous body: the first image in the series is the New York Times reprint, closed so that its cover drawing is visible.  This drawing shows protagonist with one leg propped up on a coffee table, the other knee bent in a way that underlines the difference in her legs’ length.  Just under this, the reprint of ACME Novelty 18 is drawn open to the spread with the protagonist’s nude body centered on the page in the style of an encyclopedia’s anatomy overlays.  In the zoomed out view of the pictographic listing, a black dot underneath her short leg reads like a period, emphasizing its termination, or maybe just its facticity. There’s a poster-style sheet, and the side where her return from her amputation surgery is recounted is shown facing up. The booklet about the inhabitants of the second-floor apartment of the building is shown closed; this choice highlights the front page on which the protagonist’s downstairs neighbor says, “We sure are lucky, aren’t we?” as she watches her walk to work. At the same time that the novel’s pictorial overview accentuates disability’s presence in the narrative, another set of images depict the protagonist leaving the novel’s pieces scattered around the house, and in these images, there are no visible markers of her prosthetic.  In addition to this presence/nonpresence tension on the back of the box, the language of the promotional text posits the novel as corporeal, as a body: “With the increasing electronic incorporeality of existence, sometimes it’s reassuring—perhaps even necessary—to have something to hold on to.”  What’s more, I’d like to suggest that the boxed novel’s relationship to previous versions of “Building Stories”—the New York Times run and ACME Novelty 18—is a prosthetic one.  Because it incorporates and adds onto these parts, rather than rewriting them into a solid tome that ostensibly replaces earlier versions the way a final draft replaces earlier ones, the Building Stories that we can “hold on to” is a body of separable parts.

Many of the reviews of the novel have picked up on this more pointed presence of disability in the novel form of Building Stories, noting the protagonist’s body almost without fail (“one-legged woman,” “has a handicap, an amputated leg,” “a young woman, an amputee”).  What’s also consistent, however, is a grave lack of critical consciousness about disability—few reviews go beyond naming the disability to actually consider the way it works in the overall narrative. One review answers the direct question, “Yeah so what’s the deal with the woman with one leg?” as if there’s nothing more to explain about her body, saying: “Like many of Ware’s characters, she deals with debilitating loneliness, depression and apprehension about the state of modern society. […] She is constantly in a state of self-examination, self-doubt and personal analysis. Through extensive interior monologues, Ware gives us a complete psychological profile of this woman.” An astute set of analyses, to be sure, but one that doesn’t actually answer the question. Another review does address the meaning of the protagonist’s leg, but inadvertently argues that Ware is doing something disability scholars have noticed—and condemned—as a trend in the Western canon: the literary use of disability as merely symbolic, rather than as a rich experience of embodiment.  This reviewer writes: “even in apparently good times, the woman experiences an existential void, a lack of meaning—like the bottom half of her left leg, amputated after a childhood boating accident, a vital part appears missing. This melancholia will be familiar to Ware regulars […]”

Such unformed considerations of the protagonist’s disability, and Ware’s rendering of it throughout Building Stories, miss entirely the ways in which Ware’s comic is actually doing exciting conceptual work. What we have among these papers is the funny high-low meeting of major human questions of how we make meaning, how we know things, and how to act (hermeneutic, epistemological, and ethical concerns) with the ordinariness of tourist traffic, toast, fellatio, and Facebook.  So many of the novel’s reviewers explicate beautifully how Ware is asking us to think about how meaning is made, and how the odd format unsettles routine reading practices, but as far as the ways in which gender, race, and ability inflect the protagonist’s experience, there’s been an eerie silence.  The critical—and potentially political—clout that Building Stories wields risks going unnoticed, perhaps, because of its subtlety and its embeddedness in the mundane. Oppressive, and unfortunately still normative, interpretations of disability see it as a life-wrecking condition, a subhuman existence; if a way of seeing or representing starts from these assumptions, disability as a characteristic of a human being metastatizes, becoming the only salient feature. If the New York Times run I analyzed in TCCW managed to represent disability as something quotidian by mostly eliding it in the verbal register, this novel form of Building Stories has managed to represent disability as having a real weight in the unfolding of a life without making it exert the kind of overwhelming gravitational pull that ableist interpretations of disability have to assume.

It was—and remains—my claim that what Ware is accomplishing here is a making-ordinary of a putatively extraordinary body.  As represented across all of these little and large texts, all of these memories and real-time narrations, the protagonist’s short leg becomes imaginable as something that doesn’t reduce her to a category, but as something that is part of her everyday practices, her interactions with the built and the social spaces she’s moving across.  This version of what disability is, or what it means, encourages a reading of the protagonist as someone with a complex and flourishing life, rather than reductively, as a person overdetermined by her body.  Disability as a critical category is still emerging on the mainstream radar.  It’s hardly hyperbole for reviewers to rave about Building Stories as groundbreaking, as “the rarest kind of brilliance”; but it’s my hope to nudge readers and critics of Ware’s work to appreciate the extent to which this brilliance resides in how it pushes the way we think about human kinds.