Well-constructed narratives hit sweet spot
By Chris Ware Jonathan Cape, 246pp, $65 (HB)
BIG, ambitious comic books are a relatively new form and the best examples tend to be the interesting failures: experimental works that suggest fascinating paths forward for the medium.
American comic book artist Chris Ware is an exception to this. He has made such a mark on the cultural space where art, text and design rub shoulders that it’s hard to believe his award-winning graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth was published just 12 years ago.
At once a generational saga and a comingof-age book, Jimmy Corrigan explored the differences between fantasy and life, and it’s the reason Ware today is a frequent cover artist for The New Yorker. Yet while we are seeing more great comics published than ever, nothing since Jimmy Corrigan has quite hit the same artistic sweet spot where the scale of life is revealed as simultaneously epic and small. In retrospect, it makes sense that its most likely competition would be another work by Ware.
Building Stories follows the inhabitants of a Chicago apartment block: a miserable couple, an elderly landlady and a middle-aged woman who lost a leg in a boating accident years before. She’s the unnamed protagonist of this graphic novel, and its central narrative line traces her progression from an art student who worries she’ll always be alone to her eventual struggles with marriage and rearing a child, and the likelihood that she has failed as an artist.
Even the characters roll their eyes at their petty daily concerns, but this wry treatment barely conceals the underlying truth that they’re all slowly (or not-so-slowly) marching towards the grave.
In other words, it’s a funny-sad portrait of human life, and it hits a set of emotional beats that Ware’s readers know well.
But Building Stories is also anything but riskaverse. For starters, it is not actually a book. It’s a 260-page comic spread across 14 ‘‘ items’’, which are sold together in a box. Some are longish comics, including one designed to look like a Little Golden Book. One is closer to an architectural plan. It’s an image of the building at four discrete times, showing how a few rows of flowers came to grow there through the years (all the characters are complicit to some degree). This item is printed on stiff, textured card and can be propped up like a doll’s house — a sign the box is intended to be built as much as read.
Besides the fact it’s just plain fun to unpack a box of comics, Building Stories invites readers to explore it in different orders, which means it functions like a generous, immersive game. Ware also uses each format to the story’s advantage. One of the box’s scanter items is a thin paper strip with two related narratives printed on either side. On one side, the protagonist’s young daughter sees her mother is sad and brings her a remedy: her old childhood teddy bear. On the opposite side, the mother asks her daughter if she remembers this, and even though it’s just a few years later, she does not. These may be tiny scenes in the overall scheme of the book, but combining them like this packs an emotional punch. In a story that overall is about the ways life can crush you, this is a contender for the most brutal pair of scenes.
Other stories are printed at the scale of a poster, and this suits Ware’s intricate art. Although his linework is iconic, crisp and leavened with bold colours, the compositions also tend to become complex and knotted-up. At broadsheet size, he offsets these with splashy, roomy landscapes, or arranges them around large, clean character portraits (the most breathtaking is the protagonist’s daughter printed at more or less life-size). These provide a breather and an organising principle, giving the smaller stories centrepieces to spiral around.
Time and again, Building Stories makes a great case for its own physicality. The characters’ lives often feel like an accumulation of dead ends, wrong turns and missed opportunities, and the act of piecing these together brings a tremendous sense of ownership, raising the stakes for the reader. It’s true every story is built in the reader’s mind but in this book it’s also a physical process.
On the other hand, there’s a corresponding tax to the narrative’s momentum that draws some of the sting out of its cumulative sweep. Would a traditional structure allow Ware to build a more forceful story? Yes, it would. But Building Stories isn’t just a comic about its characters’ lives. It’s also a comic about exploring the future of comics: from the kinds of stories the medium is best suited to tell, to their ideal physical expressions. Most ambitious comics pose these questions in thoughtprovoking ways. Building Stories comes thrillingly close to answering them.