Well-con­structed nar­ra­tives hit sweet spot

Build­ing Sto­ries

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ron­nie Scott Ron­nie Scott

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.

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