PRINT May 2013


Chris Ware’s Building Stories

Detail from Chris Ware’s Building Stories (Pantheon Books, 2012).

Building Stories, by Chris Ware. New York: Pantheon, 2012. 260 pages.

CHRIS WARE’S COMICS in the 1990s and 2000s—especially his massive graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000)—made him one of the most widely praised creators we have. Ware’s work was and is compelling in its meticulous self-consciousness about comics form, with complicated diagrams and schemes whose elegance belies the melancholy of the people who have to inhabit them. Yet Jimmy Corrigan had a certain coldness, even a predictability: Its people were smaller, sadder, flatter than the cityscapes and panels around them, and they seemed to shrink as the pages went on.

Building Stories isn’t like that: It’s better in every way. It’s a book—or rather a box of readable, viewable, printed, book-like things—to get lost in. Not just a chef d’oeuvre of narrative and design, but a work about people, and one person in particular, with the continual sadness, but also the sometime happiness, of real life. The book comprises fourteen separate objects, including a heartbreaking wordless pamphlet, a whimsical folded broadsheet, a Little Golden Book of sorts, and a heavy foldout game board. The title refers to the three-story Chicago building that narrates (in cute cursive script) a few of the comics: As of 2000, the elderly landlady lives on the first floor, a quarreling couple on the second, and a youngish, depressed woman (never named) on the third.

That woman—and not the building—gives Building Stories its unity, and its intimacy. She lost part of a leg in a childhood accident; attended art school, where she fell in love with an actor; moved, sometime after college, into the eponymous building; worked in a flower shop; moped; took care of two cats; met and married an architect; had a daughter, Lucy; moved to a suburb, Oak Park; and endured several deaths (to say who died is to spoil surprises). Lucy is “now” in first grade, though one page shows her future as an adult.

We pick up the woman’s life story out of order, in a way that gives priority to her interior life, to how she thinks and feels, and above all to what and how she sees. Through his leitmotifs—elaborate layouts with faces at the center, chains of flowers, partitions of houses—Ware gives ocular grounding to this woman’s emotions, and to the emotions of the supporting characters (especially the landlady), doing with line and layout and color (bright color!) what, say, Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway could do with words. One of the box’s objects even features a story in which each page, in true modernist fashion, is devoted to a single hour of the day; only through other stories, other objects, do we learn how that day changed her life.

If you read in the order that the packaging suggests, you will probably start and end with the protagonist’s life as a mom—a good idea, since without Lucy, the protagonist and the box would end up almost hopeless. With her, Building Stories is only as sad as many lives lived ably and gladly by melancholy, depression-prone people, and it contains bits parents will recognize: the toddler, sleeping in her parents’ bed, who rotates until her feet hit Mom’s face; the parents who communicate through facing laptops; the way a tale concocted for a child (“Branford, the Best Bee in the World”) takes on an insistent life of its own. (Ware’s also quite good on sex, especially its most awkward aspects.)

These comics (except for the wordless ones) show Ware’s facility as a prose writer: Pious bees call the sun the “eye-that-none-can-lick,” and the protagonist’s interior monologues mix all-too-credible feasts of self-pity (“My life is stupid. I’m stupid. . . . Nothing ever changes”) with quirky, lyrical invention: “Ever since I was a kid I’ve felt sorry for things . . . no matter how inanimate. . . . I’d hug a table leg, or kiss a chair goodbye.” Given the care he lavishes on baseboards and lamps, it’s easy to imagine Ware felt the same way.

Yet Ware is a comics artist first and last, and allusions to the medium’s history abound: the circular single panels of Family Circus, the Sunday supplement, even the airplane-safety diagram. Ware’s people are rounder, and plainer, and more resigned than most people in other artists’ comics, but they are not (or no longer) caricatures. We might see ourselves in them, and it is a joy to follow their plain-as-day circles and their prairie-style lines. Some complex layouts make panels’ order hard to follow, and some supporting characters (especially a rock musician) court cliché. But nobody’s perfect; everybody’s lonely sometimes, and few artists in any medium have made loneliness and its concomitants (anomie, yearning, monotony) so wondrous to behold. Repeated details reward obsessive rereading: screens and mirrors and canvases, crawl spaces and miniature, boxlike units that people (and cats and raccoons) inhabit, from a sofa bed to a casket to the box that contains Building Stories itself. Above all, there is the human face, and the circles and icons (flowers, coins, insect heads) that stand in for the human face. “Kelsie was mean to me again today,” Lucy tells her mother, “so I made a paper plate girl to be my friend instead.” Comics in general, Ware’s masterwork in particular, may be as complex as they have ever been, yet they can remain as approachable, as simply moving (Ware suggests) as that child’s paper-plate friend.

Stephen Burt is a professor of English at Harvard. His new book of poems, Belmont, will appear this spring from Graywolf Press.