Chris Ware’s Building Stories, a Graphic Novel Elevated to New Heights

Jake Wallis Simons

If you are like us, you probably do not read comic novels. We took a look at Chris Ware’s latest comic work and we became converts. We have brought novelist and broadcaster Jake Wallis Simons of The Telegraph along. Take a look at what he has to say about what we think is Ware’s magnum opus, Building Stories.

Just occasionally, a writer or artist, or both in one, emerges who is so astoundingly original that everything else suddenly seems like a facsimile of what has come before. Chris Ware, the 45-year-old American comic artist, is one of these. Widely hailed as one of the foremost practitioners working in the medium today, his new book, if one can call it that without being reductionist, is a work of such startling genius that it is difficult to know where to begin.

And that is part of the point. Take the cover, for instance. The work is presented in a large, rectangular box covered in seemingly random letters and fragments of images. It takes a while to trace a path through the puzzle and reveal the hidden title: Building Stories. This creation of a luscious vista of words and pictures that the reader must decode using a variety of subtle threads and directions is typical of Ware. Abandon yourself to the process and enlightenment gradually dawns.

The lid comes off to reveal 14 different books, pamphlets, posters and miscellanea which, when pieced together, form a multi-dimensional story about the inhabitants of a Chicago apartment block. We meet, in exquisitely intimate detail, a melancholy thirty something woman with an amputated leg, and a couple whose relationship is poisoned with the deepest acrimony, and the elderly landlady of the building whose life locked in a cycle of loneliness and nostalgia. All of this is presented in Ware’s distinctive style, which blends evocations of the aesthetic of the early 20th-century American South with melancholic existentialism and poky humor.

In terms of inventiveness, Building Stories is without parallel. Some of the most moving sequences, for instance, are related from the point of view of the building itself, which is overwhelmed with a mute fondness for its tenants. After each installment, there is no knowing what will come next. Some sections are even told from the perspective of an anthropomorphized bee.

Where the story begins and ends is not the point. The reader is constantly dared to find the meanings in the puzzle. As Ware put it in an interview with PBS, this is the weird process of reading pictures, not just looking at them. The result is a striking impression of a multifaceted and thoroughly absorbing world, rounded with a Chekhovian open-endedness.

Building Stories will probably turn out to be Chris Ware’s magnum opus. Extracts have been appearing in a variety of publications – including the New York Times magazine and The New Yorker,  for more than 10 years, and he has also adapted the concept of a story told through a building for the stage and television. Clearly, this idea has a deep purchase upon him.

Indeed, its genesis goes back even further. Ware recently revealed to the New Yorker that as a student at the University of Texas in 1989, he produced a comics box which included plastic figurines in addition to two-dimensional art. His inspiration for the format, he says, came from a range of beautiful objects, including a Twenties games box, a Treasure Box of Famous Comics from 1934, and Marcel Duchamp’s Museum in a Box, which contained the artist’s entire oeuvre in miniature. Even Ware’s technique, which looks to be precision rendered by computer, is created purely with paper, rulers and ink.

Recently, the iconic British comic The Dandy announced that later this year, on its 75th birthday, it will migrate to a purely digital presence. Many observers have long argued that the survival of the printed word depends on books becoming objects of beauty with which the Kindle, in all its drabness, cannot compete.

When considered alongside the demise of The DandyBuilding Stories demonstrates this perfectly. As Ware himself put it, writing on the back of the box: “with the increasing electronic in corporeality of existence, sometimes it’s reassuring – perhaps even necessary – to have something to hold on to.”

Building Stories is simultaneously a comic and not a comic; visual art and not visual art; a novel and not a novel. Perhaps its closest cousin is The Unfortunates, by the experimental novelist B S Johnson published in 1969, which can also be read in any order.  But this comparison does its visual richness a disservice. Ware’s latest offering has elevated the graphic novel form to new heights.

*Reprinted from The Telegraph Oct 05 2012