CHRIS WARE, EVERYDAY GENIUS
His magnum opus, “Building Stories”, is a triumph of writing, drawing, imagination and empathy. Simon Willis goes to Chicago to meet him
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2013
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS, 1990. A lady named Clara lies dying in a nursing home. As she declines, she has strange dreams and hallucinations. Fragments of her life come back to her in snatches. She sees herself in her old house in Omaha, Nebraska. All the furniture is gone. She sees rain falling through a hatch in the ceiling and freezing into icicles. One day she sees a newspaper unroll on a screen above her, and all the news is of tiny fleeting moments—someone finding a penny, or doing the dishes, or picking up a coaster from a table. “I thought there was something so strangely beautiful about that,” Chris Ware says. “There’s no telling what one will remember. It makes no sense, but there will be these moments that glow in our memories.” Clara was his grandmother, and he has been thinking about this ever since.
Ware is America’s most subtle and original graphic novelist, but for the sake of simplicity he often calls himself a cartoonist. “Being a cartoonist”, he once said, “means you don’t consider yourself too fancy.” It doesn’t stop others describing him as a genius. In 2005 Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic of the New Yorker, called him the “Picasso/Braque and young Eliot” of the graphic novel. His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Books of academic criticism are written about his comics, and conferences convened. The novelist Rick Moody has written that “the American novel has a lot to learn” from Chris Ware. He was talking specifically about “Building Stories”, Ware’s second graphic novel, which was published last year and which the New York Times chose as one of its ten best books of 2012. Almost all his work has been about the warp and weft of his characters’ inner lives—their mix of reality, fantasy, dream and memory—but “Building Stories” was his most inventive attempt yet to capture the feeling of everyday experience.
It doesn’t look like a book. It comes in a large flat box, containing 14 items in no discernible order: hardbacks and paperbacks, pamphlets and booklets, thin fold-out strips and huge broadsheets, a board like a game. You are not told where to start. You might begin with a wordless booklet of meticulous panels showing scenes from the life of a mother and her daughter, now a new-born baby, now a girl getting the hem of her pink dress stitched at Hallowe’en. Then you might pick up a thin strip, in which that woman, younger now, is walking alone and depressed in the snow. “I can’t live with this awful feeling,” she thinks, “I can’t bear it any longer.” In one of the hardbacks there are pages describing the drudgery of her life on the top floor of a three-storey apartment building in Chicago, and her job in a flower shop, pages laid out in a repetitive grid of square panels, the routine of her days built into the strip’s architecture. Later in the same book are pages built around large images of the woman’s body, one of her legs amputated below the knee. Other panels telling related stories fit around that main picture, connected by arrows. You don’t read these pages left to right, as in a conventional strip. The flow of panels circles the central image, so that your eye reads down one side of the page and back up the other. On one page she lies with her eyes closed, and thinks about how she’s always had a fragile heart, and how when she was a little girl she would get tired easily and sometimes played a game where she stopped breathing. Her heartbeat would slow down, “as if it was getting worried that I’d gone somewhere, and left it all alone”. You open a broadsheet where the woman, spreading into middle age, is living in the suburbs with her family, having abandoned her ambition to be a writer or artist. Slowly the fragments cohere into a story about that woman looking back on her life, from her childhood to her lonely 20s and on into the resentments and joys of marriage and motherhood.
You notice odd repetitions and discrepancies. In one of the broadsheets the woman remembers the day her friend Stephanie died, how a memorial service was organised for which she volunteered to do the flowers, only to miss the service because her cat had to be put down. But elsewhere she remembers going to the service and giving a eulogy. You see her daughter in the same pink dress at Hallowe’en in four parts of the story, combined with one set of memories and then with another. There are sections about a depressed bee named Branford, which at first seem anomalous. Elsewhere you notice the woman reading a story to her daughter about a bee called Branford, and you wonder if Branford’s place in the box is about the magnitude of bedtime stories in the lives of a parent and child. Tiny details trip you up and send you back to other sections where you think you’ve seen them before. You might see the green-shaded lamp on a table in the young woman’s apartment and swear that it faced the other way in another book. At one point she buys a rose lapel pin from an antique store, hoping it will inspire stories for a creative-writing class. The pin appears in the middle of another page, when her elderly landlady remembers the death of her mother, memories which seemed real the first time you saw them. Now you aren’t so sure.
“Building Stories” is a work of intricate simplicity. It captures an ordinary life in a structure so complex that reading it feels like living that life from the inside, with all the darting variety and fallibility of human thought. As you read about the woman remembering her life, you share the hazy, fragmentary feeling of memory itself. It is a box of fleeting episodes that return to us unbidden, just as they do in real time. The New York Review of Books called it a “triumph of the comic-book novel”, the New Republic “one of the most important pieces of art I have ever experienced”.
On the inside of the box are two epigraphs. One is from Picasso, the other from “Clara Louise Ware (1905-1990)”.
Above Chris Ware working in his studio in Oak Park
“SORRY, IT’S MY MOM.” Ware is on the landline in his hall. I’m a little early. He lives with his wife Marnie, a high-school science teacher, and their daughter, Clara, in a house in Oak Park, a suburb in west Chicago. It’s here that the woman in “Building Stories” brings up her daughter Lucy with her husband Phil. In one of the longer sections she goes for a run around the neighbourhood, dodging the tourists who flock to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home on Chicago Avenue, and here they are, mostly elderly folks in sneakers and sun-visors milling around taking photographs. The other draw is the house where Hemingway was born. He described Oak Park as a place of “wide lawns and narrow minds”. On my way to Ware’s house from the station, following a hand-drawn map he sent me, I passed a garden with a white plastic terrier under a tree. NO DUMPING, it said in bossy red capitals, squatting among the tulips.
After the phone call, he comes back with coffee. “I’m sorry to give you a corporately emblazoned cup,” he says. My mug bears the logo of Fluff marshmallows. At 45 he is wiry, with a high forehead, a strong jaw and a manner of such gentle reticence that, when visiting his house, you may feel as if he is visiting yours. He apologises a lot, and you needn’t even meet him to know it. On the back of the 20th volume of the ACME Novelty Library, his occasional outlet for work-in-progress, is an ISBN sticker with a short explanatory note. It ends “apologies and deep regrets”. In a booklet to accompany an exhibition of his work in Lincoln, Nebraska, he wrote an essay entitled “Apologies, etc”. At the back of the booklet he thanked the exhibition’s sponsor, Todd Duncan: “we hope it proved an effective tax shelter”. Ware’s friend and fellow cartoonist Ivan Brunetti sees him as “almost aggressively self-deprecating”. When Ware is speaking in his soft, nasal voice, he will say “for want of a better word” when he has chosen a perfectly eloquent one. He says “so…” a lot, his sentences trailing off as though to finish them would be rudely decisive. His meekness is endearing, and yet somehow obscuring too, as though he peeks out watchfully behind it.
Ware is a collector. The day before, at a Chicago toy fair with Brunetti, he bought a caged clockwork parakeet. He makes mechanical toys, including a little vending machine which sits on a shelf in his living room: if you relinquish a key and drop it through a coin slot, a tiny comic book drops out. Next to it is a mouse, its body a meticulous system of taut metal wires. He turns a handle. The mouse’s head looks left, its jaw starts chattering. “I should really fix that,” he says, hand in hand with the mouse—its arm isn’t working as it should. To the left is a cabinet of oil-cloth dolls, memorabilia from a comic strip called “Gasoline Alley” by Frank King, which began in the Chicago Tribune in 1918, and which King drew for the next 41 years. It was about the everyday life of a family who grew up in real time on the page. Ware thinks it’s one of the finest strips ever written. “To think those pages came in a newspaper, for just a few pennies, is astonishing to me,” he says. “They’re just such generous, for lack of a better word, gifts of himself to people.” He has a collection of original comics artwork, including King’s, as well as old cylinder records, piano rolls and vitrines full of banjos. “Just a lot of junk,” he says. Then he points out a Hogarth on the wall.
He is fanatical about his “visual field”. “He’s so sensitive to all sensory input,” Brunetti says. “It has to be a certain way.” If he gets a book with an ugly cover he will design a new one. “You know, if a cover’s terrible, I just can’t bear to look at it. I have a whole flat file filled with dust jackets that I found so repellent I had to remove them.” He won’t tell me which ones; he doesn’t want to be mean to anybody. Once he disliked the publisher’s logo on the spine of a book so much that he went to Staples to buy some stickers and stuck one over it.
He and Marnie moved out to Oak Park from the city in 2001, the year he began “Building Stories”, which turned out to be an 11-year labour. Making graphic novels is excruciatingly slow. Every morning, after Marnie has gone to work and he has taken Clara to school, Ware climbs a narrow wooden staircase to his small attic studio, where he works at a home-made drafting table. It used to take him a week to do a page; now it takes two, each one pencilled on bristol board, then inked, scanned and coloured in Photoshop. He once tried planning his pages, but the result felt “dead on arrival”. So now he works more spontaneously. Fresh pages hang from bulldog clips above the desk like sails. They are from “Rusty Brown”, a project begun before “Building Stories” about the eponymous Rusty. It has since ballooned. Ware isn’t sure yet how it will be published, but Chip Kidd, his friend and editor in New York, is trying to persuade Ware to publish it in two volumes. It will be Ware’s longest and most peopled work yet, a sprawling story about Rusty’s whole family. ACME 20 tells the story of Jordan Lint, Rusty’s schoolyard tormentor, from birth to death, every page representing a single year. “When I really sit down and think about the amount of time that it takes and the amount of life that I’ve spent on it, it seems truly insane,” he says. “It’s like trying to draw a diagram of human civilisation on the wall of a jail cell.”
Above The woman in “Building Stories”. At first Ware made her just one of several characters, but she gradually became the main one
WARE WAS BORN in Omaha in 1967. His father left when he was a baby, and he lived with his mother in a house on Decatur and 52nd Street. She was a reporter on the Omaha World Herald, where her father was managing editor. Sometimes he’d visit his mom at work, walking through the thrilling rumble and racket of the presses on the ground floor, the air sour from the printers’ ink. While she finished a story or looked over proofs, he’d hang out in the art department, watching the men air-brushing photographs. “I remember my mom always talking about bylines,” he says, “and when she’d say she’d got a story printed I remember asking her, ‘Oh, but did it have a byline?'”
His mother enrolled him in art classes at Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum. He loved them, but didn’t take to the art on the walls. “So many of those paintings just seemed of another world to me,” he says. “You go and stand in front of a big canvas and it sort of radiates a particular kind of arrogance and puts the viewer in their place.” Comics, by contrast, seemed “friendly, I guess, for lack of a better word”. Getting printed counted for more than hanging on a wall. “There was something about being printed that to me meant art in some way.”
His earliest comic strips were about superheroes changing their costumes. Sometimes he’d put his own face on the figures, “to make up for my scrawny corpus”, and make costumes for himself, colouring his boxer shorts with fabric crayons. His favourite strip to read was “Peanuts”. When Charles Schulz stopped drawing it just before he died in 2000, Ware drew a strip about himself reading it as a boy, hammering on the paper and wailing in sympathy when nobody gave Charlie Brown a Valentine’s card. A photo of Ware as a kid shows him in a cape and mask holding Snoopy, a knock-kneed boy with buoyant blond hair, like a “girlish matchstick”.
Nebraska is cattle country, and on Saturdays in Omaha the smell of electrocuted flesh would seep out of the abattoirs and waft in through Ware’s bedroom window. He was an only child, and solitary. One of the few people with whom he felt comfortable was his grandmother. He remembers drawing cartoons in her basement while she was cooking or paying bills in the kitchen above, and when he finished his page he’d scurry up the stairs and slide it under the door for her before running down again. He would sit on the kitchen counter listening to her stories about her girlhood. “With her words,” he said later, “she could make her memories literally come to life; there were times talking with her that I lost all sense of myself and felt almost as if I’d gone back in time.” He has memories, he says, which seem like his, but are actually hers.
When he was 15, she drove him to his favourite comics shop, the Dragon’s Lair, on Blondo Street. There was a back room where the owner kept comics for grown-ups. “Of course, I was looking for filth because I was 15 years old,” he says, “and I saw this magazine called Raw sticking out and I thought, ‘Boy, that must be pornography!’ But it wasn’t.”
Raw was an avant-garde comics magazine edited in New York by Art Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly. It was what you read if you loved comics but were tired of their clichés. The copy Ware pulled off the shelf had a small insert stitched inside the back cover—the first chapter of Spiegelman’s “Maus”, his comic about his father’s experience of the Holocaust which went on to win the Pulitzer prize for literature in 1992. “It felt completely honest and real to me,” Ware said later, “in a way that comics simply hadn’t before.”
At the front was a strip by Jerry Moriarty about a man called Jack being offered insurance, an early page in a long-running strip, “Jack Survives”. The issue was bound in a cover, by the Dutch artist Joost Swarte, which had been hand-coloured and hand-printed. As Ware flicked through it, he came across a little clear-plastic sachet of illustrated bubble-gum cards. Ware, who had started to make his own comic books using the spirit duplicator in the teachers’ lounge at school, was astonished. “Raw changed my life,” he says. It proved to him that comics could tell serious and subtle stories about ordinary life, which could be treated to the dignity of art and design. “It was my guidebook, to say nothing of an aesthetic example. I don’t think I could overstate Art’s and Françoise’s example. In late high school and into college I cared about their publications and the artists they published, more than movies, art or music.”
In 1983 he moved with his mother to San Antonio. He didn’t want to go. It meant leaving his grandmother and it meant hot weather, which he’d always hated. At 18 he went to the University of Texas at Austin to study art. Soon he had daily and weekly comic strips in the student paper, the Daily Texan. He was maniacally experimental. He discovered that the press men sometimes used two sets of plates to print the paper, so he started doing strips with two different endings. He had several characters, “that I just hate discussing”. Floyd Farland was a science-fiction strip subtitled “Citizen of the Future”. “Bande” was an experimental cartoon largely about comics themselves. In one strip, two figures try to persuade a man called Barney McFuddle that he’s just a character in a comic strip. To prove it, one of them points into the previous panel. “Gods!” McFuddle says, “Your thumb disappeared.” Once you get it, you’ve had enough, but at 19 Ware was already playing around with what a comic strip could be. At college he published a book featuring Floyd Farland, and the Daily Texan advertised a signing he did one Saturday afternoon at a branch of Waldenbooks in Austin. He has since bought copies of this book and destroyed them. If people ask him to sign their copy of the book, he offers to exchange it for a drawing.
In 1987, the Daily Texan interviewed Art Spiegelman and sent him a copy of their article. On the back was a fragment of a comic strip. “It was already a re-invention of what comics are,” Spiegelman says over coffee at his loft in Lower Manhattan. “There was no signature, as I remember, so I got back in touch with them and asked if they could send me more of this person’s stuff. So they did. Then I had to find him.”
When Spiegelman phoned, Ware thought it was a prank call. When he realised it wasn’t, he was terrified. Since discovering Raw back in Omaha, he had often had a copy of the magazine open on his desk while he worked. At 17 he’d begun a “Maus”-like comic of his own. “He said that it was his life’s dream to publish in Raw but that he wasn’t ready,” Spiegelman says, “that he was just a kid.”
For three years Spiegelman tried to persuade Ware to send work to publish. Sometimes he would send comics to show what he was up to. “He had to be coaxed,” Spiegelman says. “A letter would arrive which was five times the number of pages as the piece he was making but it would be specifically to say he’s inept and can’t do it. He had to be talked down and talked back into it.” Eventually he capitulated, and published strips in the magazine in 1990 and 1991.
One of them, “Thrilling Adventure Stories”, was a small masterpiece. To look at, it was about a superhero fighting crime and saving a damsel in distress. But the words didn’t match the pictures. The words told of the boy’s childhood, how he’d stay with his grandmother and felt awkward at parties. And no matter which character was speaking, all the words were part of the same narrative—even the street signs and the sound effects. But then there was a panel where the narrator describes inventing a superhero called the Hurricane, and making a costume for himself by painting his boxer shorts with fabric crayons. At that moment the words and the pictures came together like a fugue. The pictures were part of the boy’s imaginary life, the words about his real life. At the end, the superhero saves the woman. The boy’s stepfather has left after a fight. “But that was okay with me,” the story goes, “since I liked things better when it was just my mom and me, anyway.”
“That seemed like the equivalent of a master’s thesis,” Spiegelman says, “like, OK, he’s got it.”
Ivan Brunetti saw it long before he ever met Ware. “It re-wired my brain,” he says. “It was a different way of using words and pictures. Nobody had ever done that before.”
AT HIGH SCHOOL and college, Ware studied painting, sculpture and film. “I knew I wanted to continue to do comics,” he says, “at least I hoped to, but I also found doing the other work was at least as, if not more, engaging.” One of his art-school paintings hangs above his stairs. It shows his grandmother’s house in Omaha, and it’s magnetic: stuck onto the canvas are little pieces of colourful furniture which you can pick up and move around. Below the canvas is a drawer, which used to contain lead casts of objects like those his grandmother owned. Ware wanted all his art, including his comics, to be warm, to hum with emotion. He wanted people to play with it.
He would return to Omaha as often as he could to stay with his grandmother. “For the first time ever,” he later wrote, “I could actually sense the feeling of a place—though not for its presence, but its absence.” On his visits he would walk or drive around, “trying to hold on to the feelings of my childhood which were daily slipping away”. He would pick up pine cones and small stones and take them back to Texas as mementoes. When his grandmother became frail, she moved to San Antonio and, as she deteriorated, her house and the places of his childhood, began to appear in Ware’s comic strips and paintings. “It was sort of a nostalgia for something I felt was lost,” he says. A character of his, Quimby the Mouse, began to appear with two heads, one young, the other old and dying. The strips were not linear in either narrative or layout. Often it wasn’t clear in what order they were to be read. They depicted everyday scenes from the life of the two-headed mouse—sitting under a tree in the sunshine, or finding a penny by a well. They are strips about loss, the confusions of grief and gradual pixelation of memory. These are among the earliest of his strips that Ware still considers publishable.
In 1991, the year he published “Thrilling Adventure Stories”, he moved to Chicago, for a master’s at the School of the Art Institute. Spiegelman and Mouly tried to dissuade him. They thought it would confuse him, and they were right. Ware felt he needed time to overcome his lack of confidence, but Chicago made it worse. He hated the classroom critiques and found the art-school abstractions bogus. “So much of what I was being told was art was fundamentally patronising, off-putting or demanding of worship, like fine art was still unfairly trading on the tradition of the altarpiece.”
That was the opposite of everything he wanted his art to be. Concept was more fashionable than craft. “You know, he is a maker,” says Mouly, who now commissions Ware in her role as art editor of the New Yorker. “When he was in art school, there was a lot of disinterest in and discouragement of the manufactured object.” And a disdain for comics. One of Ware’s teachers in Chicago dismissed them as “the least interesting combination of text and pictures imaginable”. A classmate once said, “What do you know? You just like comics.” So Ware isolated himself. When his final oral exam came along, he didn’t go.
“It was the worst time of my life,” he says. For the first time in years he didn’t have anywhere to publish a comic strip. “It was clearly something I needed to do.” Then Spiegelman recommended him to the editors of the Chicago paper New City, who agreed to make space. In 1992 he began a strip about a chronically lonely man in his 30s called Jimmy Corrigan going to meet his father for the first time. Woven through that story was another, about Jimmy’s grandfather James, who was abandoned by his father one bright day at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. It was personal. Ware had never met his dad.
He has a theory that crystallised on the page in “Jimmy Corrigan”. Comics, he says, are meant to be read and not, like fine-art drawings, looked at. He wants his drawings to tell stories, “like typography on a page”. It’s about visual clarity but also emotional clarity. “Jimmy Corrigan” was planned as a short exercise in emotional truth-telling, to see if he could make pictures that meant what they said without “the taint of irony”. And never having met his father, he hoped, as he wrote later, that once the story was finished “I would have ‘prepared’ myself to meet the real man”. That short exercise turned into a 380-page graphic novel which took seven years.
It was a period of self-doubt and self-laceration. In the sketchbook he kept, and later published, he recorded bouts of depression: “Woke up feeling awful, absolutely no desire to get up at all—a sense of everything I’ve done as 100% childish, uninformed and useless.” The day he finished “Jimmy Corrigan”, he made a note at the foot of a page: “Don’t really feel anything. Not very happy with it. Don’t like it much.” When it was published, it was printed on coated art paper, which washed out his colours. “I was almost suicidal,” he says. “The first two printings of that book are unreadable as far as I’m concerned, the colours are completely off, they’re really weak. I designed the book to work in such a way that the story itself is contradicted by the colours. I wanted the colours to be beautiful, and when those first two versions were printed the colours were horrible, and the story is horrible, so then you have a horrible experience.” Brunetti remembers Ware’s distress: “I didn’t get it,” he says. “I thought it looked great.” And most critics agreed: “there may never be another graphic novel”, Peter Schjeldahl wrote, “as good as ‘Jimmy Corrigan’.”
The book combined emotional subtlety with a complex structure. Ware reduced his characters to simple dots, dashes and smooth lines. At art school he’d been ridiculed by classmates for taking a life-drawing class each semester, but it paid off. With a stroke or two, he could show how emotions disclose themselves on the face or in the sag of a shoulder. Then there was the layout. He worked with a strict grid of squares, varying from a few centimetres to whole pages. “I thought of it musically,” he told me. “I was listening to a lot of Brahms at the time—sorry, this sounds so pretentious, but it’s true—and I remember feeling that I wanted to produce that sensation on the page, with a large image, and then something much more lyrical and textural, and then into a sweeping passage, and then focusing down into a point. I feel that music does that better than anything; it captures that weird sensation of writing one’s thoughts, that course of consciousness.”
There were also panels in which the words and pictures came apart, as they had in “Thrilling Adventure Stories”. At times the text fractured into confused thought, or dream images began to merge with reality, as clarity dawns upon waking. One memorable moment comes when Jimmy’s grandfather James is abandoned at the World’s Fair. He climbs to the roof of a huge building with his father, and the panels shrink into an intense cluster in the corner. “I wasn’t really paying attention,” he remembers. “So I just stood there, watching the sky, and the people below,/waiting for him to return.” Over the page is a giant image of the building, James just a speck at the top. “Of course, he never did.” Panels in comics aren’t just pictures: they are stretches of time. This is a yawning moment of realisation, catching the sense of abandonment amid the vastness of the city. It induces the feelings it describes.
“Jimmy Corrigan” won the Guardian First Book Award, the first and still only graphic novel to do so. Ware’s publisher in Britain, Dan Franklin, remembers the ceremony. “It was really nerve-racking. He was in a completely alien environment. I don’t think the Guardian meant anything to him, so I had to explain that it’s a really big deal.”
Ware was both flattered and suspicious. “You’ll probably think I’m exaggerating, but it really felt like a joke. Like someone’s playing a trick on me. I was always looking for signifiers. I do not like awards, I don’t like taking art and pitting it against other art. It’s the one arena where art does not function. It made me feel bad especially for my friends who are cartoonists. I felt bad for most of my life for being the underachiever, the kid everyone made fun of, and then suddenly I wasn’t that any more, and I thought of my friends and how it made them feel. It was not a good feeling.”
Franklin remembers his acceptance speech. “It was 15 minutes of undiluted, 50%-proof self-deprecation.”
“Jimmy Corrigan” came with a coda. After working on it for five years, Ware got a phone call. The voice, he wrote in his notebook, had a “strange Southern accent”, was overfamiliar and insistent and slick, the voice of a sad embarrassed man. It was his father, suggesting they meet. “What do I do?” he wrote. “Why doesn’t he just leave me alone—he’s got a family—what does he want with me?”
Eventually they did meet, for dinner. It was “a lot of light-hearted banter,” Ware says, “just casual conversation masking these ocean-waves of emotion.” He now feels that his anger was misplaced. “When I think now about what he really felt deep down, it seems almost unendurably painful to me in some ways, so…And to think of the effort he had to muster up even to contact me, that’s an incredible herculean effort.”
They planned to meet again, but before they could do so his father died. In an essay printed at the back of “Jimmy Corrigan”, he said he’d spent the same amount of time with his father as it took to read the story. The book, he added, was about the same size as the urn for his father’s ashes.
Above A two-panel page from the end of “Jimmy Corrigan”. Jimmy is the man waiting at the street corner
WHILE WORKING ON “Jimmy Corrigan”, Ware lived in a pale stone house in Wicker Park, north-west of downtown Chicago. In 2001 he tentatively began a new project, centred on a house based on that one. The first strip he drew showed the building, and around it were arranged clusters of panels telling a story about a girl with one leg, who lived on the top floor, going on a date and getting stood up. He didn’t know that he’d take it further, but under the pressure of deadlines he began to think about who else might live in the building with her, and started to draw them too. There was a couple living on the first floor, their relationship a cycle of antagonism. Below them lived the landlady, who’d been in the building all her life and had never found companionship. The young woman at the top was an art-school graduate who had ambitions to write and felt desperately lonely. After about 80 pages, he sent an outline to his publishers, saying it was a work-in-progress and the story would be divided between the three floors of the house. “Who hasn’t tried,” Ware writes in the book, “when passing by a building, or a home, at night to peer past half-closed shades and blinds hoping to catch a glimpse into the private lives of its inhabitants?” It would be about what those lives were like. But as he worked on it he grew more and more interested in the young woman. “It became clear”, he told me, “that the entire thing was filtered through the consciousness of that one main character. I realised it was a more interesting idea that way.”
Ware had been thinking about spaces and memories for a long time. In 2003, introducing a collection of his Quimby cartoons, he wrote that almost every night he dreamt about the places of his childhood “in one of a limitless number of inversions, recombinations, and reorganisations of detail that bring back to life the dead, the now old, the bulldozed.” He said that he’d “never been able to shake the feeling…that somehow, somewhere, all of my memories and experiences, though ‘in the past’, are all still really there, somehow.” He still dreams about his grandmother’s house. Sometimes there’s a door which leads, in the warped logic of dreams, to his school gymnasium. As he worked on “Building Stories”, he decided he needed a form that allowed the past and the present to co-exist in a jumble, as in our own heads. “Like something you’d see in a dream.” A book wouldn’t do. The answer came to him: lots of little books, in a box.
Ware is not the first artist to use a box to explore memory. The writer B.S. Johnson, “the great lost British novelist of the 1960s” in Jonathan Coe’s view, published a novel, “The Unfortunates”, in 27 fragments of prose about the memories that assail a sports reporter at a football match. But the biggest influence on Ware was the American artist Joseph Cornell, who made artworks out of found objects arranged in small cabinets. Ware fell in love with his work in 1989, and when he got to Chicago he discovered the Bergman collection at the Art Institute, which has several of Cornell’s boxes. One of them, “Ann— In Memory” (1954), contains a few faded photographs and ads for hotels. The box is a physical and metaphorical container. “It’s certainly a good image of the way we recall things,” Ware says. “It has an organisation to it, but also a sort of chaos.”
On the front of one of the giant broadsheets in “Building Stories” is a strip about the death of the woman’s father from cancer. Turning the page, you open a spread, and in the middle is a life-size picture of her sleeping baby, afloat in text and images. They are staying at her mother’s after her father has died. In the corner, she is breastfeeding her daughter before putting her down in her cot. She hears branches tapping the bedroom window in the breeze. She remembers her own childhood in the house, when it was surrounded by mulberries and box elders and felt safe to her. She remembers that later her father cut down all the trees, which left the house “a mean little box on a mound”. Then we see her back in the present, still staring down at her daughter, all those memories sparked by the sight of a sleeping baby, who now appears, having read about the woman’s own girlhood, not only as her daughter but as an image of her own infancy. At the bottom of the page, she is comforting her grieving mother at the kitchen table. “I just wish he could see how happy you are,” her mother says. It is a page of almost unbearable emotional subtlety, a mingling of the grief of losing parents and the joys of parenthood. “And the awful part is that she’s right…I really am happy,” the woman thinks at the end, hugging her mother as she cries. “Finally. I am happy.”
Ware’s daughter Clara was born in 2005. “It changed my life,” he says. “It gave my life a middle point that it hadn’t had before. Now everything is either before her or after her.”
Chip Kidd saw the difference. “I think the major thing that has changed him—and this is a large part of what ‘Building Stories’ is about—is having a child. From what I’ve seen, it really seemed to ground him. He’s a great dad, and a work-at-home dad, and I think it really did help him get a better view of the world, and of life. There’s just a lot less of the despair.”
There is a small panel in one of the broadsheets where you see the woman washing Lucy’s hair. “This”, she thinks, “is all that really matters.”
Picture: Ware’s most recent cover for the New Yorker, published for Mother’s Day 2013 (© Chris Ware 2013 & the New Yorker/Condé Nast Archive)
Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life and a former associate editor of Granta
Portrait Flora Hanitijo