Chris Ware's comic-book world
Comics are not a genre. They’re a language in which you can express anything, writes PATRICK FREYNE
CHRIS WARE has published a box. It’s a beautifully illustrated box containing books, pamphlets and boards of different sizes, all telling interlocking vignettes from the lives of people (and one anthropomorphic bee) living in and around an old house, and laid out in Ware’s intricately drafted, sad, detached style.
Building Stories explores ideas of isolation, faded dreams and the bonds of family. Then again, many of his comics do this. Ware’s work suggests an alternative history of comic books, one that wasn’t sidetracked by the superhero shenanigans of Siegel and Shuster and Stan Lee, but evolved from the touching and experimental early 20th-century comic strips of Winsor McCay and Frank King (whose republished Gasoline Alley strips Ware edited).
Ware initially serialises his work in his Acme Novelty Library comic book, which he’s published since 1993 in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Over the years, he’s moved between dark comedy and unbearable pathos, between the past and the present, and between classical draughtsmanship and bold experiments with chronology, typography, geometry and scale.
He first pitched his idea for a box of comics back in 1987. “My publishers at the time just laughed,” says Ware, a gentle, self-deprecating voice on the line from Chicago. Since then he’s won awards for graphic novels such as Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, provided the mural for Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia literacy project, and become a regular cover artist for the New Yorker. He was even asked to draw the cover for Fortune Magazine’s Fortune 500 edition in 2010. His rejected cover, available online, features businessmen partying amid piles of money while houses are submerged in water below.
“I thought it would be like doing the cover in 1929,” he says. “I loved the old Fortune covers from that era, and I decided to try to be honest . . . Of course, when you cast that into a cartoon format it takes on its own tone of pointedness, which is perhaps not suited to the editorial position of Fortune magazine.”
These days, cultural critics take comic books seriously, even though they often come with an obligatory side-order of superheroes. “Comics are not a genre,” says Ware. “They’re a language in which you can express anything. I think for a while comics were so overlooked it became an accepted idea that they had a natural content to them [namely superheroes]. The superhero is so pervasive. You could suggest it reflects the permanent adolescence of the American character or our foreign policy . . . And you can go back and find superheroes were created during the second World War to make up for a lack of fathers in home life. That’s very beautifully articulated by Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”
But comics can be more than tales of derringdo. As the work of the Hernandez brothers, Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns shows, comics can deliver specific emotional experiences and are the perfect medium for control-freak auteurs. “I started drawing in an attempt to fix the world and keep to myself,” says Ware. “It was an attempt to try to control something and hold on to something that was mine.”