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.”

At the time he read superhero comics out of a sense of cultural obligation, but loved Charles Schulz’s Peanuts and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (introduced to him by a boyfriend of his mother), and was soon exploring the early 20th-century cartoons of Frank King – “He really gets at the quietness and slow-moving sadness of life.”

Print was in his DNA. His mother wrote for the Omaha World-Herald. His grandfather was managing editor, and his great-uncle was a Pulitzer-winning publisher. “He won it in 1911, I think, for an essay about a horrible lynching in Omaha,” says Ware, who would visit the newspaper and “watch the guys in the art room airbrush photos and draw their editorial illustrations. I liked the smell of ink and I liked walking past the presses when they were running. It was part of my life.”

He studied art at the University of Texas and went to graduate school in Chicago, but never graduated. “I kept being advised to take my comics and blow them up and make them real art. It was the early 1990s and anything printed was seen as commercial or illustrative work and not valid . . . I left because I had to give an oral report in an art-history class and I couldn’t bring myself to. At the time, the thought of getting up in front of a class and talking about art seemed so incredibly painful and unimaginable to me. That’s one of the reasons I became a cartoonist, so I didn’t have to do that sort of thing.”

Fine art wasn’t for him. He liked how the low cultural status of comics empowered the readers. “If I went to an art museum and didn’t understand the painting, it was because I wasn’t smart enough, but if I didn’t understand a comic strip, it was because the cartoonist was an idiot.”

And he loved the intimacy of the medium. “A Belgian composer called Walter Hus took my last book, Jordan Lint, and wrote chamber music around it . . . I met with him in Paris to see a little bit of a preview of it, and I was just horrified seeing my images projected up on a screen. I thought, God, nobody is supposed to read this except by themselves in a closed room with the door shut. It suddenly seemed like I was revealing too much.”

Building Stories is one of Ware’s most intimate productions. Readers are free to read the enclosed books, pamphlets and boards in any order they choose. How they do so will change their understanding of the story.

“The story falls on a sort of BC/AD line – before you have a child and after you have a child,” he says. “Everybody’s life changes completely from that moment. My working life now is entirely predicated on the schedule of the Oak Park District 97 School System. I used to work all day long. I don’t really remember my 20s. All I remember is sitting at a table.

“Everything that came before is cast in a different light once you have a child.”

One thing cast into a different light is his relationship with his father. The Jimmy Corrigan novel featured an awkward meeting between a fictional manchild and his estranged dad. This was, says Ware, “a dry-run experiment” for a real meeting with his father, who had left 30 years before.

“When I started writing it I hadn’t met my real dad, but when I finished I had . . . I only ever spent a couple of hours with him and he died maybe a year later. There was the same sort of uncomfortableness [as depicted in the Jimmy Corrigan comic].

“As I have gotten older and now have my own daughter, my sympathies have moved into my father’s mind. I think of what truly incredible sadness, humiliation and embarrassment he must have suffered as a parent not seeing me for all of my life . . . When I look back now, I wish I’d handled the meeting differently, but that’s the benefit of hindsight.”

In the background, an old-fashioned clock chimes. Ware’s Chicago studio is a den of 20th-century comics, models and artefacts (there’s a photo-essay about it online). He plays ragtime piano and banjo, and sees a connection between ragtime’s highly composed nature and the work he does in comic books.

A PhD researcher recently told him that comics reflected better than any other medium how memory works. “A few weeks later it occurred to me that they were exactly right,” he says. “Maybe it’s some limitation of my brain or of my generation but I don’t remember things as moving images.

“Memories have an eternal stillness to them, and some of the greatest cartoonists really get that eternal stillness.”

Building Stories is out in October by Pantheon, £30/approximately €38

Works of Ware

Chris Ware’s lavishly produced Acme Novelty Library comic began appearing in 1994 in various different shapes and sizes and has featured such characters as Jimmy Corrigan, Quimby the Mouse (Ware likes anthropomorphic animals), and The Superman, a balding, overweight, ethically-challenged superhero. Many of the strips have been collected in The Acme Novelty Library Final Report to Shareholders and Rainy Day Saturday Afternoon Fun Book.

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth won the Guardian First Book Award in 2001, the first graphic novel to do so. It tells the story of a timid, socially inept manchild meeting his father for the first time, intermingled with flashbacks to the boyhood of his grandfather.

Rusty Brown is a saga Ware has been featuring in the pages of the Acme Novelty Library. It began as the tales of a comic-collecting social outcast but has since developed into a complex multi-perspective narrative. It will be collected into one volume, eventually.

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