It’s hard not to separate the draftsmanship from the storytelling in graphic novelist Chris Ware’s work. The pages carry architectural elements, constructions that suggest collages or mandalas. A single page will hold a variety of panel sizes. Small panels are over-laid on larger scenes. Often, they’ll fit together like modular puzzle pieces, a square group of four stacked against a single panel of equal size, or two vertical panels stacked against and between two frames that together take up most of a page. A full-page illustration containing various story elements will precede a jumbled page of small bits and pieces, some so tiny that magnification is needed to appreciate them.
Inside those panels are square lines, right angles, and crescents that picture stain-glassed windows or foreheads. Buildings, with their slanted roofs and tight-lined windows, stand in geometric contrast to living ovals, depicting both bees and human beings. The twist of a bird’s head is pitched a perfect 45 degrees from the straight line of its tail and red body. Everything is at once circular or neat and square. Large block text contrasts with smaller cursive statements. Arrows, bubbles, and wiggling lines are sometimes used to direct readers along the orbital path of the layout.
Ware’s latest book is a natural progression, a dimensional expansion of these techniques. Building Stories comes in a box that contains 14 various pieces; strips, bound volumes, stapled chapbooks, and fold-open displays, one a collapsible game board on which to follow the progress of his subjects. The architectural elements of Ware’s design carry over into his narrative as he reveals the quiet desperation of the lives conducted within and without a three-story apartment building. The building gives form to the lives of the main characters, each occupying a single floor. One of the volumes follows them through a single day, September 23, 2000. That book’s inside cover, reflecting Ware’s habit of calling up style elements from classic comics and other publications, suggests the yellow endpapers of The Little Golden Books children’s series, right down to the open volume waiting the owner’s name. But this book, like the others in the collection, isn’t for children. Its first few pages are narrated by the building itself as it considers that it has a vacancy and remembers its sometimes glorious past. One page reveals its tenants in see-through ovals. Another page reveals the building’s various rooms by taking away its roof and sides. It’s characteristic Ware, jumping through time and space in a single view, telling multiple stories at once, even as that day in September begins promptly at midnight.
In an interview shortly after the second installment of Building Stories was released in 2007 in The Acme Novelty Library: Number 18, Ware explained how the spaces he creates, many springing from his past, serve as outlines for his stories. “It probably comes back to memories of the house I grew up in and memories of my grandmother’s house. I navigate those places almost daily in my mind, and the three-dimensional ‘maps’ I’ve internalized are all also filled with stories, so for better or for worse I frequently try to work that way when I’m writing and drawing fiction. In the case of [the Building Stories installment], it was very specifically designed to be about one day in the life of a building itself, and so began and ended with images of it. “
Ware’s style has evolved through the 20 volumes of his Acme Novelty Library, the first released in the early ‘90s, and subsequent collections including Quimby the Mouse and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth. His characters, mostly lonely, alienated Eleanor Rigby types, often enliven reality with fantasy. Jimmy Corrigan transcends time and space in a depressingly lonely epic of fathers and sons. Ware’s Rusty Brown series is a coming-of-age-delayed tale of a man-child in love with collectibles. Quimby the Mouse—he’s no Mickey– avoids real life as he indulges in the worst pop culture has to offer. Early editions of Ware’s Acme Novelty Library contained arcane and satiric advertisements straight out of marketing’s quaint past. Sample pitch: “Break Into Surgery; Exciting Field Offers Multiple Opportunities.”
Some of the same playful salesmanship is found on the back of the Building Stories package: “within this colorful keepsake box the purchaser will find a fully apportioned variety of reading material to address any imaginable artistic or poetic taste.” The accompanying pictures show each of the 14 pieces which are then connected to a line drawing of “an average, well-appointed home” indicating where the readers might “set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents.” No clue is given as to the order in which they should be read. This two-paragraph blurb also states the collection’s purpose as it summarizes the author’s view of human existence: “Whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else, this book is sure to sympathize with the crushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle- and upper-class literary public.”
The characters here, all worthy of sympathy, aren’t from the usual literary class. The old woman on the first floor — none of the characters have names – transcends her isolation through nostalgia. The couple on the second floor is alone together, leading separate lives (and having separate fantasies) even as their days are intertwined. The central character of the collection lives on the top floor. She’s a young lady with only a leg-and-a-half, a girl too eager to be loved and who suffers insomnia, the ignorance of an indifferent society, and nagging self-doubt of the sort that seems to surface often in Ware’s writing and sketch books. She eventually enters a relationship, has a daughter and moves out of the building into a home of her family’s own. But the storyline takes a backseat to her alienation. Panel after wordless panel shows her in bed or moving through the mundane events of the day. Only her daughter seems to fill the hole she sees in her existence.
There’s little that’s comic in Building Stories. Told without pictures, these tales would be tedious. When the lonely young woman wanders out of the building coatless in a snow storm declaring, “Let it bury me, for all I care…” readers might want to look away in embarrassment. But Ware’s telling illustrations won’t allow it. Not everything in the package is without humor. A small, heavily stylized chap book Branford: The Best Bee In the World is a joke-filled allegory of how we mistake happenstance for acts of God. The Daily Bee is a newspaper sized fold-out that is a laughable look at the male role in society and how futile are our attempts to stand apart from the swarm. How does it connect to Building Stories? Branford is seen coming home to a hive in a tree outside the apartment building to suffer the same existential and relationship problems of the humans next door.
Aside from being housed in a box, Building Stories is unique for the way it melds narrative and illustration into an artistic whole. In an art form with a long history of serialization, Ware’s 14 installment assembly can be entered at any point and read inside out. He has taken the comic far from the strip with page layouts that twist multiple narrative threads into a single strand. His most frequent design element is his most successful. He’ll center an image, often an eyeless mask, or, in the case of the young woman, her entire body, in the middle of a page and let the story circle around it. Ware has insight into psychology and every day existence. But it’s his ability to illustrate the human condition in constructive ways that keeps the stories meaningful. In this sense, Building Stories is like peeking through a window and getting a glimpse into a life.