Conversation With GoDs: Reviewing ‘Building Stories’ By Chris Ware

Building Stories
Written by Chris Ware
Illustrated by Chris Ware
Pantheon Books
Release Date: October 2, 2012
Cover Price: $50.00

Oh why, hello there, all of you assumedly beautiful people! So, we’re trying a new little something here at Geeks of Doom by having a conversation between a couple of writers (Peter AKA Cashmere Smoking Jacket & Michael AKA Spartacus!) about certain comic books, projects, and the like. This may be a format you’re familiar with from around the web, or it might be a brand new thing to you. Either way, we hope you enjoy it, and please, leave feedback and suggestions at the bottom of the page; we’d love to hear from you! Also, though it probably won’t burn your retinas or anything, please consider yourself duly warned of the use of adult language below.

So, let’s open up our inaugural chat by talking about the latest release by Chris Ware, a cluster of elements that add up to a thing called Building Stories.

Peter: So let’s talk about a beautiful thing called Building Stories.

Michael: Can I start off with just talking about opening this book up?

Peter: I’m going to allow this.

Michael: So, there’s a big, wide cardboard box that looks more like it belongs with your board games then your comics… except this thing is heavy. You lift the top off and inside there’s a pile of comics inside. Some are little strips of paper, some are zine sized, one is hardbound with a Little Golden Book gold spine, two books are the size of newspapers, and one of those actually is a newspaper. It’s a big pile of comics.

Peter: Isn’t that great? I want every box I open to be full of comics for the rest of my life. It’s also a big pile of depressing comics. Not to say there are absolutely no happy moments allowed, but in many ways, this is a standard solipsistic Chris Ware book dealing with loneliness self-loathing, and general aimlessness in a world where everyone else seems- to the main character-driven and comfortable with a goal-oriented existence.

Michael: That’s a standard view of Ware’s work, and I’m tempted to agree with it, but I gotta say, I never felt any of his books were… contagiously depressing? Like, I never feel depressed reading them. I also wouldn’t say Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, for instance, is way more depressing than, say, Peanuts, which would fit the neatly in the book you described above. And I’d argue the payoffs in Jimmy Corrigan are stronger in a lot of respects.

Michael: That being said, Building Stories is just as enjoyable as it is interesting… which – Look, Chris Ware has never made a boring comic that I’ve read, but some have definitely been more intellectually stimulating than just plain compelling. Building Stories feels alive on the page.

Peter: I think I have you. For me, there are times when reading Chris Ware -I’m thinking of Jimmy Corrigan, specifically- is like reading The Depressed Girl by David Foster Wallace over and over again. Both stories are really good and interesting and everything, but, for me anyhow, are such elliptical self-loathing machines that they can be something less than a pleasure to read. Building Stories eschews that emotional dredgery almost entirely.

Michael: Again, I don’t feel like that depression is contagious when I’m reading it. I love to see it on the page the way Ware does it because it’s so matter-of-fact, that’s-how-life-truly-feels. He doesn’t pull punches but he doesn’t embellish, either.

Peter: I see that, and I always see empathy at play in Ware’s stuff, but I don’t want to immerse myself in their lives again; conversely, with Building Stories, I do want to go back over everything again and again.

Peter: But maybe we’re at an intractable impasse here, so let’s move on. So, in a way, it’s a very different Chris Ware book, and not even due to the fractured narrative style of fourteen books with no stated table of contents or chronological map. There’s the one-legged woman, who is the “main character” of the books, and notable because I don’t know of Chris Ware ever focusing on women before.

Michael: And who never gets a name.

Peter: That’s true. Nor do some of the other main-ish characters: her mother and father; her landlord; the couple on the 2nd floor, then there is this one fucking bee who does get a name, Branford, which, who really knows, except C. Ware was fascinated by bees for a spell.

Michael: Ugh, that bee stuff was a chore to slog through.

Peter: Yeah, let’s talk about the character we hated first. That’s the way I always talk about things: the stuff I hated first, followed by “but I really liked it, though.” Classic flimflam strategy. Anyways, it reads like the worst of Ware, and we don’t care. But I really liked Building Stories, though!

Michael: But you’re also forgetting the husband our heroine eventually settles down with; their daughter; The heroine’s best friend, Stephanie; her parents; that family she lives with after college; the brief glimpse we get of people living 200 years in the future… There are a lot characters that end up feeling really fleshed out and three dimensional by the end, but the only constraints on them seem to be that much of what we know about them are from what our protagonist says and thinks about them.

Peter: Right, there’s so much more here than just the people in that apartment building. I just think of those as the main characters, they each have a story element from one of their perspectives, and the pun of Building Stories, with their apartment building being a character. I know Chris Ware has said that all of these stories are from the main character’s imagination or memory, it’s just that they still feel more central to the overall work than the other people who show up. Like a focal point from which everything else is built upon.

Michael: Geez, not to me.

Peter: But, let’s back up and talk about the layout and organization of this thing, because, well, we never got to that? You know what is the most fun about all this is? It seems like the best example of the jumbled narrative that has enchanted just about every author at some point or another. What I mean is: while books- because we can agree that Building Stories is not a book, right?

Michael: Sure.

Peter: -be they comic- or conventional-, are still forcing you into a certain narrative structure, even if they play with the chronology. You are still at the behest of the author. I suppose you could read any book out of order, if you’re a super rebel kid, but most wouldn’t if they weren’t forced to, I’m pretty sure. Here, and tell me if you know of any other examples, you are encouraged to pick through these people’s lives like memoirs -you can pick her life up anywhere you please.

Michael: Nabokov’s Pale Fire?

Peter: Yeah, let’s name check a seminal work by a Great Author that we both plan on reading someday to sound smart. I want this part published to expose us as frauds who have no business discussing art. That said, yeah, let’s go with that: it’s kinda like Nabokov’s The Pale Fire.

Michael: I dunno, I never read it.

Peter: Well, let me tell you, that, much like Nabokov’s The Pale Fire (or not, even: I don’t think that book actually works like this at all) there’s this freedom of movement through people’s lives. It’s kind of daunting! The first thing I did when I was finished marveling at the box was to try and find an instruction manual for how to read it. It took a few minutes to realize I was on my own with this leviathan.

Michael: Right, I didn’t read it in any particular order, I’m actually surprised to hear that you tried to. How’d you even do that? It’s not like there are any road maps, many of the individual books don’t even fit into a specific chronology.

Peter: I spent half an hour or so leafing through all the dazzling little stories, and tried to line them up chronologically by how aged the nameless one was. It didn’t work. I can be pretty dumb like that sometimes.

Michael: For me, a lot of the fun was picking the book up and being put anywhere in the story. Larger bits of exposition, for instance, how our protagonist lost half her leg, weren’t revealed to me until 2/3 or a 3/4 of the way through, but this stuff isn’t exactly Robert Ludlum – Ware specifically is focusing each scene on small, intimate moments in this woman’s life. To be cheesy for a second: those moments added together are what life is made up of and by the time I finished the book I really felt like I was much more enriched then if I had just done a straight bio on this person.

Peter: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Albert fucking Camus. That seems to be kind of the ethos of Building Stories.

Michael: Largely the book swings between the early 20s, out-of-college-what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life, nothing-means-anything period; and the mid 30s, married-with-a-kid, everything-feels-super-important, high-stakes period. Jumping between those periods, for me, made those two eras feel so much stronger and more distinct. It also really emphasized the through-line for our heroine; that no matter what she always feels alone.

It’s kind of a common gripe directed at Ware that he seems to hold some contempt for his main characters but I don’t see any of that here, do you?

Peter: There’s that complaint out there, yeah, and maybe it’s not exactly unfounded, that Ware’s artistic style- the kind of 60s advertisement style- is cold, and perhaps mocking. Like with book 20 of Acme Novelty Library, the one about Jordan Lint. I don’t think that can be said about Building Stories, and a large part of that, this empathetic lift, has to be thanks to these beautiful, large bodies and faces that act as beacons for certain pages. Then, there are these panels of fragmented memories swirling around that central image. He does it with the main character a lot, but for others as well, like her daughter. I love these fucking pages so much, basically.

Michael: Switching back to the physical format of Building Stories:

So, I was a little under the weather one night right after I got the books and tried to read them in bed. I wanted something I could sink my teeth into but because I was sitting up and (not to brag) lying next to someone I couldn’t do the jumbo sized books, so I read most of the standard 8 x 12ish sized books then. I later really wanted to dig into those jumbo sized books so I took it to my living room where I had to clear off all the crap on my table. After that I had a few of the smaller books left so I did those mostly just on my couch switching between sitting and lying down.

And all of that’s to say that what’s really cool about the book is that there are little design choices that kind of harken, on one level, to the way Ware is making small, inanimate things in our lives have their own little universes, and those same format choices made me, the reader, need to readjust where in my own place I read the book, which pushes the meta-level up even further.

Where were you when you read the book? Did you have a similar experience?

Peter: Right, there’s a map on the back of the box with suggestions on where to put each piece of Building Stories in your imaginary house (no, seriously, does anyone even own one anymore?).

I did have a similar experience, reading the newspaper formats on the train like one would the any broadsheet -which was awesome, btb-, the little flip books in bed, and such like that. It helps keep her life in these kind of thematic or period buckets, which is kind of how memory works, maybe?

Can I also say (like I need your permission), that I have this problem with memory on the internet in part because I’m reading so much, but so much is coming at me through the window of the google reader, then all through the window of a monitor. The monotony, I think, hurts my absorption of whatever I’m reading (literotica, mostly) because it’s in the same format regardless of the content, and it thus hurts my memory. Building Stories feels so sharp because these formats are allowing me to remember where and when these things take place. Like: oh yeah, the mom tells the anonymous woman that her father had cheated on the mother; oh right, that’s in the magazine-esque element.

Michael: Right, in lieu of not having the pages numbered…

Michael: So, to wrap things up, Is this the best book Ware has ever done? I’m tempted to say so.

Peter: Yeah, I don’t wanna jump any guns or prematurely make snap calls, but I think it is, and in five or six years, I imagine this will hold up and feel just as powerful as it does now.

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