Thursday, October 25, 2012

Building Stories by Chris Ware

Chris Ware could retire right now. Period. And leave a proud body of work. The envy of many artists and writers. His ACME Novelty Library series. Singularly awesome. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. A layered masterstroke. With every release I shake my head and pronounce, THIS is his epic. THIS will be the work mentioned next to his name in the future. Then the guy keeps on going. Chris do you ever sleep? His latest big box of anxiety and emotional isolation has arrived and exploded all over my desk. And when I say "big box", I mean just that.
His latest work is called BUILDING STORIES and is a fly-on-the-wall peak into the life of the residents of an aging building in Chicago, eventually focusing on an average middle-income middle-aged middle-everything woman (later a mother). The "if-these-walls-could-talk" narrative is spread across 14 different books, posters, pamphlets, chipboards and other what-have-you all housed in a large box. A large tangible remnant you can hold in an ever virtualizing world of tiny screen images.
His trademark visual style is that of a detached almost "alien" observer. Peering through invisible walls into the most intimate of human moments. And then even deeper, into the tormented and confused emotions of it's subjects. Rendered in typographic, flat, simplified, almost architectural or even "scientific" illustrations. It's as if an alien observer, or perhaps an angel, sent to Earth to do a "book report" on modern man had found a Winsor McCay cartoon strip in the back of a 1905 newspaper and adopted this visual aesthetic to present his investigative document. Finely observing all the minutia and detritus of human existence and honing the details down to the most crucial and primal. In Ware's work we, as readers, see the world (and recognize our own lives) through this filter. And what's surprising, to me anyway, is what gets through this filter. Perhaps even amplified by it. All the emotion. The sadness. The futility. In fact, some readers would argue his illustrations amply convey these feelings without the aid of a single word.
And that seems to be another Ware trademark of some contention. The running thread of sadness permeating his work. His use of the comic medium is not one of fantasy and escapism. Chris uses his talents to cut to the heart of the human condition and pull back the curtain on our internal selves. Lifting the veil to reveal the scars we all carry and try to hide. That seems to continually be the focus of his interest and the direction of his graphic novels.When someone unfamiliar with Ware's work sees the title Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, they assume it's another Disneyesque adventure of some young-inventor (ala Meet the Robinsons, or Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs). Not what it trully is. The story of an awkward middle-aged man meeting his absentee father for the first time at a "greasy-spoon" diner in Michigan over Thanksgiving. The power and force of Ware's work is typically underplayed and never advertised. His Art Deco covers rarely hint at the quiet human struggles awaiting inside. These aren't your father's "comic books".

Ware's attention to detail is not limited to his visuals. I'm impressed with Ware's ability to write equally well for a woman as for a male character. He nails those awkward moments and little gaps in communication there are so common in couples (and strangers too). This book (I mean books) is chock full of those little emotional triggers. And the aftermath. They do make you smile knowingly. But sometimes, they surprise you and cut a little deeper.

The cool thing here is that Ware is giving the reader a rare gift. To play an interactive role in the experience of this work. By breaking the stories up into 14 separate glimpses spread across a variety of materials, that can be viewed in any order, each reader gets a completely unique experience. We are the ones building the story. Almost like going through someone else's belongings after their death. Piecing together their life's history. We learn a bit here when they were young, and another bit there when they were not so young. Only to ourselves are our lives one long unbroken string. To others, our lives are bits and pieces. Associated with holidays, places, memorable events, music, smells, tastes. Just bits and pieces. 

And considering the subtle detail included in Ware's fiction, it affords the reader the wonderful luxury to repeatedly dig as deep as they so choose, or allow themselves to.  
Well...  I haven't yet finished reading, viewing, and examining all that's in the box, so I'm off to dig deeper and continue... building stories. And, thanks Mr. Ware.

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