'Building Stories': Chris Ware's wonderland

A maximum achievement in the graphic novel is built on miniature delights, accumulated and ingeniously presented

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Approaching the 14 pieces of Chris Ware's monumental graphic-novel-in-a-box "Building Stories" requires superhuman resolve even as you're cutting the plastic seal the narrative comes wrapped in.

The sheer ambition represented by this collection of pamphlets, tabloid newspapers, cardboard narratives, posters, flip books and inconvenient comic book formats of every iteration is dizzying -- and that's before you even break out a magnifying glass to analyze some of Mr. Ware's tinier panels.


By Chris Ware
Pantheon ($50).

Fortunately, the intimidation fades soon after a toe is dipped into Mr. Ware's remorseless exploration of the small lives of the tenants of a century-old Chicago apartment building.

"Building Stories" introduces us to a woman who has a prosthetic leg and a failed marriage behind her. She lives in the apartment above a desperately sad couple caught on a treadmill of emotional abuse. Their desperately sad landlady lives on the first floor and has already endured decades of quiet desperation and solitude after devoting her life to taking care of her ungrateful, but now deceased mother. The character with the most ambition is a wingless bumble bee. Even the building itself is a character, both literally and metaphorically.

Shuffle the collection's 14 decks and start with whatever catches your eye. There is no official guidance about which of the narratives to pick up first. It is impossible to be "wrong" about where to begin because as it is with every narrative, we always begin in the middle of the characters' lives, no matter how mundane those lives are.

But if you insist on a suggestion from this critic about where to begin such a massive graphic novel undertaking, start with the Monopoly-like board itself. This is where we meet the main characters in a series of connected panels that are immediately entrancing despite the absence of traditional dialogue balloons. Each board focuses on a different year, season, even time of day in the lives of the apartment building's inhabitants. Sometimes they intersect, but mostly they're alone.

The story board also has the virtue of training the reader on how to access the deeper meaning of the stories moving forward. The board is also, arguably, the most challenging visual sequence of "Building Stories," but if the reader can navigate it successfully, the rest of the collection will be a cinch.

• • •

The main protagonist of "Building Stories" appears to be the middle-aged woman with the prosthetic leg. Her story is at the heart of the narrative, with the other characters serving as interesting and necessary diversions at times. Although they have equally compelling stories, Mr. Ware has chosen to wrap most of his stories around one particular character's experience of domesticity and depression.

Although "Building Stories" sounds like an extreme bummer from this review, it is actually no sadder than the average Belle and Sebastian album. If you nix the Xanax and simply allow yourself to drift along on Mr. Ware's massive sea of cartoon ennui, you'll soon find the waves of sequential sadness contained in its pages not only manageable but also enjoyable.

Even readers new to the cinematic and revolutionary potential of graphic novels will find Mr. Ware's almost casual mastery of the form breathtaking. A decade in the making, "Building Stories" showcases Mr. Ware's meticulous attention to detail in every panel.

Parts of "Building Stories" have previously appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Nest, The New York Times, The Chicago Reader and The Guardian, so it is just as much an anthology of Mr. Ware's work as it is a devastatingly original literary artifact.

It will take the uninitiated a few minutes to adjust to Mr. Ware's brilliant visual shtick, which has the burden of being both minimalist and maximalist in its ambition. Although Mr. Ware ostensibly worships at the altar of visual simplicity, he embraces both a cunning geometric flatness and baroque visual details that verges on clutter in rare instances. Sometimes the reader will search a panel for hidden visual clues about a story that is surprisingly straightforward, leading to a lot of head-scratching. Yes, sometimes ingenuity can be a curse if readers aren't as conscientious as one would like.

Mr. Ware has been the most celebrated "alternative" comics artist in America since "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" penetrated mainstream consciousness a decade ago. There's little chance that Disney or Marvel Studios will come knocking to put his creations up on the big screen. Mr. Ware doesn't need cinematography to tell his tales. He succeeds brilliantly in conveying the hallucinogenic intensity of even a boring life if viewed a certain way. I'm sure the cartoonist is capable of conveying the secret life of a dust mote in an interesting way, too, if he put his mind to it.

"Building Stories" can be read in a few leisurely hours, but it is infinitely better to experience it over several readings spread out over several days or weeks to better absorb the visual and narrative nuances of each story. The characters will stick with the reader between breaks, so there is no danger of forgetting who they are. Wherever you pick up the thread of "Building Stories," the latest installment of these characters lives will be visually interesting, if emotionally draining.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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