Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories (Pantheon)

Chris Ware's Building Stories is a remarkable graphic novel with a daring, unique format. Gerri Mahn unpacks, quite literally, this wonderful "object'" of a book.

Here I am, about to review Chris Ware’s Building Stories but before I can start, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I have a ridiculous amount of squee-ing fan girl love for the author. What can I say? I’m a graphic novel snob. You know my type; I’m the chick who raged in defense of Wonder Woman’s pants even though I haven’t actually opened a superhero-centric comic since Marvel’s Fatal Attractions run in the 90s. As a rule, I’m more inclined to reread Sandman or early issues of The Walking Dead. When I was younger I blew through the issues of Beanworld my uncle gave me and then snuck into his bedroom to find where he’d hidden his copy of Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown. Never heard of Brown’s work? Are you old enough to know who Ronald Reagan is? Google it. You’re welcome.  

What can I say?  With that twisted pedigree of childhood reading, it takes a lot for a graphic novel to peak my interest; which is why I squealed like a Belieber when Building Stories was released. Did I love it? Absolutely. But Ware’s work is not for everyone so I promise to proceed from here with only marginal bias.

With his latest work, Ware (of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth fame) has outdone himself. Technically, Building Stories is a graphic novel. Ostensibly it is about people and the heart rending emotion which is buried between the lines of our everyday lives. Realistically it is marvel of form and function. 

Building Stories is not your old, perverse, uncle’s graphic novel. Instead you get a collection of fourteen distinct pieces which are neatly packaged in a colorful box, designed to evoke childhood memories of family game night. Remember when you were a kid? Setting up a board game was like a ritual. You pulled the Monopoly box out of the closet, set it on the table, yanked off the lid and drew out the game board, unfolding the stiff piece of cardboard before sorting out the piles of colorful money, cards, and little plastic pieces.    

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This was the feeling I got when I arrived home from the Barnes and Noble with Stories.  I cleared off my entire kitchen table and broke open the smooth, nicely weighted, box to reveal richly colored comic strips, comic books, newspapers, and even a replica of a Little Golden Book, which I also remember from childhood. Beneath all these pieces, at the very bottom of the box, I found a stiff tri-fold of pasteboard, which opened to reveal images of an old, three story house, itself a character in the story, set against the backdrop of the changing seasons. For anyone who eschews the Kindle in favor of old timey analog type books, Building Stories is gloriously tactile. 

Each of these separate pieces tells a story and each story is self contained, meaning they can be read in any particular order.  Ware intertwines the different narratives visually and thematically which provides for smooth transitions between characters and across the passage of time. Branford the Bee buzzes from the newspaper, to the comic strip, and lands on the front steps of the old house in the big pasteboard tri-fold. Fans will recognize the layered, architectural, style in both story and design that made Jimmy Corrigan so distinctive. The stories themselves revolve around the protagonist (an unnamed florist with a prosthetic leg), her neighbors, their apartment building, and Branford, the (emotionally dysfunctional) Bee that lives in the garden. 

Ware’s narrative voice is extremely sophisticated; reminiscent of the same metamodernist school of writing that gave us David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. Instead of superheroes, Ware has chosen to focus on the colorful, almost epic, dysfunction found in what we typically dismiss as mundane. The result is that these stories, which are essentially glimpses into people’s lives, read as tragically authentic. This stylistic choice is the very thing that can make Ware unpalatable for some.  Realistic human behavior, pimples and all, can result in characters that are difficult to love. The good news is that the motivation behind each personal tragedy is part of this finely wrought visual story. Flawed human beings, much like evil super villains, are not created in a vacuum, but cultivated over time from experience and patterned behavior. These are the stories that Ware has set out to tell. How do people become good, bad, and ugly over the course of a lifetime?

Just as he did in his earlier work, Ware challenges preconceived notions of storytelling while attempting to redefine the limits of what is possible in his prescribed medium. This is a man who thinks outside the box. Ware has stated that his inspiration has come from the comics and board games of his childhood and from modern artists like Marcel Duchamp who kicked holes in the rules of an elitist art world by exhibiting found objects, such as urinals. In 1935, Duchamp created his own Box in a Valise, a leather case neatly packed with sixty-nine miniaturized versions of his artwork. Inside each Box (one of which can be found in nearly every major museum) are sheaves of tiny paintings, perfectly recreated mini sculptures, and even an itty-bitty urinal.  Duchamp considered the boxes to be portable museums that anyone could take home, unpack in their living room, and have an entire art exhibit to share with friends and family. Duchamp challenged the preconceived notion that art should be the sole domain of museums or their benefactors, the wealthy collectors.

We see these influences in Jimmy Corrigan where, embedded in the graphic novel, are fully functional paper cutouts which can be assembled to form one of the neighborhoods from the story; complete with horse drawn cart and coffin. Ware even designed a fully functional zoetrope which, when assembled, spins and animates an image of the title character hobbling along as a robot with a crutch. While there is no zoetrope in Building Stories the paper cutout tabs can be found on one of the elderly characters as she relives the story of her life; a life that the reader assembles from the separate elements found in the box.  Ware is constantly attempting to expand on our reading experience.  His stories become something tactile, something the reader can manipulate. Ware does not want his audience to be passive receivers; he wants to get them involved in how his stories are being built. 


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