Book of the Month
What did the
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This book is big. Actually, the case that this book comes in is big. Actually, it’s not really a book. It’s a few books. It’s also a set of booklets, pamphlets, and a sort of newspaper. There’s also a comic printed on a large board game board thing. But it actually is all one book, or graphic novel, or… experience? Either way, it’s a big experience.
You’ll hear Chris Ware referred to as an indie cartoonist, but that’s not really right, as his audience probably outshines most of mainstream comics. He’s a darling of indie comics creators and critics, sure, but he’s also breathing rarified air as a creator who gets to do his thing, with support from a major publisher, and gets incredible respect doing it. It might not be for everyone, and it might seem like a different type of comics from Marvel and DC, but he’s using the same tools and language, and Chris Ware is unquestionably a master of the form. His latest project, Building Stories only goes to prove it further.
You crack open the case to this thing, and pull off the plastic, and you’re buried in fourteen different formats, all covered in Ware’s unmistakable cartoons. As with all of Ware’s work, the design is impeccable, starting with the illustrations on the packaging, and going right down to the folding leaflets, and everything in the middle. It’s difficult to describe the level of detail and care that every corner of Building Stories has received. Being familiar with Chris Ware, I’m not surprised, but I never fail to be impressed. I’m continually brought back to an exhibit of comic art I saw once, where I was dumbfounded by looking at original art from two specific artists: Jack Kirby and Chris Ware. Kirby is self-explanatory, but the original Ware pages blew my mind. First of all, they were huge. Secondly, they were all drawn by hand, including the amazing hand lettering. The level of precision was like nothing I’d ever seen, and I’ve never gotten over it. For Building Stories it feels like Ware upped his game, and where it could feel very much like a gimmick or an artist indulging himself beyond rationality, the experience was far different.
For some reason, I thought this would be a quick read. There were some bits here and there, and two books that looked kind of short. Yet every square inch is so densely packed with content that I was reading for hours. And I never got bored once. The story, such as it is, focuses on a 3 story building and the tenants who live there. Some of the stories are narrated by the building itself. Some focus on the woman who owns it, but most of the stories are about the girl on the third floor, a young girl who abandoned a career in art, and who has one leg. I noticed early on that I never got her name, and as I kept going, no one ever said it. I have to assume that’s intentional, or it’s hidden somewhere in the hundreds and hundreds of panels, but in the end, it doesn’t matter, because the storytelling is so personal that you know her back to front regardless. The reading is most definitely voyeuristic. There are times when you’re just watching these people (and it does feel more like watching than reading) laze around and you hear their thoughts, sorrows and loneliness. It sounds depressing, but it really wasn’t. It feels more like documentary, as history unfolds to either side of the building’s timeline. There’s a way that Ware gets into the small thoughts and doubts his characters have that goes beyond simple quibbling, and it shines a light on who the characters are. I was continually drawn in by the small thoughts that go through a characters head, as you understand the world as they see it. Ware’s cartooning backs this up, by using varying panel sizes that speed up and slow down moments. At times, it’s like we’re looking at still frames of a piece of film. The repetition of shapes and patterns in the pages mimic the repetition of moments in the lives of the characters, and the reader finds himself immersed in the inner lives of these characters. The panels do not necessarily flow easily from one to the other, and Ware often employs arrows to assist, but that frenetic energy actually works for this story, like the indirect ramblings of the mind. Personally, I had a hard time pulling myself out, because I just wanted to keep reading. The good news is, there’s a lot there.
The last Chris Ware work that made an impact on me was Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Many of the same attributes I liked in this book were present there, but the difference was that I never related to Jimmy, unlike here. There’s something in all the characters, and their strained, awkward interactions with life that I instantly latched on to. Where the prior work is one big dense book, the idea of this package made it seem less daunting, rather than tedious. Where I thought the presentation would make the experience irritating, it did the opposite, and I was charmed. It’s almost too well thought out to take it any other way.
Building Stories is a wonderful comic book experience, and one that’s like no other I’ve found. It’s not just a book, and it’s not just a comic book. But in the center of all that is a story that’s incredible accessible and incredibly human, and I can’t recommend it more.
I’m only scratching the surface of what’s in this box.