Where Have all the Good Times Gone?
At first, Building Stories seems a clunky title for such a gorgeous, complex package of booklets, books, pamphlets, posters, and even a game board by comic artist Chris Ware. The title uses building as a gerund, an action to undertake—no wonder the box sat unopened in our hallway for a month, a gift from me to my artist husband. It looked like a project, an obligation, and my husband was in school full time. Even the typography on the box cover is mismatched and off-kilter, sometimes shown tilted on the sides of toy building blocks. It’s almost a deliberate strategy of making us work for meaning. I stared at the box on the couch. I moved it against the wall in our hallway. I carried it upstairs, closer to where I might read it. I imagined there were slots to put together or some trick of punching out tiny circles of cardboard and stringing pages together with shoelaces that weren’t quite long enough. I thought it required effort, like listening through a box set of improvisations and rants by John Zorn or the Sun City Girls. It looked like something “important”; it looked, based on other books by Ware (e.g. Lint, featuring a pot-smoking bully), like a super-bummer.
Finally, I opened the box on my bed. I read the stories as they presented themselves, from smallest to biggest, as I would open presents on Christmas morning. The box rested heavily on my legs, on top of a quilt, much like our cat would, but its sharp corners said, “Pay attention!” As Ware writes on the back of the box, “Sometimes it’s reassuring—perhaps even necessary—to have something to hold on to.” The building in the title switched in my mind from a verb to a noun. Ware, a self-described perfectionist, no doubt designed the tall, rectangular box to mimic the shape of the main building in the set: a Chicago brownstone. We can’t enter the material fully until we open the cover, open the door.
Cover detail. The images have a muted, educational dictionary feel, as if dipped in melancholic dye.
The front of the box shows simple images aligned vertically, such as a quarter, contrasting with horizontal shapes, such as a brick wall. It’s visually pleasing and mysterious. The images have a muted, educational dictionary feel, as if dipped in a melancholic dye. There’s a drawing of a woman, the main character, in her underclothes. She’s heavy and curled on top of the covers with the light on. A cat sleeps near her. And always there are windows: we’re peering in, the omniscient narrator, knowing more than any character knows, since we’re reading in an order we choose. The back of the box resembles directions to a model ordered from a child’s magazine. It shows a simple diagram of one floor of a building with call-outs from areas in which we might find the box’s contents: a bookcase, a hallway floor, a chair arm—all ordinary, all singular. The callout lines connect to the stories, displayed in full-color, in miniature, around the diagram.
The Chicago brownstone is the heart of the book. Its voice, filled with longing, is transmitted through a cursive typeface, and the house itself is a voyeur on its occupants, as are we. Yet in a drawing at the back of a story resembling a Little Golden Book, we see the future: the house that assumed it would live forever is knocked down by a ball and crane, just as a child builds only to then topple and destroy.
The Building Stories box is a universe, and the box contains God. The presence of the divine is shown through Branford, a goofy, round creature called “The best bee in the world.” He gets lost and thinks, “If I can’t find the hive then it won’t ever get dark again and I won’t be able to lick the face of God.” Yet, later, a sly editor’s note undermines Branford’s profundity: “Bees do not actually believe in the transmigration of the soul.”
Ware wants to guide our interaction with his world. On the back of the box he describes the conflict for us: “A protagonist wondering if she’ll ever move from the rented close quarters of lonely adulthood to the mortgaged expanse of love and marriage.” She is the woman shown on the front of the box who lives for a time in the Chicago brownstone. She is missing half of a leg, lost in an accident when she was a little girl. I kept thinking, “She doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” as she stumbles (sorry) through loneliness, heartbreak, and existential crises brought on by writing groups (um, yes, I felt a kinship).
The contents of the box resist a chronological narrative, but I imposed my notion of narration, cause and effect, on her. She is her own problem, with a conflict inherent in her body. She shaves her partial leg, she gets new artificial legs as she ages, and she hears it discussed by strangers as if this physical detail defines her. She puts her artificial leg on the side of her bed while she sleeps with her cat. A boy she babysits for smells it. She worries how a lover will perceive her; he tucks the blanket up to her thighs so he won’t notice her imbalance. She represents raw pity and revulsion, and she aches for love. Even as a married mom, she worries that all she’s doing isn’t enough to stop a global crisis. Stop! If she could pause, in a tiny moment with her daughter, she might find calm. Her daughter asks, “Will I be the most important thing you ever did?” And what if that were true? Is that anti-feminist? Or is that enough?
Spread from Building Stories. The house itself is a voyeur on its occupants, as are we.
In an online interview with Rookie, Ware states, “The imagination is where reality lives; it’s the instant lie of backwash from the prow of that boat that we think of as cutting the present moment, everything following it becoming less and less ‘factual’ but no less real than what we think of as having actually occurred.” Quickly, this dreamlike state took hold in me because of the narcotic combination of words—often stream-of-consciousness—and images.
I lost track of time (time—squandering, pondering, stretching, compressing—is a central theme). Ware’s drawing style is charming. His lines are antiseptically clean and evocative of a sterile, mostly safe Chicago. The characters have stiff poses, and their facial gestures are shown through minimal lines. The posters in a bedroom are flat rectangles in primary colors, there to unify the frame with toys or books on the floor in the same colors. They wash over us. We’ve seen them before. We were these characters, when we decorated our bedrooms in our suburban homes. I eased through the wordless panels, wondering how they would affect my mood, somewhat fearful of panic or gloom. They flew by like filmstrips on speed. In a 2011 interview with The Comics Journal, Ware stated that with his wordless strips, he was trying to “get at how much story I could tell simply by using pictures and the sort of internal music of the characters and how much of their inner emotional states I could communicate just by using gesture and pictures.”
What changes, depending on the order of what is read, is the depth of knowledge of the characters, and the insights building on each other, challenging us to agree or disagree, such as when the main character muses, “Maybe that’s all ‘God’ is, really … some sort of perennial memory of every parent who’s ever lived, echoing through our DNA.”
Chris Ware. In his grids and open spaces, the smallest gestures are broken down.
Years ago, I felt Ware lured in primarily male readers: cynical comic nerds. The Acme Novelty Library books were sold under glass at a magazine and video store in my dirty San Francisco neighborhood. Outside, crack heads walked around with their necks bent to the side, jittery. My husband didn’t want to buy ice cream and beer in the same purchase from the convenience store owned by Palestinian Americans, the one still called O’Looney’s. He didn’t want the owners to think he was a slob, a dietary loser, though the store sold merchandise for people who liked to smoke cocaine. At the magazine and video store, I asked for the books, as if requesting contraband. Did I qualify as cool? They were presents for my husband. I knew he would desire them as soon as he saw their exquisite covers and felt their thick paper. I found out what was worth stealing in that slowly gentrifying neighborhood based on what was kept behind the counter: razor blades, cigars, cigarettes, smoking paraphernalia, phone cards, condoms, and books by Chris Ware.
Building Stories, however, is gloriously female. Tampons, vaginas, masturbation, pornography, blow jobs, aborted fetuses, pillows, beds, swingsets. Parents dying, friends committing suicide, exes on Facebook. Flowers, princess costumes, and supplies for the end of the world. Peripheral noises: the scraping of a foot, booming thunder, the hacking of a cat.
In the same interview in Rookie, Ware is asked if he dreams in the style of his drawings. He says, “No—the way I draw is intended to be completely transparent, though maybe I’m the only person who sees it that way. I consider my drawing, for better or worse, to be a way of showing things translucently, the way typography is transparent on a page—intended to be read, but not really completely seen.” This reminds me of what my piano teacher says about playing Brahms or Bach—a paradox of needing to pay attention to each note, but throwing most of them away to bring out the overarching phrase.
In Ware’s grids and open spaces, the smallest gestures are broken down, manipulating time. Our intrusion into the characters’ thoughts and actions are so close as to violate every possible “polite” distance. We know these people. We wince when a tampon is flushed yet again down old pipes, or when a playdate is canceled because the mom makes the wrong type of sandwiches. In an interview for the BBC, Ware states, “If you can allow me to be pompous, comics are essentially a visual language that provides a sort of synaesthetic simulation of life and consciousness, the best examples allowing the reader to ‘feel’ the odd quake and disposition of the artist’s personality through the rhythmic pattern of tiny, personal hand-drawn pictures. Cartoon pictures affect memory and sight simultaneously, sort of blurring the line between the two, and if carefully balanced, I think, can provide an experience which is both internal as well as ‘theatrical’; i.e. because one is reading the pictures to simulate movement yet is also looking at them, the reader’s imagination still plays a large part in completing the experience.”
Some researchers believe that a person does not have a “cohesive unity of being”—we can’t dig down and find the core of ourselves. Rather, we’re born into and constructed out of narratives—it’s the idea behind social constructionism. The main character in Building Stories wrestles with this. She lies in bed thinking of the overlays of a human body in an encyclopedia, wondering where the “I” in herself resides. Behind her eyes? She can’t decide for sure. If she were to meet two particular researchers (Jill Freedman and Gene Combs, authors of Narrative Therapy), while jogging with her prosthetic leg and her daughter’s old stroller, they might reassure her by describing a person’s identity as a “process or activity that occurs in the space between people.”
S. Daniel Morris, who studies victims of traumatic brain injuries, says that the “self can no longer be perceived as the centre of reality; it exists by virtue of its relationship to linguistic expression, and language becomes the pervading centre of meaning, not the individual.” I felt that churning process while reading Building Stories and interviews with Ware, so much that I felt I knew something about him, or at least his main character. Something about that transaction entered me. I finished reading it with tears for the main character after she put her cat to sleep, yet I also felt reassured. She had a family; she had love. And Ware miraculously made her seem real.
At the end, I was left with hope. I felt it even while reading and visually inhaling such lulling actions as zipping up a coat or glopping macaroni on toast. I wanted to be altered inside by Chris Ware, a former stoner, a person I guessed was a misanthropist of the highest indie-rock, underground order. Yet I was given memories and strange insights that caused me joy. I thought of Branford the bee, banging into a glass window while trying to reach flowers in a basement. He calls the window “some kind of hard air.”
Alex Behr is a staff writer.