Cartoonist Chris Ware describes his latest work, Building Stories, like this:
“It’s a box that looks unfortunately somewhat like a board game, which is really not intentional. It’s based entirely on the size of a folded newspaper broadsheet — which unfortunately is the size of a board game.”
Inside the unintentional board game box is a seemingly simple story: a tale following a nameless, disabled protagonist from her college years to motherhood. But her narrative is told in a groundbreaking form: 14 pieces ranging from slim pamphlets to cloth-bound books that together illustrate her life and the lives of those around her.
Ware wanted to create a story that had no beginning or end, allowing the 14 books to be read in any order.
Credit: John Rosman, Jason Bernert/OPB
Building Stories took Ware over a decade to create. When it was released in 2012 it was unanimously celebrated by critics. The New York Times states, “It’s so far ahead of the game that it tempts you to find fault just to prove that a human made it.”
Chris Ware was in Portland recently to give a talk at Arlene Schnitzer Hall as part of Literary Arts’ Portland Arts & Lectures series.
Joining Think Out Loud for a conversation in front of a live audience before the event, Ware shared the philosophy behind his mind-bending work, as well as insights into the complex world of Building Stories.
Capturing How Fast A Child Grows Up
Dave Miller: “One of the most moving parts of Building Stories for me was a wordless strip about parenthood, about motherhood. I think it’s four square strips, one after another, about different really seemingly mundane moments in a mother’s life. What were you going for in that strip?”
Chris Ware: “That particular strip was inspired by a conversation I had with my friend [This American Life host] Ira Glass. He used to live in Chicago and we saw each other quite a bit, and then he moved to New York and we didn’t see each other quite a bit. I was in New York and we were having lunch or something. He asked me how my daughter was doing, and I said, ‘Fine. It’s just amazing how quickly kids grow up.’
“And he looked up from his lunch and said ‘cliché …’
“I thought, yeah it is a cliché. But it’s true. There’s a reason why it’s a cliché. And I thought I should try to do a strip that maybe captures this somehow. That maybe isn’t so much of a cliché. Because as an artist you try to do things that aren’t cliché.
“[In the strip] every particular tier, like you mentioned the four panels, represent a few seconds out of a day starting with sunrise to sunset. But then each tier is three months later in the child’s life. So when the strip starts the child is newborn; at the end she is 11 years old.”
The Sound Of Motion In Still Frames
Throughout the narrative of Building Stories there are wordless, elegant moments: the main character tossing and turning in her bed over years, the color of fruit in a grocery store, a mother watching her daughter get pushed down on a playground.
Each scene is vivid, and as Ware explained, is brimming with sound:
“As a young cartoonist, I eliminated words from my comics because I realized I was relying on them way too much to tell stories … [Without words] I realized that there was this weird silent music playing in my mind when I would read them. If you watch old silent films, without any accompanying soundtrack, you’ll hear the same thing. It’s not just filler music. It’s actual sounds produced by motion, which I think we as people are very sensitive to.”
All Characters Change Over Time
Illustrated by Charles Schulz, scanned from The Peanuts Collection, Little, Brown and Company, 2010/Hey Oscar Wilde!, Tumblr
During the conversation, Ware explained how characters inevitably change over time.
“Over a period of time drawing one character — Charlie Brown is the most obvious example of this — the character is going to change in ways you simply cannot control,” said Ware.
“It starts to reflect a sort of internal state of the cartoonist in a really strange way. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten fat and then I lose weight, my characters do exactly the same thing. When I had hair and I didn’t cut it, my characters’ hair would get longer. It’s really weird.”
Credit: John Rosman, Jason Bernert/OPB
Why Ware Draws Comics
Fielding a question from the audience, Chris Ware shared a theme that’s interwoven throughout his work:
“I decided I wanted to become a cartoonist, or graphic novelist or whatever word you want to use, because I wanted to try to tell stories about those moments in our lives where everything kinda just breaks through, the dam breaks — where the real moments of life come out and you’re most exposed as a human being. To create characters that are empathetic, and moments where you actually feel life, not just are diverted from it.”
To listen to Think Out Loud’s full conversation with Chris Ware, click on the audio player at the top of the page.