Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / September 23rd, 2000

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September 23rd, 2000 is one of the longer pieces in Chris Ware’s box set, Building Stories. Part of the joy and frustration of Building Stories is its free form—the possibility of reading one piece before another, of getting one tale or perspective before another. I started with Branford, which seems in retrospective a fairly neutral opening—it introduces many of the themes that develop in Building Stories but none of the major characters. I then read I just met, which introduces a couple suffering a sour relationship.

September introduces (to me, anyway), two major “new” (again, “new” to me; these characters appear central in other books and pamphlets of the collection and obliquely in others): The “lonely girl,” a would-be artist sporting a prosthetic leg, and the “old lady,” landlord of the building. Most of September takes the form of lonely girl’s diary entries.

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I noted two characters (again, new to me), but the building itself also gets a voice and prominent role in September; its thoughts and memories frame the narrative:

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September frames the repetitions, the loops, the patterns that undoubtedly will resurface throughout Building Stories. We get access to the characters dreams, which seem to overlap and echo each other—and then repeat in real life, albeit in other forms. The landlady, recalling her youth, seems to echo the loneliness and despair of the lonely girl, as well as the pain of the woman in the sour relationship. We see that the building has in fact been a kind of prison for her, preventing her from forming real relationships:

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Other echoes are more subtle—a close up of a bee, for instance, either foreshadows or calls back to (or both, of course) Branford, the Best Bee in the World.

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We can see the Branford episode again, here in the tiny detail of a soda can, a major setting for that episode. I was more fascinated by the newspaper though, particularly the colorful squares of a comics section, a reference Ware’s medium and perhaps a visual suggestion of Building Stories itself. The detail is tiny, but meaningful:

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In a later part of September, we see a direct reference to the end of I just met:

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I imagine that there were other references, call backs, and echoes in September that I won’t get until later.

The story—well, it’s beautiful, a perfect short story, self-contained but thematically resonant with the larger project. The ending is so damn sweet and perfect that it brought a little tear to my eye. And yet: Was that the ending? Of course not. The sense of rhetorical resolution—that is to say the so-called happy ending—will almost surely be punctured, deflated, or otherwise complicated by one of the next texts I read. More to come.

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Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / I just met

Continuing kinda sorta where we left off

Not sure of the name of this episode, but I’ll refer to it as I just met, a phrase that repeats twice in a huge headlinish font that seems to suggest, y’know, title:

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I just met uses a few pages to tell the story of a deteriorating relationship—what happens when two twenty-somethings turn into two mid-to-late-thirtysomethings?

The comic opens with an establishing shot of what I take to be the building in Building Stories; we also get a glimpse of what I assume will be another character, the beehive, and a few other details that surely will attach themselves to these panels in future readings. We also get the general bitter tone of the couple’s relationship:

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He was one of those dudes who was once in a band; she was one of those chicks who thought guys in bands were cool.

The romance of their initial hookup is summed up neatly in the pic below; knowing Ware’s spare, precise style, the trash on the floor seems to scream symbolic detail!

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The hurt and disappointment in I just met unfolds over just a few painful pages—painful mostly in their concrete reality.

We know who these people are, even if we’re lucky enough not to be them.

Just as in  Branford, the Best Bee in the World , which I read earlier (although, to be clear again, there are no reading directions or prescriptions for Building Stories), there’s a theme of eternal recurrence, of mistakes playing out again and again in a painful, recursive loop.

Just when Ware threatens to overstate the mundane repetitions his principals suffer, he pulls off a daring and effective move, transposing his characters into the psychic collective memory of a future that’s in many ways already familiar. The effect is simultaneously jarring and oddly reassuring—the promise that our capacity for human connection and deep empathy will never buckle under the threat of drastic technological change, but also suggesting that the cost of maintaining this emotional constant is deep, ugly pain.

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Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / Branford, the Best Bee in the World

Chris Ware’s latest collection Building Stories comprises fourteen comics of different shapes, sizes, and formats. I wrote about opening the box a few days ago, and I’ll (try to) write about reading each of the pieces.

I started with Brandford, the Best Bee in the World, the tragicomic existential dilemma of a bee:

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In an opening segment freighted with peril, our hero Branford finds himself “trapped in a box of hard air,” in a predicament that makes “the water run fast out of the holes in the front of his face.” When he does find a way out, he takes at as a sign of redemption from the Almighty:

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Branford, now free to return home to his wife and family, promises God to quit lusting after the queen bee.

Easier said than done—even if his erotic dreams are interrupted with the domestic problems of crooked picture frames, broken vases, and burnt dinners:

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Branford solves his domestic trouble by going out into the world to provide pollen for his family, even if it means suffering an existential breakdown of identity, one that causes him to flashback to his beeblooded past.

The flashback episode introduces heavy alliteration that continues throughout the rest of the narrative. Framed as a 19th century comic strip, it combines zany humor with horrific familial violence and suicidal despair, an unnerving, bizarre combination that carries over throughout the comic:

I won’t spoil anymore of Branford, other than pointing out that its narrative arcs in a strange loop. And even as its narrative doubles back into itself, it also points out, metatextually calling to another volume of Building Stories: here, see Branford to the right (and upside down) to a larger comic with no name.

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I took the visual overlap as a prompt to read the comic on the left next. How did I start with Branford and not one of the other comics? It was on top.