As seems to be the case more often than not in this series of write-ups on reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories, I’ve taken the title from the first line of the first panel (below); you can see the scale of this chapter in folded broadside in the pic above (which also reveals the heart of this episode).
This particular episode focuses again on Lonely Girl/Married Mom/The Amputee, who has slowly emerged as the protagonist of Ware’s novel. Here, she deals with the news of her father’s illness, an event that brings her back to her childhood home repeatedly. The motif of homes and buildings evinces again too, of course—it’s a subtle but omnipresent device in Building Stories:
And as always, Ware’s genius shows in the way he conveys so much truth in the smallest detail. Below he illustrates Lonely Girl’s disconnected relationship with her architect husband in just a panel:
“It All Happened So Fast” is a fair name for this chapter—Ware’s panels illustrate the way that our lives (and the narrativizing of those lives) can become radically compressed, how our memories fail us, how seemingly trivial details anchor themselves to the emotional strata of our personalities even as concrete fact slips away. Still, another title could come from this panel:
I’ll close this out by offering three panels that strike me as so utterly real, so wonderfully truthful, that I won’t bother to comment further:
“Disconnect,” one of the longer episodes in Chris Ware’s novel Building Stories, serves as a reminder of Ware’s strength as a prose writer. Wordiness tends to kill illustrated storytelling, at least in my estimation. Sure, there are exceptions—Joe Sacco and Harvey Pekar come to mind—but in general, I think comics are at their best when thought and word bubbles are uncluttered (or nonexistent). Ware clearly understands the economy of his medium, and some of Building Stories’ finest moments have been wordless ones where Ware constructs the story in pure imagery. We can see so much of the plot and themes of “Disconnect” in this full page, for instance:
But Ware also packs plenty of storytelling into his prose in “Disconnect,” where he continues the story of Lonely Girl, who it’s probably better to now call Married Mom—I still think of her as Lonely Girl though, after first really meeting her in “September 23rd, 2000,” an episode ostensibly narrated by her diary. “Disconnect” is a second diary of sorts, her internal narration guiding us subtly through episodes in her life over a series of years. “Disconnect” focuses on LG/MM raising her young daughter against the backdrop of a strained marriage.
Lonely Girl/Married Mom’s observations ring particularly true. She points out that “When your children aren’t around, you miss them with every fiber of your being—but when they are, you just want to get them to bed so you can go read the news or something,” an observation simultaneously profound, disturbing, and banal. When our heroine recalls how her relationship to her pet cat changed after her child was born, I also saw shades of myself: “The day we brought Lucy home, almost to the minute, all applied personality to Miss Kitty evaporated, and we saw her for what she was—an animal—and an animal who we were beholden to feed and house, with, suddenly it seemed, little to offer in return.”
Through Lonely Girl/Married Mom, Ware paints a portrait of modern disconnection and alienation, and, even as we sympathize with the heroine, Ware also allows us to see through her—or rather, to see what she can’t see, or to see what she refuses to see. The effect is an irony that tips into small, banal tragedy.
Ware’s prose is usually overshadowed by his gifts as a draftsman, an architect—he’s the builder of Building Stories, a fact that this chapter alludes to, both internally, intertextually, and metatextually. We learn, for example, that Branford the Bee is a story within a story:
This nesting of stories emerges in the final part of “Disconnect,” wherein our aged narrator—addressing her grown daughter—relates a dream:
The scene culminates so beautifully that it brought a little tear to my eye. Most postmodern novels contain (often more than once) their own descriptions, and Building Stories is no exception:
And yet what we see here isn’t postmodern cleverness or empty gimmickry, but the evocation of dream and imagination and desire and creation—the spirit of the book, of what it means to build stories. Reading the final panels of “Disconnect,” I immediately recalled the epigraph to Building Stories (it’s on the interior of the box lid, by the colophon and dedication):
These two shorties in Chris Ware’s Building Stories showcase the novel’s thematic recursion, a recursion doubled in both its metastructure (14 pieces that the reader can read in any order) as well as the structure of many of the individual pieces. In the case of the two parts pictured above, we get Möbius strips that become richer with rereading. The strips seem to twin each other not just in their format, but also in their theme.
Both strips feature Lonely Girl, who perhaps emerges as the dominant protagonist of Building Stories. The one pictured at the top gives a voice to her daughter, a girl who seems to repeat some of her mother’s tendencies toward isolation and depression.
Ware’s strength here (and always elsewhere) is the economy of storytelling: He packs entire short stories into just a few panels, coloring his narrative:
The second loop features a solitary Lonely Girl who trudges through the snowy night in a near-suicidal despair:
Read recursively, the strip dooms Lonely Girl to an endless loop of despair—and it’s at moments like these that I’m happy there are other parts to Building Stories—some kind of existential “out” for our poor heroine.
Continuing reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories; also, continuing the ad hoc naming of its “chapters”: let’s call this one the Big Four Paneled Board Book.
It’s big. Shown here in relation to a local brew (clearly the best way to illustrate scale):
It’s difficult to describe how each chapter enriches the story of Building Stories. There’s something Borgesian about Ware’s novel—not in the sense that it’s something that Borges would have written—what I mean to suggest is it’s like something out of a Borges story—winding, maze-like, self-referential, but not solipsistic. Building Stories doesn’t come with a set of instructions, so the reader has to interact with it in a random way. What’s really thrilling and emotionally impactful is the way that each piece deepens the story and develops each character a little bit more.
In the forked path I’ve been following, Lonely Girl (this is the building’s name for her; we might also call her the Would-be Writer, The Diarist, or, perhaps, The Amputee) emerges as the central character, and she gets the lead story in the Big Four Panel Board book. She’s looking for a companion, so she places an ad:
This tiny little square says so much: Ware wastes no space. Lonely Girl’s personal ad is in some ways a metonymy of Building Stories (and Ware’s oeuvre all together): it combines ironic, self-aware humor with a stark and devastating sense of loneliness.
Lonely Girl shows up as a character in the lives of her downstairs neighbors, the Sour Couple. The soda-swilling boyfriend wonders how she might have lost her leg. In some ways he serves as audience surrogate here—I doubt we’ll get the full story. (The boyfriend also entertains other fantasies about Lonely Girl’s body).
Of course, the Lonely Landlady also gets her panel. We see more of her stunted life, her mother (and the building itself) a proverbial albatross around her neck. Ware uses the size and scope of the Big Book to optimum advantage; he knows that the book is so big (and his panels so small) that the reader simultaneously sees everything and comprehends nothing. Ware employs lines that crisscross from section to section, often running through narrative elements we’ve yet to engage, or sometimes tracing over what we’ve already seen. The effect is not disorienting, though—rather, Ware uses the visual space to show the ways in which his characters and narratives cross, abut, or fail to connect.
The Big Book’s theme is in fact about cross-pollination, about the ways that different strands intersect, conmingle, blend (or fail to). It’s appropriate then when our old friend Branford the bee arrives:
More to come.
Continuing this project:
I’ve thus far titled the pieces I’ve been reading of Chris Ware’s Building Stories in a rather ad hoc fashion, but this entry is a wordless affair.
It continues the story of the “lonely girl,” the “cripple” who is the primary narrator of September 23rd, 2000.
Here, we see her raising her daughter in a series of wordless, precise panels that span roughly a decade.
Building Stories’s brilliance derives in large part from its precision and economy—Ware tells a story on every page, a chapter in every small panel:
I’m a parent (my daughter is five, my son is two), and so much of this untitled piece struck me as utterly real and authentic—so true in the details.
There’s a moment when our mother looks up to see her daughter reading—silently, to herself—that is bittersweet, a kind of gentle heartbreak:
There’s a fine line between the precise evocation of emotion and sentimental schlock, but Ware never comes close to treading it here—he’s always firmly on the side of the real.
And yet this doesn’t come at the expense of evocations of wonder, as we can see in the panels below:
As I’ve suggested a few times already, Building Stories is a sort of Möbius strip; this particular comic nearly literalizes this metaphor.
It begins with our mother drifting from sleep to waking memory, and ends thusly, a strange loop documenting how fast and how slow life changes.
For some reason—some reason founded on no reason at all but rather superstitious suspicion—I didn’t believe Charles Burns would follow up X’ed Out, the first chapter of a proposed trilogy. I suppose X’ed Out had unresolved cult classic written all over it (written metaphorically, of course).
X’ed Out was one of my favorite books of 2010. From my review:
In Black Hole, Burns established himself as a master illustrator and a gifted storyteller, using severe black and white contrast to evoke that tale’s terrible pain and pathos. X’ed Out appropriately brings rich, complex color to Burns’s method, and the book’s oversized dimensions showcase the art beautifully. This is a gorgeous book, both attractive and repulsive (much like Freud’s concept of “the uncanny,” which is very much at work in Burns’s plot). Like I said at the top, fans of Burns’s comix likely already know they want to read X’ed Out; weirdos who love Burroughs and Ballard and other great ghastly fiction will also wish to take note. Highly recommended.
So, of course I was stoked when Burns’s sequel The Hive showed up a few weeks ago—in fact, the only thing that got in the way of me reading it immediately was that it showed up in a package along with Chris Ware’s Building Stories (this is, without question, the best package I’ve received in six years of doing the blog).
Anyway, I’ll be revisiting X’ed Out and then reviewing The Hive in the next week or so. For now, a few pics. Two from the interior above. And our hero Doug, in his alter-ego/costume Nitnit (inverse Tintin):
I dig this panel in particular: A take on Roy Lichtenstein via Raymond Pettibon via the romance comics those pop artists were riffing on:
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:
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:
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!
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
Thrilled today to get Building Stories, Chris Ware’s latest.
Thrilled here is no hyperbole—I can’t remember being so excited to open a book in quite some time.
But Building Stories isn’t really a book.
First, it comes in this big box—like a board game.
I show it set against The Catcher in the Rye in mass market paperback and a glass of red.
(The Catcher in the Rye + glass of red is the international standard for items used to show relative dimensions of size).
(Also, don’t worry about the wine ring—still shrinkwrapped at this point).
And on that shrinkwrap blazons a blurb by some guy named J.J. Abrams:
A description of the formal elements of Building Stories from the back of the box:
I open the box:
From the inside of the top of the box:
Not sure if that second quote shows here, but:
Pablo Picasso suggests that, Everything you can imagine is real.
Strips and papers and books.
Shots as I go through it:
Stack: The shorter/smaller stuff is on top—a suggestion to read it first? / Probably not.
Probably more a packing issue.
I remember a professor in grad school musing about where a book begins.
The title page?
How and where does a book begin?
Chris Ware’s Building Stories: a kind of Möbius strip,
crammed with ideas,
stories . . .
Little golden book
. . . and broadside.
. . . so many faces . . .
. . . layers . . .
. . . and layers . . .
(They always remind me of David Foster Wallace, who I know Ware read).
And thus so well . . .
I should’ve busted out the wine glass or the Salinger here to show the scale of this marvelous painting, better than anything I’ve seen in contemporary art in ages. It tells all the story. (Wait, you (maybe) say, have you actually read the story yet?)
But who hasn’t felt:
Well . . .
[Insert ideas about malleability of form, sequence, narrative, idea—riff on discursive-novel-as-future-novel, etc.]
End riff/now look, read, absorb.