Experimental, Inside the Box: Chris Ware’s Building Stories

REVIEW by Margaret Fink

As I write, I’m sitting in Advocate Health Center in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, struck by the Warean aesthetic of my circumstances. Alone in a now-closed “Courtyard Café” I’m surrounded by vibrant ochres, deep denim blues, and rusty oranges.  Echoing the primary colors of Building Stories’ cover, it’s an oddly cheerful, faux-Tuscan scheme in which to pursue my solitary work. I picture a bird’s eye view of repeated square tables, me with my Mac in the lower left, Ware’s graphic novel next to me, one of the booklets fallen to the floor. I’m living in an image that resonates with Ware’s characteristic tension between scenes of perfunctory conversation, boredom, and reminiscence and the beauty of the smooth lines, draftsmanlike precision, and blocks of unmodulated color, both muted and vivid, that he renders them in.  And this is an in-between time consonant with the small moments of the mundane he takes pains to portray: I’m waiting for my friend Corrine to come with a caffeine-free Diet Coke so we can take it to our friend James, who had a stroke almost a month ago.[1]

The contents of Building Stories exposed

Pantheon’s recent release of Chris Ware’s Building Stories has prompted a flurry of reviews, “like a flock of tiny birds, taking off.”[2]  As an object, it’s an unwieldy genre-bending thing: as one reviewer charmingly announces, “Chris Ware has published a box.”  Building Stories comes housed in a large cardboard box, indeed, and as the Library of Congress classification states on the inside cover, it’s comprised of “14 easily misplaced elements.”  True to his reputation for self-deprecation, Ware has worried that the book will come off as gimmicky, but the format, designed to be readable in any order, is nothing short of truly important.  I was at the Comics: Philosophy and Practice conference[3] when Ware first showed a preview of the project.  There was a collective gasp when he revealed that it would be composed of multiple pieces: a large format newspaper-style comic, a game-board, tabloid-sized papers, posters, diminutive booklets, double-sided panorama strips, and two bound volumes.  His peers on the panel, most memorably Canadian cartoonist Seth, uttered expletives and feigned paroxysms of despair.

Building Stories is kind of a big deal.  It’s literally large and literally hefty, a particularly material printed object.  Many of Ware’s reviewers have commented on the way in which it’s “not Kindle-able”, heralding it as “one of the year’s best arguments for the survival of print.”  There’s no small amount of irony, here: for comics—traditionally printed on the cheapest and most disposable paper, reviled as trashy, mere entertainment, kid stuff—to be an ambassador for the bookish, the “lofty and the beautiful,” for serious art, is, well, funny, but it’s also totally warranted.  Because of their history as a mass medium with its origin in advertising freebies, comic books with serious aesthetic and literary aims have had to negotiate a by-now tiring sense of conundrum between highbrow and lowbrow in mainstream press coverage.  Art Spiegelman’s Maus managed a major shake-up of mainstream conceptions of comics when it took on the sobering subject matter of Spiegelman’s parents’ experience of the Holocaust and its aftereffects.[4]  It appears that while mainstream media still has the high-low tension on its radar, it’s become very comfortable with labeling Ware’s graphic novel highbrow, a comfort aided and abetted by the fact that avant-garde pieces such as Marcel Duchamps’s Museum in a Box and Joseph Cornell’s shadowboxes are among Ware’s chief inspirations. Maus, especially as compared to Spiegelman’s work in RAW, is formally more conventional, parceled out for the most part in regularly-sized and regularly-paced square panels. Its subject matter, for the medium at the time, was what experimental. That Building Stories’ form is experimental is easily recognizable to his readers—it’s a book in parts, with no clear beginning and no clear end, much of which is recounted in ways that betray how the scenes are filtered through the protagonist’s narrative memory.  I’d like to briefly suggest, though, that his subject matter—the everyday life of a young, disabled, lady Chicagoan and the other, everyday lives in her orbit—is experimental, radical, in ways that seem to be going under-recognized in the generalized excitement about the novel’s peculiar constellated form.

Excerpt from Building Stories

Building Stories includes earlier versions of itself: its subject matter is composed as materials added to extant subject matter.[5]  The game-board’s panel images appeared in the back pages of the 16th issue of Ware’s comics periodical, Acme Novelty Library, and both of the bound books in the box have appeared earlier—one, bound to look like a Little Golden Book, appeared in the New York Times magazine in 2005-2006, and the other, an olive green and linen bound book, appeared as Acme Novelty Library 18.  In the New York Times run, we are introduced to a 3-flat apartment building located somewhere around Division and Damen, by my estimates (the protagonist lies at a dinner party, saying she lives at Division and Sacramento in the much scrappier Humboldt Park neighborhood—and must confess she was pandering to her friend Cary’s militancy about gentrification when a boy, Phil, gives her a ride home.  In the expanded, extended version of the story, Cary later directs programming for the Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple in Oak Park).  Each page-length installment depicts one hour in a 24-hour cycle, in which the woman on the top floor of the apartment clogs her toilet with a tampon and must notify the landlady and then wait around for a plumber.  The story focuses on her loneliness and boredom in waiting around, as she attempts to draw or journal but actually naps, mopes, and calls everyone she knows.  Her scenes are intercalated with glimpses into the lives of the other floors’ inhabitants: a dysfunctional couple on the second floor, and a spinster landlady on the first.  Acme Novelty 18 gives us a complex, memory-mediated backstory on the protagonist: we learn that in art school, she had her first serious boyfriend, became pregnant, had an abortion, and was then dropped by him, suddenly, when he went on a backpacking trip to Europe and never returned.  These events are narrated from a present that roughly coincides with the present of the New York Times run, where the protagonist lives in the same three-flat and works at the same flower shop.  The story—and the protagonist—lives in the hangover of these art school events, along with a storyline in which she works as a nanny just after graduating (she’s fired when she becomes the object of her charge’s sexual desire, only to find that she had been hired in part because his parents had hoped that her short leg and prosthetic would make her undesirable).  The other pieces in the novel-box add stories from the protagonist’s later marriage and family life to the “methodical drip, drip, drip of Chris Ware’s characterizations, slowly building the prosaic lives of characters one small or larger incident after another over time,” as was beautifully articulated in Publisher’s Weekly.  Ware’s work is technically beautiful, to be sure—but to my mind, this accretive, slow, immersive rendering of ordinariness is what is radical and exciting.  I’ve argued elsewhere that Ware’s narratives of noticing, the slow pacing of much of his comics storytelling, and the iconicization of extremely particular details (crumbs on the floor, fuzzy toilet seats) create a certain aesthetic of ordinariness in which the extraordinary body can be enfolded or encountered in counter-intuitive ways that still feel like realism.  In a more generalized sense, I think that Ware manages to deliver on the transformative potential of fixing on the ordinary that other genres fail to realize (I’m thinking of reality TV)—in holding us close to these mundane pile-ups of history and routine, Ware’s comics give us practice in tolerating the affective weightiness of the everyday.

Excerpt from Building Stories

An extended aside: Ware’s novel is coming out at the same time that there’s been a bubble of alarm masked as ridicule concerning TLC’s reality TV show, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Honey Boo Boo is a child beauty pageant contestant, and her self-declared “redneck” family has elicited giggles for their idiosyncratic use of language and metaphor and unabashed disregard for normative body practices or lifestyle regimes. Their family recipe for spaghetti sauce is ketchup mixed with melted butter, they claim farting aids in weight-loss, and they liken the vulva to a Hardee’s biscuit—unashamed. This makes people very nervous. I taught a course on reality TV, and one of the most useful concepts for our analysis of the genre’s normativities came from an essay by Lauren Berlant, a concept I affectionately dubbed “the feeling fart.” In “The Subject of True Feeling,” Berlant argues that public spectacles of vulnerable, infantilized subjects can serve as lightning rods for national sentimentality: a worker, for instance, gets spectacularized as an isolated crisis, a particular circumstance in need of concern and care from privileged citizens, when in fact that worker’s situation is resolutely ordinary, absolutely everyday. The emergency spectacle of the worker takes “a visible sign of what is ordinary and systemic amid the chaos of capitalism” and mobilizes an individualized solution. “The problem that organizes so much feeling,” Berlant elaborates, “then regains livable proportions, and the uncomfortable pressure of feeling dissipates, like so much gas.”[6]  This sort of affective management of ordinary attrition happens everywhere in reality television (think of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), substituting spectacles of livable, even miraculous individualized everydayness for any sense of systemic injustice.  Part of that release, like the dissipation of so much gas, depends upon the spectacularized subjects’ orderability into norms.  This is what I’d argue creates the anxieties surrounding Honey Boo Boo—a lack of appropriate shame, one felt by “classically privileged national subjects” with ridicule providing the only release.

To return to my earlier claim, I’d argue that what is readily recognizable as formal experimentation in Building Stories also does the work of immersing its readers in a 21st century, middle class, Chicagoan ordinary in a way that doesn’t offer any easy affective pressure valve, either.[7] If I’ve argued in the past that Ware gives us conceptual training wheels for thinking disability as something other than a condition of radical otherness or radical lack, what I’m suggesting here is that his work may also give us affective training wheels for sustaining an engagement with the ordinariness of contemporary life—insofar as it’s life lived under certain political-economic, and certain ideological, conditions. My use of the word “weightiness” in saying that Ware makes us tolerate “affective weightiness” is perhaps melodramatic, but is suggested to me by the title of Pierre Bourdieu’s edited volume, The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. As Building Stories expands the protagonist’s story line into her middle age in Oak Park, she is riddled by anxiety about what she and her husband would do if rising oil prices caused an economic crash and groceries suddenly became unavailable, a worry that pushes its way into the surface of the story elliptically, via Google searches for generators and NPR-prompted fretting.  It feels a little amiss to be talking about social suffering in this narrative of (self-consciously) first-world problems like smartphone disconnection and abandoned dreams of writing and painting. This kind of narrative, though, is something you might say resists figures of infantile citizenship: the protagonist is really worried for herself, not her daughter, and it’s a worry of disappointment, not raised alarm over fetus-like fragility. You might say that what we are made to encounter and move through are the mnemonic resonances and quotidian events of a plodding middle-aged citizenship—one that for all its mortgage-having privilege, is no less subject to the precarities of neoliberalism, and one that doesn’t operate by galvanizing crises that can be dissolved, but by immersing readers in unspectacular scenes of life making, under ordinary circumstances.

Now perhaps I’ve gotten a bit heavy—Ware’s interviews corroborate my claims insofar as he says he wants to get at “an ever closer representation of what it feels like to be alive.”[8] While reviewers without fail make some general characterization of Ware’s stories as “depressing,” characterized by melancholia, ennui, and awkwardness, moments of real loveliness abound. The protagonist and her husband look up from the glow of their iPhones as their daughter chases lightning bugs, window squares of light travel across apartment walls as an afternoon passes, Miss Kitty stretches on various beds at various moments. And, predicated on working the way memory works, according to Ware’s interviews, these booklets and posters as an ensemble create pleasurable resonances with one another and our own mental image archives, as with the pages that represent the protagonist as if she’s on the acetate overlays of an encyclopedia’s anatomy section.

Excerpt from Building Stories


I leave you with five reasons to get your hands on this box ASAP:

1.) Per Louis Sullivan’s edict “form follows function,” the format of the pieces contribute to what they express in delightful ways: a panorama strip, double-sided, recounts a time when the protagonist is feeling particularly depressed and desperate: in reading across the strip and flipping it over to continue reading, one could keep going interminably around and around, creating the sense of being mired in an intense feeling.  As Jeet Heer has observed, “One of the largest broadsheets deals with death, which is both big news and physically hard to handle.”

2.) Two of the pieces follow the misadventures of an adorable bumblebee, Branford, who also happens to queer gender norms and ridicule all of human theology, philosophy, and art!

3.) The novel is best read at a large table or on the floor, and a first encounter is like rifling through someone else’s keepsake box.

4.) You will feel less alone in moments where you have indulged in internal, vitriolic rants that soon prove to be entirely unjustified.

5.) As the protagonist exclaims at one point, it’s a nice to have a break from the “criminals or perverts” of literature in the style of Nabokov and Dostoevsky. But Building Stories is still very serious, thought-provoking, usual-reading-practice-defying. It’s experimental—it pushes the boundary of what comics as a medium can do, and by extension what any sort of aesthetic production might hope to do.

Margaret Fink graduated from MAPH in 2007, and is currently working on a PhD in English, also at the University of Chicago.  Her research focuses on American prose and graphic after WWII, representation and realism, ordinariness, and the non-normative body. 

[1] I was summoned to the ICU to read his sign language fingerspelling: a litany of HI WTF HEADACHE HI HEAD HEAD HI HEADACHE.

[2] A flurry or a fluttering. This phrasing is used by the protagonist’s voice-over on a long horizontal strip to describe her daughter’s laugh—the image seems appropriate for describing this sudden burst of activity across (mostly) the internet, but its association with childlike delight is also in tune with the tone of wonder the book-box has inspired in many of its reviewers.  Ware himself said that he hoped the novel would “have that promise to it that a gift has on Christmas morning.”

[3] Held at the University of Chicago in May 2012.

[4] In his own account of alternative comics’ impact on a largely commercial and conventionalized “Golden Age” industry, Ware says: “…comics sort of froze up as an artistic medium approximately with the advent of sound motion pictures in 1930s and 1940s. The genre in America solidified into this kind of adventure storytelling, and it wasn’t until the 1960s, with cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Kim Deitch and Art Spiegelman, that they reinvented comics as a medium for actual human self-expression. There are other ways of getting at a sense of reality that had more to do with comics than the idea of a camera. Because comics are an inwardly turned thing. It’s really a way of getting your memories out on the page. It’s almost a way of making dreams real.”

[5] I argue briefly for The Comics Journal that this is a prosthetic structure.

[6] Lauren Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics,” in Cultural Pluralism, Identity Politics, and the Law, eds. Austin Sarat and Thomas Kearns (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999): 52.

[7] Mea culpa, readers, for carrying this flatulent metaphor so far.

[8] Aida Edemariam, “The Art of Melancholy,” The Guardian 31 October 2005, 31 August 2008

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