Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Building Stories

by Chris Ware

Does a book have to be a book to be considered your favourite book of the year?  Chris Ware's new graphic novel Building Stories is a large cardboard box filled with fourteen separate pieces of comics art.  Some of the pieces are hard-bound graphic novels, others large tabloid newspaper shaped stories (think Wednesday Comics), others mini-comics, and still others just long folded strips of paper.

The subject matter is typical Ware.  People live lives of isolation and displeasure in strips meticulously designed with an obsession for architectural and design detail.

The pieces of this box can be read in any order, but I found going in ascending size order more or less progresses through the larger story in a linear fashion.  The earlier pieces I read are all centred around a single three-story apartment building in Chicago.  The later stories are narrated by the woman on the top floor, after she left the building.  This nameless protagonist is the main character, although some of the other residents (including a bee from the hive outside) get a sizeable chunk of story for themselves, as does the building itself.

The old woman on the main floor is the building owner.  She was raised in the building, and looked after both it and her infirm mother until her death, and the time when she settled into an unhappy old age of her own.  The second floor is occupied by a couple who don't seem to get along anymore, yet don't know how to live apart from each other.

The woman on the top floor is the real centre of this box, however.  We slowly piece together her entire life, from the accident (never shown) that takes her leg as a small child, her first serious relationship, her unhappy period of isolation, and eventually her marriage and entrance into motherhood.  Branford (the best bee in the world) also gets some screen time.

I remember having read parts of some of this work in the New Yorker and/or in McSweeney's, but when placed in the context of the rest of the material, everything is much more meaningful and impressive.  Ware is an excellent observer of the human condition, and is capable of casually tossing in moments that can just blow you away with the honesty they portray in the fallibility of his characters.  I found much of this work depressing, but even as it bummed me out, it blew me away.

It's hard to explain the visual wizardry that Ware creates on the page.  His pages set up their own rhythm and flow that is unique among working cartoonists.  He doesn't use a traditional grid, but manages to craft his work in such a way that it's instinctive to follow.  I cannot recommend this book/box enough.

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