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Chris Ware

Self Portrait by Chris Ware

by Pawl Schwartz

If you did to a person what Chris Ware has done to comics, you would be in jail. I’m not saying that he’s tortured them, but the cenobites from Hellraiser admire the work he has done contorting the genre and teaching it painful lessons.

His style is instantly recognizable and difficult to forget. You’ve seen Jimmy Corrigan on store shelves, looking worried and sad. Hopefully, you’ve cracked a volume or two of Ware’s work and looked inside, because everything that happens stylistically and narrative wise is, to put it lightly, wacky. Every cartoonist that reads him envies him while admiring him. He has some kind of secret connection to the “I wish I’d thought of that first” cave of ideas that never fails to irk and impress. Narratively, Ware captures the kind of absolute isolation and depression that I’ve only heard captured in Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu's sobbing-victim voice. As a bit of a shut-in myself, I have always admired and connected with Ware and how insanely honest he is about the most personal and brutal of details. The sadness of Ware’s old-timey style being literally broken apart on the page and juxtaposed with women biting cocks, sad naked robots with cold metal genitals, and little kids that look like sad old men (or vice versa) only adds to the overall strange newness of what Ware does. His Acme Novelty Library books are some of my favorites because of their transgressive poignancy, but also their sense of weight and message while containing no overarching narrative.

Chris Ware’s newest creation, called Building Stories, is literally a box of stories. Yes, some of them can be built into real structures if you don’t mind fucking up one of the fourteen booklets held inside. Each booklet holds a story about something or someone in this particular apartment building, and all add up to something very non-linear and flowy, a feeling that approximates memory and how it actually operates in our own skulls.

Building Stories was released October 2nd, 2012 on Pantheon Press and contains over a decade’s worth of work. There will be no electronic format. Chris Ware sat down with UR Chicago to give us the lowdown on his new work and let us pick his strange brain.

Cover for Building Stories by Chris Ware

UR Chicago: How did you decide on your exact, almost nostalgic cartooning style? Is it something as simple as the irony that exists between the innocent characters and the deadly serious and real subject matter, or does it have to do with the nature of cartooning itself?

Chris Ware: In a way, my approach to drawing has been sort of a balance between the two; for years I struggled with trying to create a sort of invisible, styleless style, and so studied a lot of the more diagrammatic cartoonists like Ernie Bushmiller, Crockett Johnson, Ray Gotto and Otto Soglow (and more recently Gluyas Williams) to try and find something that felt analogous to the way I abbreviate the world in my own mind, which really ended up largely being an application of the rules of typography to drawing. Before that, I deliberately tried to draw in as many different styles and approaches as possible, not only as a way of trying things out, but as a means of expressing different internal states and feelings.

UR: You've been called an artist that exists in his own genre. If you had to create a category that described exactly what you do, what would it be? Do you even agree?

CW: I'm a cartoonist; really, there's no better word for it. If there's any frivolity to the word (and there is, which is a benefit to both reader and writer because it allows for a more honest relationship) it's up to me to try and qualify it with what I do. I think novelists were once considered fairly frivolous, though that's certainly changed simply by what novelists have done over the past century and a half. Cartooning could be a potentially serious and probing discipline, too; it certainly demands no small degree of solitude and focus, to say nothing of nuttiness.

Sample image by Chris Ware

UR: Do you see yourself stepping outside of visual art to work in other mediums?

CW: I used to make sculptures, and for a little while it looked as if I might have created an experimental television show for HBO, but no, not really. Cartooning takes enough of my life as is, and I try to throw everything I can into it, from my free time to my most serious regrets and longings to my absolute stupidest ideas.

UR: This new Building Stories box is non-linear. Does that mean that the content is going to be more like your work in, say, the Acme Novelty Datebook, which shifted styles, and I thought, tended to stray to more perverse and strange subject matter?

CW: The Datebooks are simply collections of my sketchbook pages and so aren't planned out, but Building Stories was definitely planned to have no beginning or end to hopefully slightly reflect the way one can enter one's own memories at any point or time, from any direction, and link them to other stories or times and also, of course, hone them into anecdotes or explanations for who we are and what we think.

Sample image by Chris Ware

UR: Does the constant experimentation in your work reflect a desire to experiment, or do the stories simply come to you pre-bound to their format and structure? If it reflects a desire to experiment, to what ends?

CW: Everything I've ever done is an experiment. Sometimes I think it would be nice to feel like I'd arrived as an artist and was "mature" enough to somehow apply myself to this or that artistic task. But it's not the way I'm able to approach my life, and I don't know if it's the way many of my generation do, either. I still don't quite feel as if I've grown up yet, or I'm somehow ready for adulthood, even though I'm 44 and a father and have almost reached the life-expectancy of 100 years ago. Maybe it comes of growing up during a more or less un-militaristic time, excepting the Vietnam War. My generation has been so coddled that the direness and fragility of life has been something to be largely intuited rather than immediately felt, at least for one growing up a lucky, middle class child like I did.

*Purchase Chris Ware's Building Stories from Amazon.com right here!

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