Building Stories, first read

I finished Chris Ware’s new comic-in-a-box Building Stories the other day. On first reading, it is an expansive and engrossing work, though it is not without its flaws.

First off, the format itself. The work consists of 14 parts inside a large box (kind of reminds me of old role-playing boxed sets). Ostensibly, the varying parts allow for a non-linear reading of the wider narrative, for the reader to create a sense of the way one gets lost in memory. The varying formats (pamphlet(s), newspaper(s), hardcover, “golden book”, poster, tract, “thing that is like a game board,” etc.) are an evocation of dying formats (oh that ubiquitous comics nostalgia), a feel for the past, so says Ware in a recent Publisher’s Weekly interview. Clearly, it is also a way to gather together all the pieces that have been serialized over many years in different places. I am not, on first reading, convinced by the utility of the multiple formats. First of all, they frustrate the reading experience. Some of the formats are pretty annoying to read and, as a whole, it becomes the kind of work that interferes with its own reading, primarily in a physical way rather than an aesthetic or intellectual way. I also don’t see that they really help with the aesthetic/thematic purpose. The narrative itself is already quite non-linear, most of the “chapters” include movements through the time of memory/recall, and I think something of the protagonist’s story (and the emotional impact of it) is lost if you end up reading the later parts before the earlier parts (chronologically speaking). The multiple formats and a non-linear reading creating a greater sense of mystery, wherein the reader begins to search for clues as to the timeline, filling in missing time or shuffling one’s conception of the timeline. This all distracts from what I think is one of Building Stories greatest success: the creation of a kind of everyday biography. Not everyday as in “quotidian,” but rather in the sense that the unnamed protagonist does not lead a particularly exciting or dramatic life (there is some drama, but nothing all that uncommon, and one could argue that one of her most dramatic/traumatic moments (the lose of half her leg in a boat accident) is not dramatized in the comic). Ware ends up telling a long term story of a life in a way that is quite different than most biographies, which tend to be about famous people. I think this biographical story would be more effective without the complicated formatting.

In reading the book, I also realized how much more effective Ware’s work is when he avoids those complicated layouts he is so famous for. The ostentatious double-page spreads with blocks of narrative panels connected by arrows and tiny inset panels and all that, rarely feels necessary to the narrative and rarely feels like it adds insight. There are exceptions in Ware’s oeuvre, where the layouts complement the content, but it feels like a lot of time he uses these layouts without that sense of complementarity. I found myself, throughout Building Stories, being more impressed with the pages that stick closer to a grid layout. Ware is masterful at pacing the narrative in these grids and in laying out the page so that there is a visual composition as a whole to the page. It is most often, less ostentatious, but more effective.

As much as I really do love the primary narrative throughline about the nameless women, Building Stories seems oddly either a) unfinished or b) in need of some editing down. There is an early (early, both in a chronological sense for the protagonist’s timeline and what I believe is the timeline of Ware’s creation) focus on a building where the protagonist lives after college. Primarily in the New York Times published section, the “Building Stories” seem to be about the residents of the building: the protagonist, her elderly landlady, and a married couple. That one book bears out this assessment. Two other, similarly sized pamphlets focus on the landlady and the couple, respectively. The rest of the books tend to leave the building and those residents behind as the protagonist moves on in life (or reminisces), and the “Building Stories” becomes less “a stories about a building” and more about “the process of building stories.” On the whole, I find the latter more interesting. The anthropomorphized building and the other residents prove less interesting, perhaps because they are engaged less in the narrative or maybe Ware was also less interested them.

That’s on first reading (well, second/third reading for some of the parts), so my opinions may change with a reread, but I thought I’d get some of these thoughts down (and maybe see how others feel about it).

Edit, a few minutes later: Ware says this in an interview at The Comics Journal that just went up:

Originally I’d thought the books would divide and encompass the characters living in the apartment building, but as the story changed and it became clear that the entire story was filtered through the mind of the woman on the third floor, the structure of the book changed to reflect that, and now I think (I hope) it’s much more interesting as a result.

This confirms my feeling that Ware lost interest in the other characters.