Building Stories by Chris Ware
Winter of 1993 saw the publication of Chris Ware’s first installment of The Acme Novelty Library. A staple-bound book, Acme Novelty #1 was just under forty pages and showed a range of Ware’s authorial interests, and notably began the first chapter of what would essentially become Ware’s major-label debut: Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth. Subsequent issues, released more or less a year apart, explored new characters like Quimby the Mouse (an homage to vintage comics like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat) and Rusty Brown, an aging hobbyist still consumed by his obsessions with comics and action figures.
These stories are bleak yet beautiful, and each subtly possess an undercurrent that times are not, and will never, be what they once were. As the characters in books like Jimmy Corrigan struggle with the inevitabilities of aging and declining health, Ware’s readers are forced to reflect on the aging of print: nobody makes comics like this anymore. The golden years are gone, and while Ware drags you through that recognition there is something intensely bittersweet about revisiting those forgotten times through his eyes, lines and color palette. Maybe the best years of our lives are behind us, but Ware conveys this by creating something timeless and rhapsodically gorgeous. His books contain a life-affirming beauty amidst the bitter truths within their pages. He writes stories that will never grow old, tired, or frail.
As the years went on, The Acme Novelty Library grew in size. Issue seven, the fabled “Big Book of Jokes” was a departure from his central plots and contained a series of one-page comics inside an enormous, 16” high (and practically un-shelvable) paperback. Once Jimmy Corrigan concluded, Ware began publishing hardcover installments; page counts grew larger and production went through the roof. These still came out about once a year and had many readers running to their comics store each November to grab a copy before the edition sold out.
After a hiatus of a few years, Ware unleashed Building Stories in 2012, and it is (still) one of the most spectacular things you will ever find in a bookstore. Building Stories feels like a time capsule of sorts—packaged inside something that looks like the box of a board game, readers will find fourteen separate books and booklets of various size and content, each detailing a substantial chapter in a new story about a nameless, one-legged woman. For fans of Ware, Building Stories will feel like getting fourteen years worth of The Acme Novelty Library all at once, as if Ware somehow stopped time to complete a new masterpiece.
There is no correct sequence through Building Stories, resulting in a very different read for each iteration. Nearly every book reads like the diary of Ware’s narrator; while most of the scenes in Building Stories deal with certain memorial minutiae (a meeting with an aged landlord, listening to the neighbors fight, a first boyfriend), each of these sections is glued together by an intimate, deftly written monologue. The narrator struggles with depression, social anxiety, and the loneliness of getting older, and Ware plumbs deep inside her mind to some of her most complicated, personal thoughts. In one page, over a series of twelve frames, she describes a moment of self-awareness that’s chased her since childhood: the “smooth rock” feeling that triggers a roaring bodily cognizance throughout her skull and three limbs: “If I open my eyes,” she thinks, “it all instantly goes away…”
“I’m me, in bed, nothing’s really wrong… then when I close my eyes it starts again…worse than ever…the roaring overwhelms me…it’s terrifying…I feel giant… I could pinch my cat out of existence between two fingers—they’re two redwood trees…two needles…I have to open my eyes again…but how can I sleep? I can’t sleep with my eyes open… I am entirely, 100 percent, horrifyingly alone.”
As Building Stories progresses, readers are able to fill in buried, unspoken memories from related booklets. One can compare thematic similarities between the narrator in her “I’ll never find love” years with those booklets depicting her as a mother and wife. Each book in Building Stories is appropriately separate and the interplay between them gives the reading experience a fascinating layer of unwritten plot. For instance, one book is a strange alliterative piece called “Branford the Best Bee in the World” that feels like a return to Ware’s “Big Book of Jokes” era. “Branford” feels like an outlier in Building Stories, that is, until the narrator’s daughter requests it as a bedtime story in a separate volume.
The only qualm that anyone could have with Building Stories is that the various pieces don’t necessarily demand their disparate sizes. There are some booklets that match others in their format and these synchronize beautifully, but then there are sections printed in newspaper-sized sheets that could just as well have been presented in a smaller size. The gigantism of Building Stories does have one unquestionable effect, and that is proving how not everything that’s published can be digitized for the Kindle or iPad. This statement against digital printing stands in line with Ware’s persistence in form and style in the face of the ever-evolving publishing industry. Times may be changing and veering away from the quiet glory of a beautiful book, but Ware reminds us that there will always be people who remember how good things once were, and that it’s okay to keep one’s memories as close to their heart as possible. And, as long as people still make books like Building Stories, everything might turn out okay.
(originally published 2012 for about.com Contemporary Literature, modified 2019)