Monograph by Chris Ware
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Chris Ware is one of the greatest cartoonists working today and the sumptuous Monograph provides all the proof one needs to understand this fact. Monograph is a memoir disguised as a lavishly-illustrated fine art retrospective; despite its many stunning reproductions, at its core it is a heartfelt and honest confession about the artist’s life and craft. At over eighteen inches tall, it is a beautifully printed, perfectly unwieldy hardcover, and each page unveils new wonders that may surprise even the most devoted of fans.
The book features original drawings in blue pencil as well as their final, colored versions alongside an array of wooden figurines, paintings, and mixed-media mechanical sculptures. Ware collectors will swoon over the hand-made, miniature books that are reprinted throughout Monograph, and will race to eBay to see if copies of Ware’s little-known ragtime magazine, The Ragtime Ephemeralist, are still available. Facsimiles of Ware’s minis are actually reproduced, staple-bound, and glued onto the pages of Monograph so readers can flip through these old zines like a lift-the-flap children’s book. Alternate covers to old Acme Novelty Library editions are revealed, as are curious foreign-language variants and source material. Grids of completed cartoons are reprinted in sprawling two-page spreads in a size that can be just-barely-read — instead of reading, gawp in awe as the palettes and compositional structure of these strips wash over you. Visually, Monograph is nothing short of spectacular.
But the text is where Monograph transforms into something new, beyond simply a gorgeous art book. With self-deprecating charm, Ware guides his readers through each phase of his professional life, from his early cartoons in the 1980s to his groundbreaking Jimmy Corrigan, all the way to 2012’s Building Stories and his recent covers for The New Yorker. His technique is flawless and his output dizzyingly expansive, but what’s most inspiring is his understanding that one’s history is accumulative — that memories aren’t necessarily past events but can be present stories. In one segment, Ware recounts the first time he saw an old family photo album:
I saw her, my grandparents/her parents, and every part of my own life. On top of that — and this is the most important part — it imbued with me the strangest sense that the world of the past was all still there, but just out of my reach, hidden somewhere behind a curtain of — something; and then, behind another curtain, the unknowable, but still inevitable certainty of the future.
This is a deceptively complex sentiment, and one that could potentially unlock Ware’s entire oeuvre. The multi-generational Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories simultaneously tackle both the past and the future, and the goofy and nostalgic Tales of Tomorrow is built on turn of the century, World’s-Fair-era dreams. The George Herriman-inspired Quimby the Mouse manages to be both nostalgic and progressive: “Rather than use the mouse as a receptacle for violence,” Ware explains, “I tried to imbue it with empathy and to invert it as a metaphor for internal emotional conflict.” Discussing Building Stories, he explains the “governing questions of the book which sort of got folded into the dough and forgotten,” one of which is “how it is we actually live our lives in memory, not in the present.” Readers of Ware’s works will have surely circled around many of these themes on their own, but it’s remarkable to hear it all so succinctly from the artist himself.
Ira Glass, a longtime friend and collaborator, provides one of the book’s two introductions. It’s a standard, laudatory text, but secretly primes readers for one of the many theoretical epiphanies that Monograph introduces. Glass writes about one of his favorites “passages” in Building Stories and takes five paragraphs to discuss a single page of Ware’s comic book. He gets lost in it — he goes somewhere. And suddenly, the idea of a “passage” opens up into a tunnel, a gateway to somewhere else in the reader’s mind and memories. Ware speaks directly of this phenomenon later in Monograph:
I don’t want the reader to admire the quality of a drawing; I want the reader to see through it, back into his or her memories where the imagined playhouse of comics actually comes to life. As far as I’m concerned, comics are fundamentally a language and an art of reading, which makes them unique in the world of visual art. With the exception perhaps of maps or diagrams, there is no other visual medium as of yet which takes the uniquely human ability to read an image and then turn it into an esthetic experience. Though my drawing might come across as antiseptic or cold, such a feeling is not the tone I’m trying to impart; the story itself is where the warmth lies.
In Monograph’s second introduction, Art Spiegelman (editor of RAW magazine and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus) writes that Ware “prefers paper theatres to movies-on-paper.” Ware’s cartoons dance around the page, they challenge the reader to break from left-to-right scanning, and are remarkably distant from the “storyboard” approach that’s used by many other illustrators. Ware explains:
I believe the most damaging development in the history of comics was the reinvention of the panel as a “camera,” short-circuiting the power not only of comics as an art of memory but also of the potential rhythm and gesture on the page that consistent representations of figures and scenes create when read.
Monograph is an indispensable resource. It’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous, but also full of transcendent interpretations and explanations of the artist’s work and medium. To understand comics as an “art of memory” will dramatically shape one’s reading of Chris Ware, and how perfect for a mid-career retrospective like Monograph to open that critical eye.