When he’s not crafting sly New Yorker covers or shipping his meticulous illustrations for display at the Whitney Biennial, graphic novel pioneer Chris Ware has for decades crafted deeply immersive panel art for the Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth comic strip and other periodicals produced through his "Acme Novelty Library" imprint.
Now the Chicago cartoonist bursts the confines of standard book design by designing a 14-piece graphic novel in a box. Building Stories (Random House/Oct. 2) uses pamphlets, accordion-style booklets, newspapers, hard-cover books, and fold-out posters packed inside a huge cardboard carton to tell the tale of an old apartment building and its introspective tenants.
In a Q&A with Co.Create, Ware explains his fondness for antique French game boxes and sex-crazed bee stories along with his secrets for conjuring wonder in the age of iPad with old-fashioned ink and paper.
Co.Create: What motivated you to build a fictional universe through a carton filled with booklets?
Chris Ware: A box of books is something I’ve been wanting to do since 1987. I tried to do it with questionable effect in small edition forms at art school [Art Institute of Chicago]. I wanted to create a sort of miraculous dream object, insofar as that’s possible in the real world.
The Building Stories container resembles a game board box or a CD boxed set with all these goodies inside. What historic influences did you have in mind when you set to work on the project?
[Long Island found art sculptor] Joseph Cornell's boxes and dossiers were the biggest influence, as well as Marcel Duchamp's "Museum in a Box" and French "Jeux Reunis" game sets from the late 19th and the early 20th century. I wanted to make something that welled up in me these feelings of affection for these sorts of boxes of things because they seem to promise so much.
Building Stories proves that ink on paper can still pack a punch in the digital era. Were you interested in reminding readers about the various charms of hard copy?
For news, I think it makes perfect sense for paper to go the way of the horse and buggy, but when it comes to art and literature, I’m not so sure. They need some sort of boundary to contain them, or some sort of almost contradictory form to fix their uncertainties, which sounds ridiculously pretentious; my apologies. Mostly, though, I did Building Stories because I think it’s fun. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, and it seems to promise something strangely magical by its very inertness. Really, what could be more magical than a novel? The very best ones can transform you from the inside out.
The booklets’ thick, matte finish paper stock feels great to the touch. In figuring out the technical specs, what kind of effect were you aiming for in terms of the reader’s experience?
I wanted the entire object be made out of exactly the same stuff—uncoated white paper—so that all elements seemed to be sliced from the same master material even though many of the sizes echoed within, like magazines, are traditionally printed on glossier or woodier papers. It’s very important that the ink sink into, rather than sit on top of, the paper. The reader can feel that sort of thing, and I think it makes a difference in the experience of the story.
You’ve earned much respect in the graphic arts field because of your gift for orchestrating visual information to tell psychologically probing stories. You use arrows, asterisks, circles, color shifts, perspective, diagrams, calligraphy, different kinds of fonts, dotted lines, all kinds of cues to guide the reader through a narrative. By contrast, Facebook plays a role in the Building Stories saga as this bland message format. Does social media lack graphic personality?
The point was driven home with me a little over a year ago. A friend died and the postings on Facebook made in her memory were sentimentalized little fragments of thoughts—which were bad enough—but then these already pale and all-too-public epigrams had to be followed up by the enumerations of likes and thumbs-ups. I’m absolutely flabbergasted that so many people have chosen this as the medium through which to express some of their deeper feelings. It seems to show a paucity of spirit and increasing lack of appreciation of the infinite textures of life itself.
The box contains posters, pamphlets, hard cover books—so many different kinds of publications. How did you match stories to the different formats?
I can’t really say why I chose certain formats for all of the booklets. The greenish hardcover is nearly identical to the 18th issue of my semi-regular periodical, "The Acme Novelty Library." It’s supposed to feel a little like a part of one’s life that one has both forgotten enough about and honed down in memory—I’m not sure if there’s even a difference, really—to the point that it now seems to "make sense," even if, while it was happening, it didn’t.
Building Stories goes off on some cool tangents including your "Bradford the Bee" children’s story. Where did that come from?
All of the Bee stories collect and try to get at that frame of mind a parent gets into when improvising stories to his or her children. It also provided a way for me to talk about sex in what I hope is a completely non-sexual way. Plus there are jokes in it, and there aren’t so many in the rest of the book.
How did you design all these story fragments so the whole thing would cohere?
Actually the whole thing doesn’t really cohere all that well, which was intentional. There’s only a few instances where characters cross over into each others’ lives. I did not want the story to be governed by a clever plot or a series of mysterious events, because then it would seem too much like a puzzle or a detective story.
Building Stories seems genuinely interactive in the sense that each reader assembles his or her own version of the story depending on which booklet they happen to pick up first. Did you design the project so that any randomly selected narrative sequence would make sense?
There is no correct order. I hope that the reader will read one story or the other and then, based on whichever came first, the story they read next will cast itself as a memory, or the book they just read would become the memory. It’s the closest way I could think of coming to the real experience of losing oneself so deeply in one’s own memories that one forgets, just for a second, when and where one actually is in one’s life.