Welcome to the second part of my "best of 2012" post, and since i am lazy (and also tend to prefer the “discussion” format), Joey Aulisio will be joining me to discuss my sixth book on my “as many books as i feel like listing- list of books i liked in 2012”. So here is about 2,000 words on Chris Ware's format breaking masterpiece 'Building Stories'.
by Chris Ware
Shawn Starr: Well 2012 brought some major books, two new works by Joe Sacco (or one new, and one collection of various short stories most people had never read), a fifth volume of Los Hernandez Brothers 'Love & Rockets: New Stories', Charles Burns published the second book in his trilogy exploring Tintin through the lenses of William S. Burroughs, and Alison Bechdel followed up her genre defining work 'Fun Home' with 'Are You My Mother?' ( and that's not mentioning the beautiful new art books from Adrian Tomine and Daniel Clowes). In the land of literary comics, 2012, based on those books alone, it would be easy to consider it a solid to great year, but then Chris Ware dropped 'Building Stories' and none of those other books really seemed to matter anymore (A similar feeling emerged in 2011 with the conclusion of Jaime Hernandez’s LOCAS tale with the final iteration of 'The Love Bunglers' in "Love & Rockets: New Stories" #4 - a dropping of the mic if you will).
'Building Stories' is a collection of 14-separate, but interweaving, stories, presented in no specific order, sizes or dimensions. Varying between broadsheets, oversized hardcovers, and things no bigger than an Oily Comic that all add up to define the life of one building, but more importantly, the life of one tenant, The One Legged Woman who lives on the top floor. Her life and memories, her hopes and dreams are explored in a depth nothing else has ever tried to achieve in comics, at least not without twenty-plus years of continuity (i.e. 'The Love Bunglers').
Ware is literally building the story of her life (see what i did there? Its like the books title ! Get it! ...i hate myself...i’m better than that...no i’m not...) from the ground up, in one massive dose of comics.
Ware’s most bold choice (and the books defining feature) is to not make her life a single cohesive (or-linear) narrative, but instead, to chop it up into a series of memories, to be read in any order, at any pace, and to be thought of in whatever context the reader walks away from it with.
This is no book, it is instead a series of memories that the reader can tug at in any order they please. It’s a brave choice by Ware, giving that much power to the reader.
But, this also creates the most difficult part of the work, its perceived unwieldiness, when you open the box that is 'Building Stories' for the first time you're left with the inescapable thought of “Where do i even begin ?”.
I know you had problems with this aspect of the work (You even used a reading order right?). Why was that such a problem for you? I felt invigorated to be given that much trust by an author. You can read it a thousand different ways and never truly read it the same way.
Jog’s reading order and it was not that i had a problem with that aspect per se, more that i feel (as strange as this sounds) it limits the book in a way.
While you see the box as limitless potential, it can also be seen as a gimmick. The story is strong enough on it’s own to not even really warrant that additional aspect, in truth that aspect is probably going to turn off a lot of people from reading it. For example, I was thinking of my sister while reading this as she just had a baby a year ago and she is going through a lot of the same struggles that the main character is going through. She’s not averse to reading comics and would probably enjoy this book but if i handed her this box to read she would just say “are you fucking kidding me?”. If it was just a regular hardcover or paperback, she would read it with no problem, and i can’t help but think that’s probably the attitude that most 'not already initiated into art comics readers' are going to have. I just thought that would be a shame.
On further reflection, i don’t know how much mind i pay to that initial reaction now. It reeks of the typical “dumb it down for new readers” discussion that dominate the comics discussion landscape for years now that i absolutely loathe. If this is the way Ware chose to showcase this story than who am i to say otherwise. Some of it still seems a little needlessly complicated (the broadsheet newspaper comics don’t really add anything being in that format in my opinion), but in other places i don’t see how the effect could be replicated in a normal book (the board game really only has that effect as a board game, the foldouts need to be foldouts, etc.). I think whenever someone truly does something new, our immediate reaction is to try and cut it off at the legs to point out how it's not so, but I think that's just our way of truly coming to terms with it. As an experiment it exceeds and as a story it succeeds, that’s really all you can ask for.
People have been able to piece together narrative tissue between individual pamphlets enough to create, what i assume are semi-coherent reading orders, but that seems to miss the point that Ware was going for. Opening 'Building Stories' is like opening a shoe-box (a large shoe-box filled with pictures of your grandparents life, chronicling their youth, their follies with love, friends they once had, friends they now have, their eventual wedding(s), the birth of their children, etc.). You don’t pick up each picture in exactly the right order, and your parents don’t tell you the story of them that way either, it’s one picture at a time, and one story at a time, and in the end a narrative will eventually form from that. For better or worse, that's life. It's all Snippets (Also, the Broadsheets are the actual size of The One Legged Woman's daughter at that age - just so you know).
Enough about the the aesthetics of the format though, the actual story is the star here. It’s easy to say “Ware takes the mundane minutiae of everyday life and makes you really reevaluate your own” but it’s true! What stuck out to you in 'Building Stories' in comparison to Ware’s other work ?
SS: What distinguishes 'Building Stories' from the rest of Ware’s body of work is that I genuinely cared about The One Legged Woman, Ware’s always been able to make you feel something for his characters, thinking of Jimmy Corrigan or Rust Brown or Jordan Lint all result in wildly different emotions, but none of them is caring.
When you read the hardcover, the reprint of 'Acme Novelty Library' #18, and she’s afraid if she’ll ever be a mother, or if she will even be a good one, what will she do with her life, etc. and then you pick up one of those Broadsheet comics, or that small accordion fold out that just loops back in on itself with her and her daughter, and you know she’s a mother, and things are going OK. Not great, but OK, because she has her daughter and she loves her. I was happy for her in a way i’d never felt for a Ware character.
This is also the first time Ware really tackles relationships in any great depth, love is only in the periphery of Jimmy Corrigan (and in a very creepy way), you only see glimpses of it in 'Lint', and Rust Brown is just...no.
Every tenant in the building experiences a different aspect of love at a set period in their relationship, the death of the tenant owner's mother, who she’d taken care of all her life even going so far as to reject her own love life for her, is like the death of a significant other after being married for 50 years. Her mother's death just leaves her with nothing, she just shuts down and waits for her own to end; while staring out a window.
That relationship is really striking in contrast to The One Legged Woman’s relationship with her husband, and the importance of their child, where the tenants on the 2nd floor could just explode and stomp on a box of tampons to express their anger (or pettiness), or flirt with a co-worker to feel loved. The One Legged Woman has a child with this man, she has a house, where as the neighbors will talk (“did you hear, he threw her box of tampons out the window?”) but it's that rough patch where your parents just don’t talk all that much.
And that's all built on the foundation of her first “real” relationship with a man twice her age, who ended up acting like what you expect a 40 year old man who dates a 20 year old would, like a 20 year old guy with grey balls.
I assume there was some love going on in that Bee comics, but i just couldn't get through it.
What stood out to you in 'Building Stories'?
JA: From what I can gather, probably a lot of the same things that stood out to you.
First off, I don’t think there are a lot of creators in comics telling great human stories (although that might apply to all mediums nowadays), there’s Jaime Hernandez, Clowes, Tomine, Bagge, and you get little shades of it here and there from the mainstream guys but that’s about it. So it was refreshing to see Ware really embrace that human aspect here and excel at it so well. Up until now i always put Ware more in the antiseptic style of emotion, focusing more on the cold and the strange, so it was nice to see another side of him. That said, it's still pretty damn bleak.
Ware will show all the beautiful moments in a relationship between any two people in these stories but just about every relationship ends rather badly (including the One Legged Woman's marriage which i will get to momentarily). That's not to say that is a cynical view on Ware's part, just more of a realistic one. Why people stay together and torture each other emotionally (or worse) once a relationship has soured is one of life's mysteries, but I think it's out of that yearning to have a bond with someone. Once you get that bond it's hard to break it off, even if you have grown to hate the person you are bonded with. You could end it but some don't want to risk never having a bond with someone again, so they stay. Thus begins the cycle of compromise, depression, anger, and resentment until you both wind up dead or alone again. I think that is exemplified nicely in all the relationships on display in these stories.
and yea there was love and marriage and children related stuff in the Bee comics as well, and i barely made it through those either.
SS: What is it; 50% of marriages end in divorce?
That stat has to be worse now than when it was originally taken, and then you have to add into that all those failed relationships that got you to “The One” and the reasonable conclusion is that most relationships will end poorly.
But then, even when they end poorly, you don’t think of them as a straight line sloping downward, “It was the worst of times” will always be remembered alongside “it was the best of times”. There are good moments mixed in with bad, and a whole bunch of nothingness you forget about in between. The very nature of 'Building Stories' is that it has to pick up on these moments of joy and sadness, it’s what you take away when the person is gone. I remember the first date, that time I drank a bottle of rum in the park and talked with her till 3am and missed the last train out of Boston, and then i remember breaking up during midterms over nothing, getting depressed for a week, getting back together with her two weeks later, and then breaking up again the week after finals. That is how i remember my last relationship, the good parts and the bad, the middle not so much.
And that's how 'Building Stories' remembers it.
The first is the love the young boy she took care of projected onto her, which she could not reciprocate because of it’s sexual nature. She saw him as a son, he saw her as the “hot babysitter”. The second is the love she projected onto her first boyfriend, who could not reciprocate because he was a man child aged 40. He never loved her, he just got off on being her sexual teacher, and once things got real, and they could have moved onto that next stage of life, he made her give it up and bolted. There was nothing on his end. The third is the binding love she feels for her husband, they fight, worry about bills, and avoid each other, but they’re married, they belong to each other to some extent, at least in her eyes. Except they don’t, and he doesn't seem too concerned about the “binding” aspect of their relationship (at least if what you hinted at is true - it does make sense now). Marriages end, it happens. And then there is the fourth, her unconditional love for her daughter, its fulfills every aspect of her previous three loves, love projected onto another, love reciprocated, and binding love. She loves her daughter, her daughter loves her, and she will always be her daughter. No matter what.
JA: With her daughter, she finds the one thing she was missing, a part of herself.
also because i am lazy, here's a list of the rest of the books i also enjoyed in 2012:
Black Kiss 2 (Image)
by Howard Chaykin
The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred (Image)
by David Hine, Shaky Kane
Casanova: Avaritia #3-4 (Icon/Marvel)
by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, Cris Peter
Copra + Deathzone! (self-published)
by Michel Fiffe
Eat More Bikes (Koyama Press)
by Nathan Bulmer
Flayed Corpse (Oily)
by Josh Simmons
Fury MAX (Marvel)
by Garth Ennis, Gorlan Parlov, Lee Loughridge
Love & Rockets: New Stories #5 (Fantagraphics)
by Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez
Multiple Warheads: Alphabet To Infinity (Image)
by Brandon Graham
Orc Stain #7 (Image)
by James Stokoe
Pope Hats #3 (Adhouse)
by Ethan Rilly
Prison Pit, Book Four (Fantagraphics)
by Johnny Ryann
by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milonogiannis, Richard Ballermann, Joseph Bergin III
Punk Rock Jesus (Vertigo/DC)
by Sean Murphy
by Jason Aaron, R.M. Guera, Giulia Brusco
Wayward Girls #1 (Secret Acres)
by Michiel Budel
Wild Children (Image)
by Ales Kot, Riley Rossmo, Gregory Wright
best collected editions:
Dal Tokyo (Fantagraphics)
by Gary Panter
Everything Together: Collected Stories (Picturebox)
by Sammy Harkham
The Furry Trap (Fantagraphics)
by Josh Simmons
by Basil Wolverton
Walt Disney's Donald Duck (Fantagraphics)
by Carl Barks