Chris Ware Redefines the Graphic Novel With 'Building Stories'

The first thing you will notice about Building Stories (Pantheon) is its sheer size. The latest work from artist Chris Ware is encased in a box as big as the seat of a chair—11 1/2 inches wide, 16 1/2 inches long, 2 inches thick. It looks like a board game, and those of us with normal-sized bookshelves are going to be hard-pressed to figure out where to fit it in.

And so, at first, you might be tempted to think that the mammoth box is an unwieldy artistic gimmick, especially once you open it and find mini-comic strips, two books of different sizes, a cardboard tetraptych, a poster, booklets, a newspaper, and two broadsheet-sized comics. What are you supposed to do with these 14 pieces of graphic paraphernalia? How are you supposed to read them? From smallest to largest? From weightiest to lightest? Should you start with a piece about a woman or one about a bee?

All of this is precisely the point. There is no one correct way to read Building Stories, no instructions on which order to work your way through the stack of materials. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure graphic novel, in which everyone's experience with the text will by necessity be different. But unlike those novels of my childhood, which I liked in concept but always found incredibly frustrating to read, Building Stories is one of the most compelling and emotionally resonant works I have read in years.

Building Stories is, loosely, just that—a series of stories involving the tenants of one particular brownstone in Chicago in and around the year 2000. On the first floor, there is the owner, an elderly woman who has spent her whole life in the building. On the second floor is an unhappy couple. And on the third floor is the central protagonist of the work, a lonely one-legged florist struggling with her stalled artistic ambitions.

In some of the pieces, the building itself becomes a character. Then there is Branford the Bee, who buzzes in and out of his hive in the lot next door. But the majority of the segments revolve around the unnamed amputee, skipping backward and forward in her life up until the present day. Nothing much happens and everything happens—never before, perhaps, has the mundanity of daily life been given such weight and such beauty.

Because make no mistake: Building Stories is nothing if not beautiful. Ware has long been known for his intricate and meticulous illustrations, and his first full-length work, 2000's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, utilized his skill to create an at times complicated parallel storyline. But the cartooning in Building Stories is even more sophisticated than that in Jimmy Corrigan—panels often move counter-clockwise around two pages, or employ directional arrows to ensure the reader follows the labyrinthine movements.

Building Stories also makes use of a brighter color palette than Jimmy Corrigan, and the colors reflect the difference in the two stories' tones. Ware's first book, which stemmed from a comic strip originally published in a Chicago alt-weekly, was brilliant but grim and sometimes hard to read. But Building Stories, which includes work first published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and McSweeney's, has a sense of hope I don't remember from Jimmy Corrigan.

It has its melancholy moments—there was one storyline in particular that brought me to tears (even though I knew what was going to happen, because the events had been mentioned in a different section)—but life doesn't feel so bleak in Building Stories. Sad things happen, because sad things happen in reality. We are inevitably all alone, yes, in life and in death, but is that really so bad?

This makes the work sound much more heavily philosophical than it is, when in actuality large chunks of Building Stories read like a small, quiet diary. Ware's understated portrayal of suburban malaise (the lonely florist eventually ends up in a large house in Oak Park with a husband and child) is one of the truest depictions I've come across. There's no need for satire or exaggeration because these are actual human lives. The characters pay bills and hire plumbers; they go to the grocery store. Building Stories is a graphic novel of the ordinary that sees the extraordinary at the heart of our day-to-day existence.

It is a testament to Ware's reputation that Pantheon agreed to release this, his first book in almost 12 years, in such an unusual format. Building Stories is the anti-e-book; it forces you to interact with the actual printed matter in a very physical way.

Yet it is a testament to Ware's skill as a writer and an artist that the format of the book works as well as it does. Building Stories is a story without a beginning or an end. It's middle is ill-defined. There isn't really a plot. And I couldn't put it down, and I can't wait to read it all again.

The one unfortunate thing about this project is that grand artistic gestures aren't cheap—Building Stories has a hefty $50 price tag (although certain online retail outlets were selling it for less, as of this writing). But if there were ever a book worth the price tag, this one is it. It's the best thing I've read this year, even if I can't alphabetize it next to Jimmy Corrigan on my shelf.


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