Chris Ware’s Building Stories is not only a genre bending work, but a form bending work that seeks to create a graphic novel that is more than just panels and words, but an expression of the full potential of the form. While the graphic novel, at least since Maus, has been respected for its content potential, in other words, the ability to tells stories that heretofore had been the domain of text only forms, often what I see released are 60 pages of panels that relate a rather straight forward short story. Sure, the drawing styles are all different, but fundamentally it seems as nothing has changed since the early days of Superman. Naturally, there are exceptions, such as a favorite of this blog, Joe Sacco, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with panels and text. But the form has existed for close to a century now and it’s time for a little more experiments with form. All of this is to say, Building Stories is something new that takes Ware’s already know penchant for genre mixing in his Acme Comics Library works and creates his most interesting and form breading work.
Contained in a box and composed of multiple different pieces, all in different sizes an formats, from books to newspaper size folded sections to a board game like tablet. It may be that the format is a legacy of the publishing history of these pieces, many of which have appeared in various forms over the last 10 years. Nevertheless, the different formats play with the history of the comic form, from newspaper section to comic book to graphic novel. It is a tactile game that makes reading each section different from the previous. More over, there is no order to read the pieces. They can be read in any order and the story of the four lives contained within continually rewrite themselves as you begin each new section and have to rethink a previous piece. What makes Ware’s work even more interesting is that he uses the graphic elements to their fullest. He is well known for using popular forms as newspapers and advertizements within his work, and he continues that is these pieces. But he also plays with the form, often rearranging the way a series of panels should be read on the page, allowing the placement of his images, not the narrative to dictate the art. It also makes for a more engaged reading, because the reader can not just slip from panel to panel, but must stop and take stock of the page as a whole to navigate. Where Ware is often at his best are in the moments where there are no words and he just has a series of panels that express in a subtle way, the emotional state of his characters. Given that much of his work is precise and geometric, often eschewing great detail, his skill at showing the internal desperation of a character, often in just subtly repeating a frame, is impressive.
Building Stories follows the lives of the residents of a turn of the century apartment building as they lead lives of quiet desperation. Ware’s most evocative writing comes in the untitled hard bound book, which provides an alternating view into the lives of four people who live in the building: the old woman who owns the building; a couple who always fights; and a one legged woman who works in a florist shop and spends most of her time apart. Their stories intertwine the loneliness that can come even though one lives right next door to someone else. The desperation is every present through out the work as a whole, and is a reflection of failed dreams and lives that have settled into a rut. For the florist, the character Ware will develop throughout the work, her life has never lived up to expectations and she is constantly aware of it, equipped with all the tools an art school education can give to analyze the world, and yet never come to any realization of where one should go.
Also included are two booklets about a bee and the alternate universe he lives in. The bee is a hard worker and the stories follow his attempts to be a good provider for his family. The bee stories provide some comic relief, but only slightly. There, too, is the same sense of longing to find ones way, Ware has just recast from the point of view of a bee. They are fun stories that make what could be a very self absorbed collection about humans, into something a little broader that can describe the real sense of loneliness of the characters, but also poke fun at the way humans create the conditions that make them so unhappy.
If I have any complaint, its that only in the hard bound book do we get a complete picture of the residents of the building. After the florist leaves the building and begins her life outside of it, the other characters disappear. While it may have been impossible to work characters together that really had no relationship other than proximity, it would have been an interesting task. I suspect it’s because Ware wrote the sections independent of the Building Stories concept. That said, the life of the florist as she becomes a mother and moves to Oak Park, Chicago confronts middle class anxieties in Ware’s visually arresting style, and is still as interesting as the life in the building.