Chris Ware has been asking us to rethink comics for a long time, since his early days drawing for Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's RAW. He's best known for the 2000 graphic novel "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth," a multilayered narrative that won several awards, as well as his ongoing comic book series the "Acme Novelty Library."
Still, it's no stretch to suggest that with his new work, "Building Stories," he has upped the ante, pushing comics in a new direction while paying tribute to their history. An oversized box containing 14 related but free-standing comics, in a variety of shapes and styles, "Building Stories" is a kind of do-it-yourself narrative: a set of stories that revolve around the residents of a Chicago apartment building, and at the same time, a meditation on how stories are built.
Ware's work has always involved a certain nuance, relying on an almost architectural precision and a nearly claustrophobic attention to detail, in which small drawings, often repeated, mix with an overflow of written language to pull us deep inside each page. At times, the sheer volume of text and image can make his comics hard to penetrate, but that's part of the point, to remind us of the act of reading at every turn.
It's an intensely literary approach to comics, in which tone and subtext move his stories along. At the same time, Ware is not afraid to let his images do the talking; in "Building Stories," as in his previous efforts, there are long sequences (often pages in duration) with few or no words to interrupt the visual flow.
What sets "Building Stories" apart from its predecessors is the extent to which Ware engages us — indeed, makes us complicit — in the construction of the narrative. Each of the 14 parts is distinct: pamphlets and free-standing strips and broadsheet comics, including a Winsor McCay-inspired Sunday supplement-sized section you have to lay flat on a table to read. One sequence is modeled on a Little Golden Book, complete with nameplate.
More to the point, they can be read in any order; although the back of the box features a guide of sorts, it is up to us to make the story work.
The title may refer to a building, but the real subjects are its residents, who reappear throughout the various sections: the elderly landlady who has spent her life there; an unhappy couple, not quite young any longer; and the unnamed woman who might be called the project's protagonist, who lost part of her left leg in a childhood accident.
"Why does every 'great book' have to be about criminals and perverts?" she wonders. "Can't I just find one that's about regular people living everyday life?" This question, too, occupies "Building Stories," which, for all its formal innovation, is a book of ordinary lives.
As for what that means, it has to do with loneliness, with disconnection, which is why the open structure works so well. Ware's point is that we drift through existence, suspended between past and future, the present often empty, comprised in equal part of anticipation and loss.
To make this explicit, he occasionally telescopes time in "Building Stories," showing a character move between different ages in just a few frames. That's particularly effective in regard to the landlady, for whom the building is a virtual mausoleum of memory, and the unnamed woman, who eventually marries and has a child.
Among the most vivid aspects here is Ware's evocation of the complexities of parenthood, the way commitment and compromise often go hand in hand. Worried that she has given up her artistic aspirations to care for her daughter, the woman is stopped cold when the child asks, "Will I be the most important thing you ever do?"
Elsewhere, Ware projects that even further, into the future, portraying an interaction between the woman and her now grown daughter, in which the mother recounts a dream where she has found a book, her own book, and "it had everything in it … my diaries, the stories from my writing classes, even stuff I didn't know I'd written … and you know, it wasn't bad."
Such a moment crystallizes the key theme of the project: that we are always building our own stories, using them to give meaning to our lives.
In the end, the process Ware re-creates here is universal, which is what gives "Building Stories" its resonance. The woman's dream, after all, is everyone's: the dream of making sense of ourselves, of having things add up. That they don't, that they can never, is the paradox, and yet what else can we do but try? Here we have the essential question Ware wants us to consider, and his answer — brave, beautiful and brilliant — is the story we build out of this box.