Cartoonist Chris Ware is in his own category

  • Pin It
Chris Ware

Artist Chris Ware with his eclectic collection of comic art and old items at his home in Oak Park. (Alex Garcia/ Chicago Tribune / September 25, 2012)

King, whose strip originated in the Chicago Tribune in 1918, carries particular resonance.

"When I was in college at the University of Texas, my friend John Keen and I would drive to these small towns and go to antique stores looking for old newspapers with the strip. It was one of the few strips that captured a sense of life's passing, the defining characteristic of course being that everyone in it ages. It was also an example to follow. My aim was to create something human, meaningful and moving, and it was a reassurance that yes, you can do something other than jokes with comics, which I wasn't so sure about when I was starting out."

Ware grew up in Omaha, Neb.. His mother was a newspaper reporter. His father was in the Navy; the two didn't meet until Ware was in his 30s and working on "Jimmy Corrigan," partly the tale of a sad, squishy man visiting the father he never knew. Ware once described their reunion as a brief, uncomfortable meeting between "regretful men." Asked to describe himself as a child, Ware said: "Nervous, self-doubting, unathletic, nerdy. I wasn't sure if kids liked me — no, I was sure a lot of kids didn't like me. I dreaded school and often had a stomach ache."

At the University of Texas, he worked on the school paper and began drawing "Quimby the Mouse." By chance, a clipping service sent cartoonist Art Spiegelman a copy of the paper; it had a mention of "Maus," Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel. It also had Ware's new comic. Spiegelman, whose wife Francoise Mouly is art editor of The New Yorker, called Ware, said he admired his work, asked to see more.

Ware said that of course it was a massive boost of confidence. After graduation he moved to Chicago. He liked snow and old buildings, he told me. He got into the printmaking program at SAIC, then grew paralyzed at the idea of giving an oral report in front of an art history class and never finished the program. About this time, Ware's comics began circulating nationwide, and New York-based graphic designer Chip Kidd, now associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf (and godparent to Ware's daughter), called information in Chicago, looking for Ware. "I said, 'Hi, You don't know me but I think you're great.' And he didn't hang up. Later that year, I was giving a talk to an art directors club in New York, so I asked him to design an invitation for me."

It went out to dozens of graphic designers in New York. Ware created a four-sided invitation that resembled the ads for green Army men in the back of comic books: "Send away for 200 little art directors!"

Throughout this time, even as Ware was making a reputation, friend Archer Prewitt, longtime cartoonist ("Sof' Boy"), member of Chicago band The Sea and Cake and nearby Oak Park resident, said Ware often seemed beyond uneasy in any public setting: "Chris was a completely mannered individual who had a prickly side that flared up and I found really engaging. But we would get asked to lecture at a college or somewhere, and he'd do it but get unhappy, go into a dark place. I thought it wasn't good for him. Neither did he — he had these compelling ideas on serial imagery and comics but I think those experiences taught him about how he wanted to present himself, because really, he would rather let his work speak for itself."

'Very attuned'

Lastly, you can't complete a Chris Ware without a studio. Ware's is on the top floor of his home, above the second floor display cabinets holding antique banjos and the library with its framed postcard from John Updike. Just outside his studio is another cabinet that holds a miniature box containing miniature books — a Lilliputian warm-up of sorts for "Building Stories," created in 1989 during a summer art program in Maine.

Ware's studio is long, its roof peaked, every surface seemingly wooden and full of gravitas or a putty-colored piece of metal office furniture. A drawer behind his chair holds the original drawings of his New Yorker magazine covers. On a nearby table sits a scale model of a building from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, which figured into "Jimmy Corrigan." It was a present from Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, a friend of Ware's. They've worked together on Louis Sullivan shows for the Chicago Cultural Center and WBEZ-FM (with radio host Ira Glass).

"You often think of intense people as clinical, not able to respond in a meaningful way to things," Samuelson said, "but Chris, he's very attuned to the way buildings work as both artistic compositions and how they have feelings, how they seem personally aligned with lives in them."

All of which would make Ware's decision a couple of years ago to allow his home to be part of a walking tour for the Historical Society of Oak Park & River Forest all the more baffling. But his palate is softening, his already pronounced empathy swelling. Though he rarely goes out, his recent New Yorker cover, showing children headed back to school and parents to work — a portrait of Oak Park's Beye Elementary, featuring his daughter's pensive backward glance and Ware himself peddling home — seemed warm and social.

"Rarely does he say he's happy with something he has done, even in private," his wife said. "Chris still goes through genuine despair that he is no good — in 20 years I haven't understood where it stems from. But as he's become a father and matured, he's more concerned with universal truths, encompassing stories."

If "Jimmy Corrigan" was about the hurt of childhood, "Building Stories" is about the disappointments of adulthood. But also about the contentment of parenthood. And also, he told me, partly about, remarkably, "abandoning one's own creative ambition." He said this even though art from "Building Stories" is on display at the Carl Hammer Gallery, and even though the book, itself a lesson in ambition, has an elaborate $80 addendum of sorts, the plans for building your own paper version of the building in "Building Stories." It's so beautifully designed I can not bring myself to cut it up. The back cover even includes a note that refers to it as "an absolutely unnecessary addendum to the already unmanageable 'Building Stories' graphic novel."

I asked Ware why he is still so unsure of himself.

"Because I am, because I'm not sure what I'm doing is emotionally truthful and can't shake the self-doubt I had as a kid." And, added the melancholy genius of Oak Park, "because I've come to live with it."

Chris Ware at Printers Row Live!
He will discuss his latest graphic novel, "Building Stories," with Tribune reporter Mark Caro at 3 p.m. Saturday at Tribune Tower. For tickets and information, go to

  • Pin It

Local & National Video