Chris Ware’s book of dreams
“Can you describe how drawing feels?”
“It feels horrible.”
This exchange occurred last weekend at the Unity Temple in Oak Park between an audience member and the cartoonist Chris Ware, our most gifted visual storyteller. The sentiment it expresses will be familiar to anyone who knows Ware’s work, which lavishes incredible ingenuity, craft, and technical skill on stories of everyday tragedy—and not violent or melodramatic tragedy, either, but carefully observed vignettes of mediocrity and quiet desperation, all of which lead to the inevitable conclusion that we’re all going to die alone. If this makes Ware sound like an introverted depressive, well, maybe he is. But in person, he’s a funny, engaging, self-deprecating guy whose air of discomfort in public is partially offset by what seems to be a contented personal life, as well as the fact that he’s arguably the most acclaimed graphic artist of his generation. As long as Chris Ware lives in my neighborhood, I know I’m never going to be the greatest living writer in Oak Park—but this is one instance in which I’d be happy to come in second.
Ware, in short, is a genius, at a time when the word threatens to become meaningless from overuse. (The fact that he’s never received a MacArthur genius grant is truly startling.) His work is characterized by an obsessive attention to detail, with stories told through elaborate flowcharts, diagrams, and microscopically executed individual panels, all of it rendered by hand. Ware says that it takes him about forty hours of work to finish a single page, and notes elsewhere that the ratio of the time spent creating one of his comics to the time it takes to actually read it is something like 4000:1. Yet he’s incredibly prolific—or, as he puts it, he seems prolific—and he never stops working. Looking at one of his books, the first impression one gets is one of overwhelming density and detail, and this isn’t a superficial reaction: you can zoom in on the tiniest details (like “the world’s smallest comic strip” printed on the edges of one of his book covers) without any loss of resolution.
In other words, his work resembles the impossibly detailed and seductive books one sees in a dream, which Ware has acknowledged is the effect he’s trying to achieve. His magnum opus is the extraordinary graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, which has sometimes been dismissed as unreadable. It is dauntingly bleak and dense, but it’s also my favorite novel of any kind published in the last couple of decades. More recently, I’ve been browsing in his large-format Acme Novelty Library collection, which collects Ware’s massive one-page strips. These lack the cumulative power of Jimmy Corrigan, but they offer the best showcase for his talents: these stories engage the whole history of comics, from Little Nemo onward, and they’re both visually staggering and endlessly rereadable, even as they pursue Ware’s characteristic themes of loneliness and disappointment. (My favorite is the strip that follows Quimby the Mouse over the course of an excruciatingly uneventful day, then flashes forward to him in a nursing home fifty years later, crying “Nurse!…Nurse!”)
Ware’s latest work is the collection Building Stories, which I picked up before the reading and lugged home afterward, a little overwhelmed by the prospect of diving into it. It’s actually a large box filled with fourteen different books and leaflets, ranging from a tiny stapled pamphlet to panoramic spreads the size of a large newspaper. The components can be read in any order, and given their inherent density, I suspect that this will be one of those books, like Dictionary of the Khazars, that I’ll own for years without ever really getting to the bottom of it. But just browsing through the materials is an emotionally charged experience: the stories center on the figure of a young mother living in an Oak Park neighborhood not unlike my own, and since my wife and I are currently expecting our first child, it’s hard not to map my own feelings onto the page. Knowing Ware, I suspect that this may turn out to be a mistake—and yet part of me still feels privileged to have been given this strange, indescribable handbook at this point in my life, as if it had been made just for me, like a book in a dream.