Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Thinking on the page

leave a comment »

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been hinting strongly to everyone that I want a copy of Monograph by Chris Ware for Christmas. I haven’t had a chance to look closely yet at this gargantuan career overview of the man whom I’ve elsewhere called our best novelist, artist, and graphic designer, but I’ve been making up for it by reading a book of his interviews that came out earlier this year. My favorite passage is his response to an interviewer who expressed amazement that he figured out all of his work as he went along:

There’s nothing to wow about because I think it’s much easier that way. I don’t see how anyone could sit down and try to think ahead of themselves. I would create the most boring stuff if I sat down and scripted things because the sort of associations that occur while you’re drawing and the ideas that you get are real ideas. I don’t think it’s possible to have a fundamental idea when you start scripting or laying out a strip. I think that’s silly. What’s the point? You get bored, first of all, drawing it. I never know how any of my strips is going to end at all. I start out with a blank page. I might make some basic decision like “The first row will be three and three-quarter inches. Tall panels and maybe I’ll stick one in that’s taller.” Then as I go along I might draw something in the background and think, “Wow, I’ll use this.” I’ll draw it again or light it up with another image on the page, or I might redraw something…As far as in the long term storytelling, the source of associations that you want to occur in a story can only happen if you let them occur naturally. Your brain is a very organized thing. I think mine is, I hope, because things keep on popping up, and I notice them.

This is at the beginning of Ware’s career, before Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth had even begun, but his approach across the decades has remained consistent. Two years later, he told another interviewer: “I do know where I’m going, the essential outline is there. I don’t write conversations and dialogue unless I have bits and pieces I want to insert. I don’t write scripts or thumbnails. I let it happen. I try to keep it lively and allow it to develop on the page. This of course might be the absolute worst way of working possible…I don’t know.” Six years after that, Ware said to Ira Glass: “It’s totally improvisatory. I know how I want to start and where it’s going to go. I just draw and hope that it works. I really don’t know how to describe it beyond that.” And he offered this account of his process while being interviewed for the documentary Tintin and I:

As I get older I find myself thinking about stories more and more before I work so that by the time I eventually sit down to write them, I know more or less how it’s going to look, start, or feel. Once I do actually set pencil to paper, though, everything changes and I end up erasing, redrawing, and rewriting more than I keep. Once a picture is on the page I think of about ten things that never would have occurred to me otherwise. Then when I think of the strip at other odd times during the day, it’s a completely different thing than it was before I started.

By now, Ware is probably tired of being asked about this, but I find it objectively fascinating, even staggering. And part of the explanation lies in the contrast between the time that it takes and the relatively compressed period in which it can be absorbed, as Ware stated in a more recent interview: “I think there’s a certain value in spending a lot of time on something and condensing thought into something that maybe only takes two seconds to read but maybe takes forty hours to draw.”

I think that this gets at something fundamental about Ware’s career, which is a testament to how the art of a miniaturist can turn into something profoundly epic, even colossal, when diligently pursued for a lifetime. (In this respect, Ware has a lot in common with Stephin Merritt, a figure to whom I’m surprised he isn’t compared more often.) And his approach on the page is mirrored in his attitude toward storytelling as a whole, which is to disclaim the existence of any larger plan at all. Ware often suggests that his narrative structure emerges almost by accident, saying in his interview with Glass: “I started drawing this character, Jimmy Corrigan, in my sketchbook and did a couple of stories with him, and I realized he’s my only human character so I better hold on to him.” He expanded on this point a few years later:

I was still in art school when I started [Jimmy Corrigan], and I thought this story would only last maybe about three months or so, just a few episodes. Because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at all and I am a terrible writer, it got completely out of hand. It ended up lasting for seven years, which is why when you read the book, the first hundred pages or so are completely insensate. It’s very poorly written, which I apologize for—I didn’t really think of a way to try and fix that, but that’s just the way it is…I did a couple of joke strips with this character Jimmy Corrigan, and I kind of latched onto him as my only contact with humanity on the comics page. Then he became this main character. There’s no planning to this at all; it’s this crazy way of working organically and letting something happen on the page for lack of any better thoughtful literary charter…I think that’s actually the way most of my characters start, as joke characters, and then I become more empathetic or sympathetic towards them.

In other words, Ware’s decisions on the level of the individual panel, which might amount to an hour’s work, effectively reproduce—or anticipate—his approach over the course of years. And while you see this pattern in the life of nearly every artist, it’s particularly evident in Ware, both because he’s been relatively candid about his creative process and because so much of it has unfolded in plain sight.

The trouble is that it can be hard to draw lessons for ourselves from the work of such a singular talent. If nothing else, we can take it as a reminder on the value of small units of work completed on a regular basis, whether or not they involve a fixed deadline. In the earliest interview that I quoted above, Ware said: “I can’t do anything without having some sort of deadline; otherwise, I’m too lazy. I wouldn’t get it done.” A decade later, he modified his view:

As for my workday, I used to sit down and fritter away my time, but now I work within a more compressed schedule because I spend most of the day looking after my daughter. I’ve also given up my weekly deadline to allow the work to happen at a more natural pace, and I think I can say that for these two reasons I’m genuinely happy for the first time in my adult life. I’m glad I put myself through the misery of deadlines for twenty years, but if I can’t do it now for its own sake, then I shouldn’t be doing it at all.

At another talk, he told the audience: “If you simply trust yourself as an artist to allow those things to come out naturally, without your intellect to stop it from going onto the page, you’ll be surprised at how things in your work will connect in very surprising and strange ways. There’re things that you do that you are not even necessarily aware of.” And he’s perfectly right. But it’s equally obvious that Ware has developed strategies and techniques, often at great personal cost, to allow for such themes to emerge “naturally” in a form that can channel and control them, to the point where his cold, almost alienating style serves as a vessel to contain unbearable emotion. Perhaps one approach requires the other. But it’s also easier when you’re the smartest kid on earth.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2017 at 8:39 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: