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For the characters of Chris Ware's astonishingly ambitious comics project Building Stories, leading lives of quiet desperation is surprisingly noisy business. Plaintive, regretful and bitterly self-recriminating thoughts play on shuffle-repeat inside their heads, like a mordant Litany for the (I Wish I Were) Dead:
"Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the end of the world."
"At that point I was starting to get acquainted with the unfairness of life and learning it was better not to expect anything rather than set yourself up for disappointment."
"What did I do to make him hate me so much?"
"Isn't there anyone who will be able to tolerate my disgusting, bloated body?"
"The feeling of failure lingered all day, prodding me into digging out all my old notebooks and pointedly rediscovering what a terrible writer I was, how stupid and trite my ideas were, and, really, what a bad artist I was, as well. ... I'd never had any talent ... why had my teachers ever encouraged me?"
This predilection for pathos is not new. As a writer and artist, Ware makes his home down among the darkest wavelengths of the emotional spectrum; in award-winning work like Acme Novelty Library, Quimby the Mouse and, most famously, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Ware fills his pages with meticulous architectural detail and diagrammatic flourishes, producing what amount to cross-sections of sadness, floor plans of the broken heart.
In Building Stories, which includes work previously published in nest, McSweeney's, the Chicago Reader, The New Yorker and a notable 7-month-run in The New York Times Magazine, he once again creates and maintains an intriguing tension between his text, which chronicles his characters' sundry flailings and failures in wince-inducing detail, and his illustrations, which burst with bright, retina-sizzling primary colors and clean, simple, cartoony shapes.
What sets this latest work apart is its format — and how fundamentally that format shapes the reader's experience.
Building Stories is not a single graphic novel, but a box containing 14 comics: four newspaperlike broadsheets, three magazines, two pamphlets, two standalone strips, one four-panel storyboard that will remind nerdier readers of a Dungeon Master's Screen, one hardbound book and a volume whose look and feel cheekily mimics the Little Golden Book series for children, down to the gilt on its spine.
Inside them, readers will find the intermingled narratives of a three-story Chicago brownstone and the tenants who have made it their home over the years. How we come to know this world depends entirely upon the order in which we choose to read these 14 comics. This fact bestows upon our relationship with these characters a kind of temporal grace. We may, for example, meet the elderly landlady in the ground-floor apartment when she is still a young woman, caring for her invalid mother. We may meet the lonely woman in the top floor apartment before she moves in, or after she marries and moves to the suburbs. We may even follow the travails of a God-fearing bee who pollinates one of the building's window-ledge flower gardens even as he struggles to reconcile his duty to hearth and hive with impure thoughts about his Queen.
As we read, these stories intertwine, these characters deepen. The medium allows us to adopt a perspective that is not merely omniscient but truly godlike: Ware's characters remain trapped in their tiny panels, but we are above them, looking in, and can see what they can't — the travails that await them — with a simple flick of our eyes across the page.
Ware plays with his layouts to accentuate this distance. He'll place something loaded with emotional significance to his characters (an old Halloween mask, say, or a sleeping infant) in the very center of a two-page-spread, huge as a sun, only to surround it with tiny panels in which those same characters find endless ways to avoid addressing it — they bicker, they navel-gaze, they stew over slights both real and imagined. It's not subtle, but it is ruthlessly effective, and, like so much of Building Stories, it gets at something essential and truthful about our tendency to self-obsess.
Moments of happiness are spare and fleeting here, as in all of Ware's work. But when they do come, Ware layers them with metafictional meaning, as if to step out from behind this finely detailed study in hopelessness and admit that sometimes things don't completely suck.
In one such scene, the woman who once lived on the third floor of the titular brownstone relates a recent dream to her now-adult daughter. "Someone published my book," she says, "and it had everything in it ... all of the illustrations were so precise and clean ... it was like an architect had drawn them ... they were so colorful and intricate... and it wasn't really a book either ... it was in pieces, like books falling apart out of a carton, maybe."
"But," she adds, "it was ... beautiful."
The daughter promptly ridicules her, and the moment passes.
But when it comes to that precise, colorful, intricate and ultimately beautiful book? She's not wrong.