Skip to main content
book review

The contents of the box/book “Building Stories” by Chris WareDeborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

All of us are boxed in. This sentence can be taken as a figurative description of the way life traps us in social roles that are difficult to escape, but it also happens to be literally true. We are born in boxes, live in boxes and die in boxes: hospitals, incubators, apartment buildings, houses, schools, offices, elevators, cubicles, prisons, shopping malls, big-box stores, nursing homes, caskets, urns. Western architecture has never strayed far from its roots in Euclidian geometry, so the drama of our existence is played out on boxy stages defined by straight lines, right angles, squares, cubes, rectangles and other sharp-edged forms.

Architecture is not usually thought of as a narrative art form. But buildings exist in time as well as space. They are constructed at a particular moment, they weather a sometimes hostile environment, they age and need repair, and unless they are looked after, they become ramshackle and ultimately fall apart or are demolished.

One way of defining the genius of Chris Ware is to say that he fuses the disparate forms of comics and architecture, using his nonpareil skills in visual storytelling to show how the buildings we construct are not just empty containers but influence us as much as we shape them.

This marriage of comics and architecture might sound surprising, but it has a long history, which Ware, deeply knowledgeable about the past, knows well. The modern skyscraper emerged at the same time as modern narrative cartooning, in the middle of the 19th century, although both forms had prehistories that extend further into the past. The classic Sunday newspaper comic strip, with many panels on the page laid out on a grid, has obvious parallels with tall many-windowed office buildings, a fact that pioneering cartoonists like Winsor McCay played with when they drew stories that used the New York skyline not just as a backdrop but as a virtual character. The drawing board of a cartoonist is not unlike the drafting table of an architect. And in both drawing comics and imagining homes, you work with grids, rectangles and cubes and need to have mastered perspective.

When I visited Ware in Chicago a few years ago to work with him on the Walt and Skeezix series reprinting the comic strip Gasoline Alley, I was struck by the depth of his architectural knowledge. Part of our research took us to the home of the long-dead cartoonist Frank King. Working from old photographs and his sharp visual memory, Ware was able to notice quickly all the changes that had been made to the house over the decades. Ware and our mutual friend Tim Samuelson, a leading expert on architect Louis Sullivan, gave me a tour of Chicago, an astonishing experience because they seemed to have ready access, faster and more reliable than an Internet search engine, to salient information about virtually every significant building in the city.

Ware is a kind of non-religious animist. For him, animals and physical objects, no less than people, have histories and biographies, and deserve the loving, reviving, liturgical attention that only art can provide. Ware's new graphic novel, Building Stories, is an attempt to extend the range of sympathy in narrative fiction to include not just human subjects but also the animals and objects that we interact with.

When we first approach it, Building Stories is not a book but a box. Long, rectangular, cardboard and covered on the front with colourful iconic images, it could easily be mistaken for a Monopoly set or some other board game. Supporting the board game analogy is the fact that on the back of the box there are instructions that purport to tell "everything you need to know to read the new graphic novel Building Stories" and detailing the contents we can expect to find inside: "14 distinctly discrete Books, Booklets, Magazines, Newspapers, and Pamphlets."

Taken together, these 14 printed objects make up a non-linear graphic novel, but they vary greatly in size, shape and content. The smallest items are pamphlets and paper strips no larger than the instruction manuals that often come with ready-to-assemble furniture or new electronic devises. The largest are broadsheets that, like The Globe and Mail, you have to fold open to read, focusing on one part of the page at a time.

Ware has broken up his story into 14 smaller books in part to reinforce one of the major narrative themes of Building Stories, the fragmented nature of modern urban life. But the separate booklets are also, each of them, beautiful objects of their own with the narrative specifically tailored to the physical form in which they are encompassed. For example, the smallest pamphlet deals, delicately and movingly, with the small daily interactions between a mother and daughter. One of the largest broadsheet deals with death, which is both big news and physically hard to handle.

The printed book, we are constantly told, is becoming obsolete in the face of online competition. Perhaps so, but Ware is a partisan of tangibility, the tactile world of objects that you can touch, including books and buildings. Although a small snippet of Building Stories originally appeared online, the total object that Ware has now created could exist only in our three-dimensional world. In telling his stories through beautiful printed objects, he is making as strong case for the continued centrality of the book as a form even in an age of easy access to digital "content." Form and content in Ware's work are never severed but always imaginatively working together, like two partners in a stunning dance number.

But to praise Ware simply for his art or formal inventiveness is to short shrift the power of his storytelling. There are several characters in Building Stories: One is a century-old Chicago apartment wistfully remembering better days; another is the aged landlady who owns the structure, and another is a bee that gets temporarily trapped in a windowsill. But the central character of the graphic novel is an unnamed young woman who lives in the top floor of the building.

Through the course of most of the 14 books, the shape and texture of this woman's life is depicted with such precision and such candour that she becomes one of the great characters of contemporary fiction, as fully human and believable as an Alice Munro heroine.

John Updike once defined his ambition as to give "the mundane its beautiful due." That's what Ware achieves in his biography of his nameless heroine. We learn about the childhood accident that left her with one leg, her first love, an unwanted pregnancy, her loneliness, her marriage, her joy in motherhood, her discouragement at having to sacrifice her artistic ambitions, her pain at the death of loved ones.

Historically comics have been among the most sexist of all art forms, but with Building Stories, Chris Ware becomes one of the handful of male cartoonists who has created an authentically convincing female character (an achievement that is also rare in male-written prose fiction). She might be boxed in by life and cornered in buildings that do not offer her much room for expression, but she remains resilient, observant and sharp-witted. To meet her, and to see the environment that formed her, is the chief pleasure of Building Stories.

Jeet Heer is a writer based in Regina and Toronto.

Interact with The Globe