Friday March 22, 2013
A decade of Chris Ware’s work in Building Stories
Worlds of Wonder
By MICHAEL CHEANG
Who says ordinary life has to be boring? This new graphic novel makes normal seem fascinating.
CHRIS Ware’s Building Stories is a “graphic novel” unlike any other. It consists of 14 “distinctively discrete books, booklets, magazines, newspapers and pamphlets” about the occupants of a three-storey apartment building in Chicago.
Just unpacking the large, beautifully designed box it comes in was an experience – from discovering a large broadsheet “newspaper” to hardcover books and tiny little comic strips, it felt like I was opening a treasure chest full of mundane yet fascinating wonders.
Building Stories collects an entire decade of Ware’s work, some previously unpublished, others having appeared in esteemed publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times and McSweeney’s Quarterly Comics. The critically acclaimed Ware is also the creator of graphic novels Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth and The Acme Novelty Library series.
The sheer amount of content in the Building Stories box was overwhelming at first. Although the publishers helpfully provided suggestions on how to read it, I was still unsure about where to start.
In the end, I started with the biggest piece of the puzzle – a huge cardboard foldout with four pages and blueprints of the building at the back.
Almost wordless, with whimsical little pictures and arrows pointing all over the place, it turned out to be the piece that intrigued me the most and drew me deeper into the lives of the inhabitants of this building.
It’s amazing how those four wordless pages of hard cardboard with colourful little pictures could be so engrossing. I found myself feeling sorry for the lonely one-legged girl’s depression after turning up for a blind date and getting stood up; getting angry at the husband on the second floor’s impure thoughts about the one-legged girl; feeling a sense of what might have been for the old landlady on the ground floor who missed her chance at love years ago; and strangely, a whimsical touch of grief and alarm for the life (and sudden SPLAT) of a little bee and his family.
After those wordless four pages (which I pored over for almost an hour, admiring the details in the drawings and trying to draw more stories from it), I moved on to the next hardcover piece of the puzzle, which turned out to be the heart-rending tale of the one-legged girl’s mundane and lonely life.
Other stories in the collection include a day in lives of the building’s occupants, giving us fascinatingly detailed perspectives of the old landlady, the married couple and the lonely girl (which are bookended by the thoughts of the building itself), a collection of strips that follows the childhood of the one-legged girl’s daughter; as well as the amusingly whimsical tale of Branford, The Best Bee In The World.
These snippets of the little bee’s life are some of the more light-hearted tales in Building Stories, and cover Branford’s life from his birth, on to his awakening as Branford, the Bee with a Developing Moral Conscience, his marriage to Betty the bee, and finally, his ultimate fate of being squashed (thus becoming Branford the Benevolent Bacterium). It’s a bittersweet tale that is probably the cutest yet most philosophical story ever written about a bee.
Artistically, Ware’s clean, almost retro artwork is so jam-packed with details that you can’t help but study each and every panel. He manages to make even the most mundane of details fascinating – a ribbon stuck in a vent, the arrangement of flowers in a vase, a hook stuck in the wall ...
Ware’s characters ponder little ordinary things like these, and he dedicates whole pages to these mundane sorts of things you see every day but never bothered to dwell on. It’s almost as if Ware decided to take everything we usually take for granted and make us care more about it.
Sure, there are no superheroes or world-threatening crises in here; but Ware’s stories are so fascinating that you can’t help but keep reading just to find out more about his characters’ lives.
After almost half a day of eavesdropping on their intimate conversations, sharing their innermost thoughts and feeling their loneliness and depression, I felt as though I had practically lived the lives of these ordinary folk.
Philosophical, whimsical, and incomparable, this may be a book about mundane ordinary life, but Ware manages to find and tell the most interesting stories ever about mundane, boring, and ordinary life. Building Stories isn’t a just a story about life, it’s a story about how to live life, and I couldn’t recommend it more.
> Building Stories is available at Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC.