BUILDING STORIES. By Chris Ware. Pantheon. 14 items. $50.
The pictograph, or ancient cartoon, served as a means of communication that transcended time and tribe. It conveyed meaning about the way early humans lived and died, about the natural world and its challenges and about the relationships between the two.
When language eventually came along, it did not replace the image. If anything, it enhanced it. For illustration had evolved enormously and remained a primary method of communication. Illuminations lit up the parchments of ancient texts, and words were added to pictures to ensure clarity.
Modern-day comics really are an extension of this long tradition. Comic strips were a regular feature of newspapers (and still are). With the first comic book came a significant new entertainment industry.
The funnies started getting more serious in the 1960s and 1970s with the appearance of “alternative comics” such as Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” and R. Crumb’s “Zap Comix” and “Fritz the Cat.” The evolution continued with the introduction of the “graphic novel,” extended comics that assumed many of the characteristics of traditional long-form fiction or storytelling, presented with cinematic flair.
With exceptions, most of this stuff wasn’t particularly good. But when Art Spiegelman published his remarkable “Maus” books, beginning in 1986, public perception of the graphic novel’s potential irrevocably changed. “Maus” treated a serious subject — the Holocaust — with grace, wit, intelligence and heart. Soon, other artists were permitting their graphic-storytelling ambitions to take form.
Chris Ware, the 45-year-old, Nebraska-born Spiegelman protege, has taken the graphic novel to an unexpected new level. His “Building Stories” is presented as a box set of 14 separate items ranging from a fold-out game board-like panel to accordion foldouts, broadsheets and hardcover books. They can be read in any order, which means the life of the unnamed female protagonist is pieced together slowly by the reader.
Make no mistake, this is a novel first and foremost, though it relies on storytelling that is surprisingly cinematic in its use of visual cues, lighting, perspective and “camera shots.” Ware’s sense of timing, the rhythm of the frames, is impeccable. And he presents them in sequences (not always horizontal) that keep the storytelling front and center. It engages movie techniques such as occasional close-up shots interspersed among medium and wide shots. He does this in an effort to place us within the mind of his character, to perceive the world as she does and to perceive her in ways that are intimate, respectful and fully realized.
What’s more, this expert visual technique serves to set Ware’s protagonist in a clear Chicago context that spans time and folds in various relationships and interactions, with parents, a boyfriend, a husband, a daughter, colleagues and schoolmates, space, structures, patterns, ideas and nature.
The language (dialogue, thoughts) is straightforward, but the images are complex, and though they are drawn in stark perspective as if with a protractor and compass, they somehow provide Ware with the objectified context he needs to get so expertly into the head of his lead character. He does not stop short, portraying her emotional, physical and sexual life with a brutal honesty and degree of sensitivity. She grows older before our eyes, coping with all that aging implies.
The narrative is unrelentingly honest, even bleak, portraying an urban woman with a physical disability struggling with her body, her dreams and her heart. In her ordinariness, she is presented as extraordinary: a person with suburban ambitions and a vague sense of history.
Ware introduces us to, among others, her aged landlady, who is desperately holding on to her building, renting its apartments to tenant after tenant. The landlady has a history of her own, of course, and Ware brings it to light as if to show us how we misperceive the world and the people who inhabit it.
The building itself takes on a life of its own. It thinks and feels, stimulated by the activities within: the fighting couple, the family life, the lonely landlady eating her apple slices and thinking of all that’s lost to her.
A subplot is offered in the form of “Branford the Best Bee in the World,” a thinking creature who flits about searching for the unreachable. Branford serves to emphasize the existential questions presented by “Building Stories” even as his own struggles (with love, family, colony, food) playing out in colorful miniature and providing the reader a small distraction from the main character’s daily efforts.
Visually, Ware has taken his geometric style, interest in bold colors, skillful use of light and shade and amazing compositional approach to create something large and profound from its many respective parts. The stories not only build as the reader moves from one item to the next, they are about building: memories, landscapes, relationships, whole lives.
Parts of his “book,” 10 years in the making, appeared previously in magazines, which suggests that he has approached this project incrementally, perhaps without fully knowing what the final result would be. The package of 14 distinct pieces certainly has no clear beginning, middle and end. It is a deconstruction of sorts, a narrative conceived in the mind, then pulled apart and distributed. Yet miraculously, there is reason and order and depth and logic to it all.
The drawings may be pristinely architectural, but the story is about as moving and humane as you can get.
Reviewer Adam Parker is The Post and Courier’s arts writer and book page editor.