Ware and ‘When’ (and What About It)

BOB LEVIN inspects Chris Ware’s Building Stories


Ware’s use of the comics form to enhance the emptiness at his character’s core is superb. If he possesses the illustrative chops of a Hal Foster or Alex Raymond, he resists all temptation to demonstrate them. He does not render a richly detailed, lushly foliaged, deeply dimensioned world. The life he sets forth is narrow, stunted, cramped. Few possibilities for beauty enrich it. Few periods of excitement enliven it. The deepest emotions are registered through the slightest alteration of the dots and lines that constitute facial features. The glories of speech are reduced to undecipherable squiggles, when overheard through a muffling wall, or converted to simplistic glyphs as if Ware was an Egyptian primitive employing a stylus on papyrus. Emphasis can be attained by merely darkening or enlarging the letters that form a word.

If Ware does not have the huff and puff of extensive plotting to keep his readers churning pages, his technical skills motivate their flipping forward. The variety of the size and shape of his books and pages and panels keep his readers alert and engaged. The variations of his lay-outs send the eye on entertaining slips and slides. Sometimes Ware sets them upon carnival rides, as when he provides gaze-directing “arrows” which slip through windows he has drawn and slither under doors. One of his favorite devices involves centering a page (or a two-page spread) spread with an image that, while not sequentially connecting to the narrative unfolding around it, enhances that narrative thematically. These images can also take on their own narrative progression, moving from a naked woman, to her skeleton, to (presumably her) vagina, to a “painting” of a vagina, to an orchid’s blossom. Even his inchworm-like approach to story-telling can resound within a thoughtful reader. One nods his head approvingly at his capturing how life works. Yeah, one affirms, when you meet someone new, they rarely come with paragraphs of expository background information attached. And, yeah, you don’t know from jump street which of them will prove significant.

Ware is also adept at documenting the nothingness at his characters’ cores. He will devote an entire page of a sixteen-page book to a solitary figure sitting silent, pining or regretting, not noting a single thought. The author of a 300-page novel would have to spend nineteen pages repeating the same sentence to equal the effect. The director of a ninety-minute film would have to hold his camera steady for nearly seven at a woman in a chair. Readers would fling books at walls. Moviegoers would stomp and whistle. Under Ware’s spell, though, one just smiles and looks again to make sure he has not missed anything.

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