4. Building the Walls.
b.Images and Words.
c.Time, Space, Sound
5. Installing the Roof
i.Explicit and Implicit Memory
b.Reality and Imagination
c.Visibility and Invisibility
6.Painting the Walls
a.Narrative, Visual and Multi-Perspective
“Everything you can imagine is real”. (Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973) This quote can be found on the inside of the box of Building Stories and it comprises the very essence of this book. Chris Ware himself states that the book is supposed to be a “physical thing made real from one’s own imagination”. (Lopate) Rather than a warning on entering an unknown territory, this is more of an allowance that the author grants himself and the readers from the very beginning. In respect to the story presented, readers have thus the freedom to reconstruct it from memory and by using their own imagination.
Building Stories is a graphic novel by Chris Ware, released on October 2nd, 2012 on Pantheon Press and serialized in the Acme Novelty Library and the New York Times Magazine. The book contains over a decade’s worth of work and comprises fourteen items - books, booklets, newspapers, and pamphlets - designed to be read in any order. The story follows an unnamed, one-legged woman and her scattered memories from childhood, her life experiences as a lonely adolescent living in a Chicago apartment building and as a mother and housewife living in the Chicago suburbs. The protagonist’s life story is intertwined with bits and pieces of other people’s lives, such as the elderly landlady of the building, the fighting couple living downstairs, as well as a bee and its family.
The aim of this paper is to provide an analysis of the “architecture” that Chris Ware employs on every level of the story. Drawn from Ware’s statement that “the metaphor of architecture runs through our brains” and that “there’s something about the way the mind and the way buildings are structured that are [sic] analogous” (Paulson), the present analysis illustrates this analogy by looking at both the personal and the spatial dimension of this architectural product. On the one hand, the reader is presented a skilful architecture of the mind and feelings of the main character, along with the multiple dimensions of the character’s memory. In the respective architecture, the spatial dimension of the building plays a crucial role, since it represents a frame for the main plot: “the history of a building and the things that have happened within it […] like a living organism through time.” At the same time, the character is framed by the architecture of the building in that it represents a “self-conscious creative construction on the part of the woman to write for her creative writing class”. (Millman) The paper will also look at how form is employed to convey content, both in terms of the organization of panels and frames, on the macro-level, and of visual/narrative perspective, monolog and dialog, on the micro-level.
The way in which these elements are combined - starting with straightforward manners and ending up to mnemonically complex ones - demands that the reader interpret them, based on “common experience and a history of observation”. (Eisner, 2006, 24) The paper’s chapters are structured according to the steps followed when building a house: the design, laying the foundation, building the walls, installing the roof, and finally, painting the walls. These steps are not exclusively related to the building as such, but rather to the entire “architecture” of the story - including its visual techniques, spatial and temporal dimensions, and most importantly, its character portrayal.
2. House Design
This chapter provides a brief categorization of Building Stories, including the decision that has to be made regarding the type of “house” it represents. It also draws upon the “material” that the building will be made of.
According to Eisner, a comic is “an art and literary form that deals with the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea” (2006, 5). Building Stories can easily fit into this category, although its experimental form represents a break with many of the established conventions of comics. What it also qualifies as is a graphic novel, which “can be a complete story or a collection of linked short stories (or any variation in between) - either published as a self-contained whole, or as part of a longer continuity. The key to the concept is that it has to have a thematic unity.” (Sabin, 1993, 236) This thematic unity is represented by “the sadness and emptiness of contemporary experience”. (Carlin, 2005, 160) The main characteristics of the graphic novel, according to Sabin, are the “greater character development, more complex plots, more detailed scene-setting and the generation of mood” that it allows for.
In spite of the need to categorize Building Stories as an art form, the question whether it is a comic or a graphic novel is rendered unimportant by the author. (Larimer) In Gardner’s opinion, “it is our growing appetite for texts that choose not to choose [between text and image, past and present, graphic and novel, popular culture and art/literature, etc.] that has led to the expanding cultural influence of the form in recent years.” (Gardner, 2012, 177)
At the same time, Carlin observes that “[t]he conventions of the comics have become ironic symbols of the artist’s mature ability to create a beautiful page but remains crippled by the
experiences of childhood.” (Carlin, 2005, 160) It is the fragmentariness of the book and the techniques of the comic which are drawn into derisory that highlights the imperfections inherent to the practice of recording one’s experiences. The adult female protagonist is thus irrepressibly shaped by the memories of childhood, which she is trying to abide by but fails to some extent, as she is trying to shape them in a convenient way to suit her adult life.
3. The Foundation
As every building has a solid foundation, so does every story. Great sources of inspiration for Building Stories were both Ware’s 2000 graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan and Lost Buildings, a 2004 multimedia collaboration with Ira Glass, in which “the relationship between architectural and human history [are] explored.” (Gardner, 2012, 170)
In Lost Buildings the protagonist had the ability to see the buildings of the past and present simultaneously, and to imagine himself as inhabitant of the demolished buildings, whereas in Building Stories the house itself acts as historian, being able to tell its own stories - not of “lost buildings” but of “lost people”, the individuals whose lives take place, however briefly, in the reasonably priced apartments.” (Gardner, 2012, 171) It is the superpower that is granted to the building which reinforces the ephemeral nature of modern life, its profanity, by highlighting how quickly every human action sinks into oblivion. By tracking and counting the incidents that have happened in each room, the building is able to grope [its] way around the future a bit, but only insofar as any current occupant inhabits [it].” (BS, LGB, underlining Ware’s) Not coincidentally, the longing of the building for human presence in its apartments coincides with the protagonist’s attachment to inanimate things: “I could get so carried away I’d hug a table leg, or kiss a chair goodbye... I’d compulsively dare myself to grant a personality to anything and everything… My pockets were always filled with pebbles and bits of trash…” (BS, GB) All the individuals in Building Stories appear to be “lost”, alienated, unfulfilled and unhappy with their lives, because this is how they are perceived through the eyes of the main character.
Ware himself states, in an interview, that the book represents the “ark of a lifetime” (Millman), which is made up not only of stapled memories, of ephemeral life events, but of meaningful experiences which build up to create a valuable entity, a monumental artefact. Moreover, as Ware further suggests, if “comics are an art of memory” (Paulson), the way of
displaying and recreating those memories on the page would reflect the “multi-layers of consciousness” (Millman), providing an insight into how they are perceived, stored, and eventually recalled - either possibly distorted, due to the interference with other memories, or simply as more powerful, due to the increased awareness of the situation experienced. Just as the brain knows no limitation to absorbing knowledge from the surrounding world, so does Ware’s work not succumb to the limitations of the medium when describing his character’s consciousness, which is reflected also in the building’s consciousness. In this way, Building Stories refers to a collective consciousness, common to all people: a disorganized set of memories, of derisory happenings, which have to be worked through, refined, and elaborated in order to be entirely internalized.
4. Building the Walls
Upon laying the foundation, the walls of the house will be built in order to create the necessary framework to building the roof. Analogously, this step corresponds in the comic to the creating of an appropriate scene and mood for the action to take place, which will then yield the memories of these events. The main elements time, space and sound, which are rendered mainly by the way images are organized, are highly relevant to constructing the atmosphere in Building Stories, as well as is the symbolic power of images and words. The present analysis aims at showing how all these elements concomitantly shape and are shaped by memory.
a. The Structure
According to Chris Ware,
a book is a fairly obvious metaphor for a human body: aside from the fact that it has a spine, it’s also bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and it can harbor secrets. One can either be put off or invited into it depending on how it’s structured and what’s offered as the point of entry. It can affect how the whole story is felt. (Irving)
Although Building Stories does not have an actual spine, which makes it somewhat less stable than a regular book in terms of “pre-fabricated” structure and cohesiveness, its upright standing is secured by the walls of the box, which, once closed, no longer reveal its true identity. Only when it is opened and operated on do its inner workings acquire a meaning and, due to the
complexity of its anatomy, extensive research needs to be conducted in order to elucidate some of the secrets hidden inside. As it is the case with the human body, the book essentially carries mysteries that cannot possibly be solved by means of the state of the art knowledge.
Eisner observes that “[b]y the skilled manipulation of this seemingly amorphic structure and an understanding of the anatomy of expression, the cartoonist can begin to undertake the exposition of stories that involve deeper meanings and deal with the complexities of human experience.” (2006, 16) The fact that the structure is only “seemingly amorphic” implies that there is a higher order employed by the artist, which does not necessarily lie within adhering to established conventions, such as using a regular grid structure or reading the panels in a left-to- right sequence. Instead, Ware employs the technique of varying the size and blurring the order in which the panels are supposed to be read, granting the readers the freedom of entering the story whichever way they choose and of constructing it themselves as they read along in the chosen order. This obviously applies to the sequence of all the different items in the box, as well as to the order of events within these single items. However, the readers are not only expected to read and decipher words, images and symbols, and to match them together, they must engage also in the “necessary work of rereading, resorting, and reframing.” (Gardner, 2012, 177) Only this way a tenable representation of the “architecture” can be obtained.
In an analogous way to the building of a wall out of bricks, by piling them on top of one another, the story can be theoretically created by just reading and putting together the larger - and more substantial - items in the box: the Broadsheet Newspaper, the Little Golden Book, the Green Book, and the “Disconnect” Magazine. As to the less substantial items within the box (such as the Long Flipbook, the two Accordion Strips, the Elderly Landlady and the Bickering Couple Magazines, the Four-Page Broadsheet Newspaper, the “Branford the Bee” Booklet, the “Daily Bee” Newspaper, and the Single Poster), besides their standing alone as individual stories, they act as binders of the more extensive items, upon their secretly representing missing pieces of the stories or even keys to decoding them. The Four-Panel Storyboard represents an ensemble view of the building and all the characters inhabiting it.1 By use of images and of arrows indicating the direction of reading, as well as of conjunctions linking panels together and highlighting actions, the most significant situations in the life of every character are rendered.
b. Time, Space, Sound
As Eisner observes, “[i]n the universe of human consciousness time combines with space and sound in a setting of interdependence wherein conceptions, actions, motions and movement have a meaning and are measured by our perception of their relationship to each other.” (2006, 25) By taking his point into account, we acknowledge that a comic becomes “real” only when these three factors harmonize with each other.
The notion of time is generally an essential structural element in comics and, as Gardner notes, it is perceived through “the [reader’s] ability to see past, present, and future simultaneously”. He also adds that it is precisely this aspect that has been cultivated in the history of comics that “has made it invaluable for investigating new modes for narrating history and memory.” (Gardner, 2012, 165) In this regard, Ware has revolutionized the art of comics through his way of “telling” time. In Building Stories, he manipulates time through the interplay between the “ephemeral history” of the individual and the “monumental” form of the comic, which allows for a capture of both past and present.
The only item in Building Stories that operates with time references is the Little Golden Book. For all of the other items, the size and the narrative density can be indicators of time, both in terms of when the event happened and of how long it lasted. Consequently, the reader has to regard the panels as sequenced captures, with every panel being an integral element of a scene. Also, the way the protagonist perceives time becomes the reader’s perception of time, complemented, as Eisner claims, by “[their] memory of experience.” (Eisner, 2006, 25)
When depicting the daily routines of the protagonist, Ware uses a greater number of different-sized panels, which makes the action appear more segmented. Although according to Eisner (2006, 30) this technique usually has the effect of compressing time, in Building Stories the exact opposite is achieved. Oftentimes, the narration lingers on every small detail, making the action appear to be very slow. While the Green Book consists of numerous flashbacks and accounts of different periods of the protagonist’s lifetime, there are many pages that seem almost entirely static, such as the protagonist’s way to work on a rainy day. The dull atmosphere induced by the weather is also reflected here in the passage of time. The images of raindrops falling from the leaves into the puddles, as well as the protagonist staring at a white page, contrast with the colorful images of the flowers in the florist’s shop.
1 Note: the items will be quoted in the following as BS (Building Stories) followed by the item under discussion (BS-NP, LGB, GB, AS1, AS2, 4PNP). See also: Appendix.