Chris Ware is most recently the writer and illustrator of Building Stories.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Learning how to wash his hands.
Author: Chris Ware
Subjects Discussed: The significance (or lack thereof) of the date September 23, 2000, technological reliance and its intrusion upon existence in Building Stories, the amount of time that humans presently stare into screens, the virtues of shapes and forms on paper, coming from a family of journalists, Ware’s decision to self-publish, the materials used in Building Stories, Ware’s affinity for small rectangular panels, the buildings that inspired the building, Charles Burns, losing track of time and space while drawing, temporal drift, Ira Glass and accusations of cliche, the pleasant frustration of not knowing the names of the Building Stories characters, people not saying Chris Ware’s name in his dreams, when characters are too defined by their names, flowers that grow along Illinois railways, SoundCloud, whether comics can compete with technology to encourage imagination, comics as a visually reductive medium to create a new language, Brandford the Bee and his influence as a narrative spirit, a fondness for circles, understanding other people, looking at animals for a very long time, empathy, Ware’s insistence on visual clarity, typography, operating from a place of uncertainty, Acme #20 and a character aging one year for every page, working with and without deadlines, how the Oak Park Public School system determines how much Ware turns out, observing the human world, parents who aren’t allowed to see their children as often as they need to, being in a privileged position, failed or aborted forms, Ware’s experiments with television, Ware’s difficulties in working with other people, cartooning as a singular art, whether there is an ideal medium for explicating or portraying human behavior, non-objective painting, representing a multilayered consciousness in comics, the physicality of doing the work, the frequency of Ware characters with afflicted or amputated legs, the creative inspiration which emerges from breaking legs, human frailties, and whether the human soul can be contained through illustration.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Is there any specific significance to the date September 23, 2000? I do know that a baseball player named Aurelio Rodriguez died that particular day.
Ware: Is that true? I didn’t know that. No, I picked it simply because it seemed like a date that didn’t particularly have any meaning to it. It’s just sort of a random day.
Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about the role of technology in Building Stories. I mean, we see that you have a concern for its effect on everyday life, ranging from the Facebook searches for lost boyfriends to this one page stark illustration with this unnamed woman with the leg. She’s standing naked before her husband and her husband is there with the iPad, also naked, not paying attention to her at all. Then of course you have this really terrifying last page augmented reality future, where they can’t even spell “fuck” right. So this would suggest, I think, a deep pessimism on your part for how technology is affecting life and so forth. And here you have a collection of fourteen various pamphlets ranging from something very small to almost a newspaper size. Is this really what we have to do now? In order for literature and comics to survive, do we now have to create massive physical palpable forms in order to get people off of this highly addictive technology that has encroached itself into culture all around us for the last five years?
Ware: No. I don’t think so. I mean, it is a little disturbing. The amount of time that we spend increasingly staring into these glowing pits in front of us. Just simply standing out on the street here, the number of people who are looking at the palms of their hands. There’s probably a higher percentage of people doing that than actually looking up. And I think the gesture for trying to remember something now has changed from looking above one’s head to slapping one’s pocket. But it’s really not that different from what adults do anyway, which is not necessarily looking at the world around them, but looking into their own past and thinking about their future and simply just kind of navigating in a world. Just trying to get through the world while worrying about the past and thinking about the future. I don’t think it’s necessary to try to make something — I don’t know what word I could use here. It’s elaborate, I guess. That’s what I tried do. But at the same time, why not? I mean, paper can do things that screens cannot. And I’ve tried to take advantage of that with the book. And we’re at a moment right now too where certain experiences and the way that we get knowledge about the world has been attached to certain shapes and forms. And those shapes and forms are disappearing. And it seemed to me just like a possibility for a slight sense of poetry in using those shapes and forms as a physical way of imparting a sense of life or everyday experience.
Correspondent: So shapes and forms in the form of paper. Old forms are the way to counter the conformist technological forms. That the housing of the form is probably going to get through to people more than the elaborate Tuftean graphs you’ve often had in your work. So you think this is going to be a solution? You think paper will persist? Do you actually have to change as an illustrator, as a cartoonist, as an artist in order to woo people’s attention?
Ware: Well, no. I grew up at a time where I read everything on paper. And I don’t have a sentimental attachment to it. I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper in my life. I’ve always read the newspaper either just simply on the Internet or picked it up here and there. Even though I come from a long line of newspaper editors and publishers. My mom was a reporter and an editor. My grandfather was an editor. My great great uncle was a publisher who actually won a Pulitzer Prize for an essay in, I think, 1911. So it’s in my blood. I feel that it’s no longer the most efficient way of disseminating important up-to-date information. Newsprint was for a long time. It was almost a fiber optic cable. But now it’s not. It’s great for art though. So I think art needs a certain kind of containment. And it needs a certain kind of containment to it because so much of the things that one writes about as a novelist or tries to get at sometimes as an artist are so ineffable and uncontainable that they almost need a certain form to stop them or something. Or freeze them.
Correspondent: So this leads me to ask, I mean, did you have to learn a lot about materials and publishing for Building Stories? Or did you have someone shepherding this for you? I mean, how did you decide upon the forms for Building Stories? In which you’re essentially collecting things from the Acme Novelty Library as well as a few new things as far as I know. How did you decide upon the forms? And what research did you do in making sure they would stick together or would be lasting to counter the end of newsprint era that we now have rolling?
Ware: Right. Well, everything in the book is made out of the exact same paper. Which is intentional. And they’re almost all coverless, with the exception of a couple. And that’s also intentional. I didn’t really have to research much. I’ve been self-publishing my own hardcovers now and comics for a while. And I’ve actually dealt directly with printing companies. So I’m more or less familiar with how those things are put together. But for this particular project, the production manager at Pantheon handled all of that for me and was able to make it work. But I just simply gave him very specific parameters for the size and paper that I wanted to use. And he accommodated me essentially. He was a very nice guy. Andy Hughes.
Correspondent: So why did you move to self-publishing? I was always curious about that.
Ware: I was sort of uninspired, I guess, at a certain point. And I felt more that if I published something myself, it would feel closer to art. The way it had early on. And I felt like I was taking the whole risk myself at that point.
Correspondent: You wanted to be a control freak.
Ware: Well, somewhat. Yeah. But at the same time, if there are any mistakes, they were entirely mine. I was solely the product of my hand. It just simply felt more like art. I was making something specifically, giving it to someone. I didn’t go through a publisher. It was less of a product and more of a thing.
Correspondent: So when you’re creating an elaborate — well, there’s tons of questions I have to ask you about layout and so forth. But let’s start — I was always curious about your small microscopic rectangular panels that are often in your work. I’m wondering if part of your attraction to this is because you’re interested in communicating the maximum amount of information with a minimum amount of detail. Is this the allure for you?
Ware: Yeah. Somewhat. Yeah. And the reason I use square panels is simply because the page is square. It’s reflective of the shape of the object itself in the same way that a leaf of a tree is somewhat reflective of the shape of a tree itself. But that’s not unusual. That’s the way all cartoonists work. I think it’s the way it’s been handed down to us.
Correspondent: So the building that is at the base of Building Stories, was this based off of any particular building?
Ware: It’s a synthesis of two buildings that I lived in in Chicago before my wife and I moved to Oak Park, Illinois. But the inhabitants are completely imaginary.
Correspondent: Are they based off of floor plans and layouts that you wandered through or lived in?
Ware: Yeah, it’s a combination of the exterior of the second building that we lived in and the floor plan of the first that I lived in. Which really means nothing to anyone except me.
Correspondent: How much did the building dictate the dimensionality of the characters? Like, for example, there’s this couple who’s unhappy. And of course, we see that pretty much all the walls are painted blue. And I’m wondering if the blue room or perhaps a yellow background may have influenced where you were going with the characters. And had you thought many of them out in advance?
Ware: You know, I thought them out. But I did not think of the colors as having any influence on the narrative. I guess, if anything else, it was just simply a way of color coding the various floors of the building itself. I find — Charles Burns and I were just talking about this recently — that, sometimes when we sit drawing, we realize that we completely lose where we are in space and time. When I’m sitting at a table, sometimes I’ll forget what room in the house I’m in. Or if I’m even in the house that I’m in. That I’ll even imagine for a second I’m in the apartment that I used to live in. And Charles was saying that he would recently find himself thinking that the sister’s room was right around the corner the way it had been when he was a child. And I’ve experienced it. Everyone has certainly. I mean, it starts off. Proust. And when you fall asleep, you tend to lose a sense of where you are when you wake up in the morning. Sometimes you don’t have any idea where you are. You have to recalibrate yourself.
Correspondent: That temporal drift, I think, informs many of the stories that are in here. Especially the thin stripped one where there are no words whatsoever. It’s all about motherhood and how we see the passage of time throughout that. And I’m wondering. Does this often inform how you organize a story along those lines? Do words often get in the way? Is time sometimes more of an allure than words or dialogue or even blank speech bubbles?
Ware: Well, in that case, there was an attempt to try and give it a sense of the general activities that one might go through during a day. And if I use words, then the segments would be too specific and seem too much like a slideshow of actual reality. Where I was trying to get more of a sense of a general repetition as well as getting a sense of time passing very rapidly. That the strip was inspired by a comment that my friend Ira Glass, the radio reporter and…I shouldn’t say “radio reporter,” but the producer and inventor and progenitor of This American Life.
Correspondent: Well, This American Life has journalistic standards. You can call him that.
Ware: I mean, he’s a great journalist. He’s broken many stories for which I think he doesn’t get adequate credit. But I was just telling him one day over lunch how quickly it was that children grow up and how fast time seems to pass. And he looked up at me and he just said, “Cliche.” And I thought, “I’m just trying to tell you a story here, you know?”
Ware: It is actually true. That it is kind of a cliche. So I tried to write this strip in such a way that maybe it wouldn’t be such a cliche and to try and give it a sense of how the time passes rapidly. How it almost seems like in one day your children grow up.