The Conscious Materiality of Chris Ware’s Building Stories

“With the increasing electronic incorporeality of existence, sometimes it’s reassuring — perhaps even necessary — to have something to hold on to. Thus within this colorful keepsake box the purchaser will find a fully-apportioned variety of reading material ready to address virtually any imaginable artistic or poetic taste, from the corrosive sarcasm of youth to the sickening earnestness of maturity …”

From the back of the box to Building Stories

Chris Ware’s latest long form work is not a book in any traditional sense. Building Stories is a box that contains a variety of comics: books, or booklets, broadsheets, pamphlets, and strips. The box also contains a fold out ‘game board’ that allows readers to map the different pieces of the collection onto a diagram of the three unit flat that anchor’s the narrative, as well as being another story. If the digital ereader has made anything clear, it is that the physicality of the book is, for most practical purposes, incidental, an accident of time and place. Building Stories, by contrast, is deliberately material in a way that most books are not.

Ware’s design takes the tactile experience of reading seriously. Each story in the box feels distinct not just in terms of emotional content or character focus, but in the way that the reader actually holds and reads the work. The included strips, for example, fold out horizontally, while the broadsheets fold out vertically. These kinds of differences not only matter in terms of how one handles the piece, but also in terms of how one reads and how the time and space of the story is experienced. The perceived progression of a story read horizontally, across a single line, is different from the perceived progression of a story that requires the reader to scan along a vertical axis as well as the horizontal. Having both dimensions also gives the author additional room to add elements, meaning that the perception of, for example, greater complexity from the books or broadsheets is supported by the fact that those pieces of Building Stories likely do contain more information than the strips.

The different forms also have unique affective qualities. For example, there is a casualness to the strips and broadsheets that may call to mind reading over breakfast or one’s first collection of newspaper funnies. The little hardcovers simultaneously suggest a child’s picture book and a more reverential practice of reading; these are books for the living room or the library, not the kitchen or the bathroom. The pamphlets imply a Wednesday afternoon trip to the comics store and a stack of reading for the bed.

The back of Building Stories foregrounds this geography of reading by making suggestions, “as to appropriate places to set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents within the walls of an average well-apponted home”. The reference to potentially ‘forgetting’ or ‘completely losing’ certain pieces within the home points to a feature of print comics that I have been grappling with as I consider what to read digitally, and how to store what I have in print: discoverability, or, more broadly, sharing.

My print library is broadly divided into three collections: boxes of pamphlets, mostly in the garage at the moment, shelves of trade paperbacks, and a few hardcovers, in the master bedroom, and a personally curated sampling of my collection for more public areas of the house.

That latter is intended for guests and visitors, books to spark curiosity about comics. I imagine a similar dynamic at work in Ware’s suggested placements for the parts of Building Stories. Some pieces are meant to be showcased as both books and as works of art, while others are kept more private.

Works in print are individual and separable. Building Stories is made to highlight this quality. In my more fanciful moments, I imagine people at our house coming across different pieces of the “book” and slowly reading the whole work as they scavenge for the different pieces.

One of the least satisfying aspects of reading digital comics is how most are made in the same way that print comics are, as panels on pages, even though formatting for e-reading renders those concepts awkwardly, if not entirely meaningless, at least as we’ve known them. While Ware’s print comics resist straight translation for electronic reading, it is worth noting that he has also produced a comic for the iPad, “Touch Sensitive”, that takes advantage of digital, engaging the reader in ways specific to the medium, in the same fashion that Building Stories engages readers in a manner particular to print.

Ware’s newest work does not simply pose questions about print and digital, but also the variability of form within print. The range of works contained in Building Stories touch on different moments in the history of publishing comics, from 19th century newspaper strips to the modern long form works, “graphic novels”, that Ware himself is widely known for. The collection of bookish items that constitutes Building Stories also effectively deconstructs the divide between serialized comics and singular works, not only by mixing books with pamphlets, strips, and broadsheets, but also by presenting a narrative that can be read as individual pieces or as a coherent whole.

The mapping metaphor employed on the back of the box illustrates a ‘both and also’ approach to storytelling by treating each part as an individual thing, but also as belonging to the same territory. The title, “Building Stories”, comes from both the building shared by the main characters and also from the way in which the form of the work empowers readers to make their own ‘book’.

While form may not dictate content, or vice versa, the two are always related. One of the achievements of Building Stories is how the work calls attention to this relationship in a manner that is playful and accessible and that emphasizes possibilities rather than limitations. Ware’s book is a reminder that the only questions that really matter are what kind of story, or stories, does a creator want to tell and how do they want to tell them.