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Unfettered Ingenuity and Imagination: Chris Ware's 'Monograph'

There's a real connection made between the artist and his art that extends to a deeper understanding of both, here.

Chris Ware


Oct 2017


Chris Ware's Monograph is a breathtaking retrospective of Ware's brilliant work as a comic artist. His most well-known work is well represented (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, The Acme Novelty Library series, Building Stories), along with earlier efforts, personal photographs, commentary on Ware's process and the evolution of some of his characters, and full pasted-in comics are also scattered throughout.

Ware's style incorporates the ephemeral with the confusion and the emotions of its characters and worlds alongside intricate, impossibly precise drawings that range from character studies to robot blueprints. It's Ware's ability to use his meticulous art skills to convey the messiness of life that works so well. There's a level of detail to his art that can be staggering in its exactitude, particularly when employed in his panels; however, Ware is never hampered by his precision. Understanding when and how to use that detail is integral to his success. One only need refer to his many The New Yorker covers to see that Ware is equally capable of conveying a great deal in a single image in addition to his gift for highlighting minutiae.

Ware's connection to the material in the book is not only a reflection of his artistic voice but it's also an immensely personal account of his life. He writes about formative relationships in his life, notably his grandmother, but also his mother, wife, and daughter, and longtime friends. The ways they've influenced and shaped Ware are shared candidly and add a further glimpse into his art. Even as he laments the previous publishing of his sketchbooks as a concession to having few secrets left, he also includes fragments of his own personal diaries. Despite the large size of the book, these excerpts are reprinted purposely too small to read. It's the kind of perfectly Ware choice to include in a collection of work that leaves little uncovered, some small mystery for a later time.

"And thanks (and apologies) to you, whoever you are, for risking your time and bank account on something as unpromising as an immodestly sized art book about an emotionally damaged midwestern cartoonist." -- Monograph Acknowledgments

Indeed, the size of Monograph is important to consider as it allows Ware to showcase some of his larger works, such a Building Stories or various gallery and event posters, to greater effect. Ware is seemingly never constrained by traditional dimensions of comics or books. His art has been released in various comic sizes, boxes, and figure form. The creativity of Ware's work extends to not only his subject matter and graphic style but also its presentation. The release of a new Ware work is always exciting, not only for the rich content it will surely include but also because there's some anticipation to how it will look, and Monograph revels in offering such a varied compendium of Ware's work.

Ware's comic work alone would be enough to warrant such a book yet, as already mentioned, Ware's creativity isn't limited to the two-dimensional. The various models, figures, and machines he's created over the years sit alongside his many comic achievements and speak to an ingenuity and imagination unable to be contained by one medium. His Quimby the Mouse wooden toy (complete with beautifully illustrated box and mini comic), his working zoetrope, movie viewer, and book delivery machines (and their sometimes accompanying blueprints), and the numerous associated products related to his beloved stories—such as the Rusty Brown lunchbox or Jimmy Corrigan vinyl figure—all represent not only the quality of his art, but also its adaptability.

Ware, like fellow comic artist, Seth, is continually creative. The outlets for his ideas vary widely, and sometimes have commercial value, but not always. Whether he's creating a dollhouse diorama for his grandmother, or making handmade toys and cards as gifts to friends and family, or doing magazine commissions, Ware's commitment to his art is always obvious. The Christmas cards he's sent out from his family are just as beautiful and meticulous as the illustration work he's done for The New Yorker or McSweeney's. The dust jacket comic created for McSweeney's all-comic issue (#13) stands as one of Ware's most recognizable pieces, and it speaks to the ways he finds to reinvent or slightly subvert a traditional form.

The commentary that Ware provides throughout Monograph adds further insight into his creative methods, often with self-deprecating asides. Many of Ware's most well-known characters, such as Jimmy Corrigan or Rusty Brown, are struggling with existing in the larger world around them. Whether depressed, anxious, or in a perpetual state of arrested development, Ware's characters can often be bleak and dark. Still, his stories are not exercises in despair; he finds ways to inject humor and moments of happiness, albeit sometimes small, in their lives. In his notes, Ware is often quick to cast himself as less talented, successful, or even creative than his work clearly demonstrates. Though some may be inclined to link Ware's natural modesty and self-criticism to his awkward and sad characters, they're not autobiographical -- another point that speaks to his storytelling abilities.

There are moments in Monograph that stand out in the surprise and delight they inspire. The paste-ins that are spread throughout the book are a lovely addition that emphasize the way a complete piece compares to the many excerpts featured in the book. Ware's openness in sharing not only such a wide array of his art, but also in his commentary accompanying it, makes Monograph more than just a showcase of his talent. There's a real connection made between the artist and his art that extends to a deeper understanding of both, and reinforces Ware's place as a towering creative force in comics.


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