The following was originally published on the PLACE blog as part of the'Urban Library Lecture Series.'
The medium of the comic book has long been derided as a medium for children, the ‘nerd,’ or the intellectually impaired. Despite the best efforts of writers such as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, combined with the broadsheets rebranding of the rather untoward sounding ‘adult comic book’ with the haughty term ‘graphic novel,’ the perception of the comic as a conveyor of nothing other than empty-headed titillation still holds sway. A new epic graphic novel by Chris Ware stands in direct opposition to this.
‘Building Stories’ is a collection of stories originally published in a host of US publications including Nest Magazine and the New Yorker, beautifully presented in a fantastically cumbersome box measuring 40x30x5cm. The presentation, along with the intricate story within and the diagrammatic nature of many of the drawings, renders the collection instantly architectural (at least it does to me). Engaging with building stories is a profoundly physical undertaking, a real statement when considering the rise of Kobo, Kindle and the eBook.
The box contains 14 individual ‘comics’ in a variety of media and formats from conventional comic books to newspapers, hardbound tomes, posters and leaflets. The reader is given no clear start or end point, you are merely left to your own devices to rummage through the box, starting wherever you feel is right and navigating your way through the objects as they catch your attention. This way the narrative is gently uncovered, excavated from the box which contains it, much like the apartment building which serves as both backdrop and protagonist in the story.
The story details the lives of the denizens of an apartment building in Chicago. We meet a young couple expecting their first child who have recently moved in to the second floor apartment, a lonely, disenfranchised middle aged disabled woman living on the top floor and struggling in every way conceivable, and finally the old landlady who lives on the ground floor, standing face to face with her own mortality. I probably don't need to tell you that their lives become intertwined, however this occurs in an unexpected and revelatory fashion.
Chris Ware has crafted a narrative so unique it can only be fully understood by experiencing it. The box as an object and as a metaphor bestows ‘Building Stories’ with an architectural air which transcends the possible pretentious nature of such a phrase. This is architectural with a small ‘a’; the experience and individual interpretation of the reader is given priority while the day-to-day grounding of the narrative, dealing with normal people with normal problems in a profound way, makes the story instantly accessible to anyone who opens the box.