Chris Ware’s Building Stories | RA Crossroads

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, Chris Ware and a big box lead me down a winding path.


Ware, Chris. Building Stories. Pantheon. 2012. ISBN 9780375424335. $50.
In 14 different pieces (contained in an oversized box), Ware offers readers a story kit full of visual, narrative, and tactile pleasure. The story, of a building and its inhabitants, and primarily of a woman and her longings, is woven, at the whim of the reader, through the selection of what piece to read first and in what order to absorb the rest of the pieces. If a reader begins with Ware’s homage to the Little Golden Books, then the story begins with the building narrating its own history and that of its residents. If the reader starts with one of Ware’s large newspaper-sized sheets, then the cumulative tale begins in the middle of the woman’s story.

The possibilities for reading order, and the changing stories such random consumption produces, are only two of the fascinations of Ware’s offering. Visually the work is astounding, and not just for its crowded, clever panels or saturated primary colors, but for the range of formats used. There are two folded pieces of paper that continue parts of the woman’s story. These act as Möbius strips: the stories they contain on the front and back loop upon themselves and reinforce Ware’s concerns with indeterminacy and meaning. There is a large cloth-covered board, much like a children’s game board, which continues the building’s story and provides a strong sense of physical space. On a piece that vaguely resembles a cross between a flipbook and a coupon book, the woman’s story is extended and complicated using only images. Through all the objects in his box, Ware illustrates his concerns with meaning and construction: creating architecture on the page through maze-like layouts of panels; creating pieces that must be fit together in an indeterminate chronology; and offering a story that seems dreamlike in its demands to impose order on both time and space.


Seth. George Sprott: 1894-1875. Drawn & Quarterly. 2009. 96p. ISBN 9781897299517. $24.95.
Seth offers readers packed pages, with stamp-like panels that flow in tin-solider regimentation across the page—a regimentation that is often interrupted with inserts and full-page single images that evoke the same interest in composition that so occupies Ware. The two artists also share a melancholy tone and a focus on the way memories are constructed. Seth’s sepia-infused color palette of greens, blues, and reds is more muted than Ware’s but no less captivating. He has a number of notable works, including Wimbledon Green, but consider suggesting this story of Canadian TV host George Sprott. In the hours surrounding Sprott’s death, a narrator lays out his life, mixing his history and relationships with interviews conducted after his passing. These are often marked by different colors and within their own smaller universe of panels so that they create a sense of an aside. What emerges is a man who is viewed in different ways by different people, forcing readers to piece him together in a way that is reminiscent of the woman at the heart of Ware’s story. Readers should also be pointed to the work of Jon McNaught for titles with similar visual resonances to Ware’s.

Mazzucchelli, David. Asterios Polyp. Pantheon. 2009. 344p. ISBN 9780307377326. $29.95.
Fans of Building Stories might also enjoy this astoundingly rich comic that traces the life of self-centered architecture professor Asterios Polyp. While Ware works in minute detail, Mazzucchelli draws very large images with sweeping, open panels and color washes in tones of blue, purple, pink, and yellow. As much as they differ visually, they each pay great attention to architecture, the complications of relationships, issues of fulfillment, and the textual and visual play of time and space. The artist is meticulous when it comes to the details of story. His pages seem to overflow with speech bubbles and text outside of panels, with every character’s voice expressed in a different typeface. Every character has a particular color and style as well, which changes based on interactions: Asterios is blue and his wife, Hana, is pink. When they are in sympathy with each other their colors and styles blend, but when they are discordant Asterios becomes various blue shapes and Hana becomes pink hash lines. Time is keyed to color as well. When Asterios begins a new chapter in his life, the pages recounting it are dominated by yellow. When he and Hana reunite after their divorce, she has become green, no longer changing based on his nearness. This brilliant and lovely work should hold deep attraction for fans of Ware.

Hines, Adam. Duncan the Wonder Dog. AdHouse Books. 2010. 400p. ISBN 9780977030491. $24.95.
While Ware is known for his color work, Hines works in shades of black, white, and charcoal as he creates a world in which animals talk and don’t like they way humans treat them. When a militant animal-rights group headed by a macaque monkey commits an act of terrorism, the plot takes off in what is projected to be a nine-volume series. The story, strange and compelling though it may be, is not the only wonder of Hines’s creation. Equally astounding is his dizzying mix of text and image in myriad styles. He layers printed text with handwriting; creates spreads with no text but hugely overscale images; offers collage, precise line work, and astoundingly detailed architecture; mixes vertical, circular, and square orientations of panel order; runs text up the page in horizontal bands; and fills speech bubbles with only icons or no text at all. Like Ware’s work, Hines’s story layers upon itself, consists of a number of strands and loops, and includes plenty of asides that blend to create his world. Readers looking for something as immersive and complex as Ware provides should find Hines’s creation a wonderful next experience.

Shaw, Dash. BodyWorld. Pantheon. 2010. 384p. ISBN 9780307378422. $27.95.
Set in 2060 in Boney Borough, a planned town that is a bit like a futuristic version of Mayberry gone awry, Shaw’s graphic novel follows Paulie Panther, a drug researcher who finds that smoking a local plant allows users to develop telepathic abilities. It is a gritty and grim story, a far cry from the suburban ordinariness of Ware’s domestic tale. Still, the way in which Shaw experiments with form should hold deep pleasures for Ware fans looking for yet more innovative ways of merging story, text, and image. Shaw’s book reads vertically, with the pages flipping up rather than over, and he includes two fold-out grid maps and keys scenes to one of them so that readers can track the character’s movements through space. He also excels at experimental drawing. The scenes in which characters are high feature a form of double exposure and mixed media that effectively represents their mental instability. Once the story moves out of Boney Borough, to a futuristic NYC, he employs a style that is expansive, architectural, and brilliantly colored with bright tones and black lines, evoking a Frank Lloyd Wright aesthetic (as does Ware). Complex, original, and deeply concerned with the use of color to further his story, Shaw exhibits innovation that is a step forward in comics design.


Eggers, Dave ed. McSweeney’s Issue 36. 2011. 500p. ISBN 9781934781746. $26.
Ware’s treasure box of stories is an appealing delivery system, the narrative version of a care package. McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern has been offering readers such gifts for a while now and they make for wonderful exploration. Issue 36 comes in a cube box inked by Matt Furie and includes work by Colm Tóibín and Michael Chabon, as well as a number of other pieces such as an illustrated story, a tiny rolled-up strip with red-printed text, and postcard art. Issue 19 comes in a cigar box, is full of pieces relating to war, and includes a story by T.C. Boyle. A flat box containing pieces by Haruki Murakami, Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, and Sarah Vowell comprises Issue 4. McSweeney’s has long been inventive in its delivery systems. Beyond boxes it has created a stack of mail (Issue 17) a Z-binding book (Issue 24), and a regular book that has a Chris Ware broadsheet (issue 13) folded in an origami-esque way as its cover (with a few extra tiny comics tucked in its folds). While the stories in the various McSweeney’s Quarterly Concerns are not linked, the boxes offer readers a chance to begin reading where they desire, and the rest of the issues offer readers a chance to luxuriate, as does Ware, in books as objects.

King, Frank. Sundays with Walt and Skeezix. Sunday Press. 2007. 96p. ISBN 9780976888529. $79.
Fans of Ware no doubt already know of his deep appreciation for Frank King’s work and in this collection one can see why. King’s Gasoline Alley began in 1918 and is still published in newspapers today, penned by Jim Scancarelli. King’s Sunday strips are of particular note because they offered more meditative, emotional, and lyrical ruminations on various themes and used bright, saturated colors that bring to mind the color pallet Ware favors. Also of note for Ware fans, the Sunday pages highlight King’s early innovations with graphic design. On one page the characters travel through stamps, with the panel edges drawn to mimic the perforations around stamp borders. In another King echoes the various prevailing styles of modern art. In a third he creates a color-block design, and elsewhere uses a stylized woodblock print look. In yet one more he takes a kaleidoscope approach. Reproduced in full size, this giant book gives readers a sense of the early color work and style of one of Ware’s favorite comic-strip authors.

Raeburn, Daniel K. Chris Ware. Yale UP. 2004. 112p. ISBN 9780300102918. $22.50.
For readers who want to learn more about Chris Ware, suggest this introduction to his work that consists of a lengthy contextual essay and a catalog of some of his best and most unique pieces. While the series focuses on graphic designers, Raeburn, who interviewed Ware for the essay and covers his wide-ranging career and particular approach, pays due attention to the comics as well. Its main concerns are Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and The Acme Novelty Library, but it also showcases other pieces, including some of Ware’s astounding and fanciful mechanical creations. Introduce too The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking, edited by David M. Ball and Martha B. Kuhlman. This collection of essays on Ware’s style will interest those readers looking for more detailed and wide-ranging discussions. Both books conclude with very useful bibliographies listing all of Ware’s work as well as a number of interesting articles. Finally, suggest Todd Hignite’s In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists. In the Ware chapter, fans gain insight into his work and revision process and learn about his influences and heroes.

Bantock, Nick. Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence. Chronicle. 1991. 48p. ISBN 9780877017882. $19.95.
Comic creators as diverse as Jason and Ben Katchor have all given great attention to the form their work takes, paying due heed to paper feel, binding, and cover design. Ware does not so much take the concern with the physical nature of comics farther than others as much as he focuses a spotlight on it. Joining him in forcing readers to be aware of the physical embodiment of the story are pop-up-book artists such as Gary Greenberg and the many authors, such as Brian Selznick, who make the reader follow the story on multiple planes. Nick Bantock’s illustrated novel of actual correspondence (postcards and letters) is a great choice for readers who enjoy Ware as much for his artistic talent as for his tactile emphasis. In Bantock’s books readers have to take letters out of their envelopes, unfold them, and read the story in a new form. They must also interpret the illustrations on all the correspondence in light of the developing plot. It is a brilliant example of the illustrated novel, one that not only shares a heritage with Ware but with McSweeney’s boxes as well.

A few extra pieces (in random order):

The Building Stories house as a paper model: and

Fear No Art Interview with views of Ware’s studio (9:30 minutes)

A print interview by Chris Mautner from The Comics Journal on Building Stories

Quimby The Mouse animation (3:30)

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at