Author and artist: Chris Ware
Type: Fiction, comic
I read it: December 2014
Building Stories sits on the shelf like a board game. Open its heavy rectangular box and there is even a sturdy piece that unfolds like a playing board itself. While there are no miniature figurines to set up, there is a wide range of paper shapes and sizes that make up the comic. Some are small pamphlets, some are large and folded like newspapers, one has the binding and design of a Little Golden Book from childhood.
The form is the content, they say, and the fractured essence of these separate pieces forces you to, yes, build a story. There is no page one. Each individual part reads logically within itself, and there are few enough characters that every part ties in with whichever part you pick up next. The main protagonist, who I don’t think is ever named, is a young-to-middle-aged woman we get to know over a span of years. A lot of her story is during college and post-college, when she has relationship woes and battles loneliness. She has a prosthetic leg, slipping aspirations of being an artist, and deals with weight and other body issues. She spends a lot of time with her cat. Eventually, she has a daughter, and we also get glimpses of childhood feelings that resurface.
Other characters include an elderly landlady, a well-meaning but unlucky bee named Branford (The Best Bee in the World!), and the building itself. The title pulls double duty and asks you to consider the stories of the buildings we live in. This was the most intriguing part, having lived in plenty of apartments, including something similar to this three-story structure that sometimes even gets its own narrative voice. I think Chris Ware is at his best when visually plotting the beats of how a room feels, how a day stretches before night descends. While the art is clean-cut and direct, there are also crumbs and clothes on the floor. The characters feel the weight of place and time fold in on them as you shuffle the pieces of the story.
Sometimes the action is a little too realistic. Our protagonist can’t seem to catch a break, constantly put upon by the world or herself. It can make for grim reading, even if the bright comic colors draw your eye. It’s deliberately designed to be a story without narrative flair, but I think Ware could have let his creations have a few more ecstatic ups throughout their years.
I’m not sure that the structural experimentation excuses a sometimes monotone story, but overall I think it enhances rather than distracts. Maybe it’s the most creative yet logical way to tell this type of everyday narrative. At any rate, it’s fun to play mix and match and be forced to reckon with a “book” that takes up so much space.