Chris Ware: Building Worlds
Widely recognised as one of the most important voices in comics, Chris Ware will be at the Book Festival discussing his conceptually ambitious graphic novel Building Stories, as well as appearing in conversation with Joe Sacco
The Skinny: You are at the Book Festival primarily to talk about Building Stories. With a project like this, that was written over a decade, how does it feel now it is in the public sphere? Anything that takes up so much of a life is an inherently personal project, and I wonder if you look forward to engaging with your readership on it, or perhaps even feel somewhat trepidatious?
Chris Ware: I wanted to make something as much like art as I could within the limits of mass production. I was indeed nervous when Building Stories was released for its possible perceived pretentiousness. Despite my worries, the aim of the book, which is more or less about remembering, lying to oneself and trying to understand and empathise with other people, came through somehow. I was relieved and deeply gratified by all the thoughtful and generous things I read about it. Honestly, the book was such a weird experiment I thought it would just sell a handful of copies and then be pulped.
Building Stories is formally experimental, as a series of different reading materials (books, newspapers, drawings) presented loose in a box. I note that Joe Sacco's forthcoming work, The Great War, is also in a non-conventional format. Do you feel that experiments with form are intrinsic to the evolution of the graphic novel?
I don't categorically think that the future of comics lies in the experimentation with materials and presentation, though I think it's a part of the form and should be considered if one is an author who's prone to considering such things. If these books are printed on paper, they're physical objects, just like we are.
In your other event, sponsored by The Skinny, you will be in conversation with Sacco, a prospect anyone with an interest in alt comics will find pretty mouthwatering. From an outside perspective, the two of you might seem quite far apart in terms of the content and look of your work. Do you feel there are similarities in what you do?
Well, I consider Joe a good friend and probably the most reliable bellwether comics has of its own seriousness at grappling with what one comics award tellingly refers to as 'reality-based' subject matter. He's a living example of what one should aim for not only professionally, but also on a simple human scale, which is to try to understand other people and the extremes of human cruelty and sympathy. He uses comics as a medium for seeing and imagining things that are frequently unimaginable. The main difference between he and I, however – other than he's clearly smarter and much better read than I am – is that he writes non-fiction and I write fiction. Or, in cubist terms, he's analytic and I'm synthetic. Or, in comics award terms, he's 'reality based' and I'm – not?
For someone perhaps a little more on the outside of comics, who has read Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories, is the best way to engage with your work more regularly still your ongoing Acme Novelty Library comic?
I'll continue the periodical out of sentiment and the fact that I still like the experience of putting out an irregular, limited-edition hardcover of stuff as I finish it, though it's definitely always the completed collection I have in mind as the 'finished work,' if I may be so bold. I've been working on my other interminable graphic novel for as long as I worked on Building Stories, and serialising it still seems to me to be the most personal and personable way of promulgating it as I go, since I don't tweet or tumbl nor do I have a website. I figure doing occasional hardcover books is more than arrogant enough.
Finally, the Book Festival is acknowledging the place of comics and graphic novels this year with the Stripped strand. How do you feel about representing your work at these more traditional events?
I'm thrilled, but when graphic novels get their own special corners in festivals, magazines and bestseller lists it makes me a little nervous, as such roping-off can continue comics' misunderstanding as a genre (which it's not) rather than its acknowledgement as another way of telling human stories. After all, Nabokov himself conceded that people think not always in words but also in pictures. It seems as crazy to me to believe that thoughtful readers are interested in graphic novels as a general subject matter any more than, say, people who eat would be interested only in baking. It all reminds me a little of that controversy a couple of months ago about Wikipedia's creating their 'women novelists' list apart from the 'novelists' list. Then again, I don't know the solution, and my complaining about it sounds unintentionally ungrateful, which I'm not. Thank you, Edinburgh Book Festival!