Chris Ware’s Building Stories is ostensibly a comic book chronicling the lives of the occupants of a three-story Chicago brownstone. But it’s so much more than that. At once expansive and intimate, it is a masterpiece of storytelling, a fragmentary collection of sad and beautiful vignettes that began more than a decade ago serialized serialized across several popular publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.
If there’s a central theme to Building Stories, it’s the passing of time – and our futile struggle against it. The comic book is the perfect medium to explore this idea. After all, what is a comic but sequential, narrative art? Unlike a photograph, a comic panel does not typically show a single moment in time but is, rather, a visual representation of duration. That duration might be the time it takes Superman to punch out a giant robot or the seconds that pass while a failed artist chops a carrot. The manipulation of time and space and emotion is Ware’s greatest strength. He controls every aspect of the page, how the story is told, and how the story is read, requiring true engagement from the reader. At times, the effect is reminiscent of an Eadweard Muybridge photo sequence – except instead of a running horse, the sequence depicts a young couple struggling through an awkward conversation at the end of a first date.
Every volume, every page, and every panel of Building Stories has been carefully considered and painstakingly designed. Ware’s drawings are often diagrammatic and vaguely architectural; his page layouts read like complex maps of human experience. It must be mentioned that Ware writes and draws everything by hand, giving the book, with its exacting precision, a sense of craftsmanship. And though it’s not always clear what path to follow, every single composition, whether clean or cluttered, has a profound effect on how the text is understood and how it resonates emotionally. Ironically, given the amount of detail in each drawing, Ware might best be described as an impressionist. After all, a Monet painting doesn’t show us exactly what the water lilies looked like, but how it felt to see them.