Building Stories, Panel by Panel

building stories
The Chicago brownstone at the center of Chris Ware’s Building Stories, and a glimpse into the lives within.

Chris Ware’s Building Stories is ostensibly a comic book chronicling the lives of the occupants of a three-story Chicago brownstoneBut 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 YorkerThe 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.

Building Stories

No, it’s not the name of a Talking Heads album or song or…book. Building Stories will be the next graphic novel released by Chicago-based cartoonist / ragtime aficionado Chris Ware. If you’re even remotely interested in comics, cartooning, or sequential art, please pick up any of Ware’s books and I promise you’ll be amazed. The moods and emotions he’s able to invoke with his painstakingly composed and incredibly well-crafted pages is truly mind-boggling.

If you enjoyed Devil in the White City, or your’re interested in the Columbian Exposition, check out Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Ware expertly uses the fair as a backdrop for one of the book’s stories.

So back to Building Stories. Just what is it about?

The book follows the inhabitants of a three-flat Chicago apartment building: a 30-year-old woman who has yet to find someone with whom to spend the rest of her life; a couple (possibly married) who wonder if they can bear each other’s company for another minute; and finally, an elderly woman who never married and is the building’s landlady. The pages to follow in the upcoming weeks will each collect particular events in the life of this building and its tenants for one hour out of a day (23 September, 2000) as it passes from midnight to midnight. (Sticklers for accuracy are welcome to investigate Midwestern weather and American news reports for the 24th to see if, by proxy, my more quotidian reportage is to be trusted.)”

Some preview pages via The Independent.:

Additional preview images, as well as larger versions of these images, can be seen over at The Independent.

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