Friday, August 29, 2014

Chicago Week: Links Within Links: Building Stories

Since finishing Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware's main project as an artist has been spent exploring two concepts: memory and empathy. Jimmy Corrigan was a was a way for Ware in part to explore some autobiographical issues, like fantasizing about what it might be like to meet his father, who had disappeared from his life years earlier. It was an exploration of family and how betrayals can reach across generations, but also the ways in which the same person can make a horrible decision that hurts one person but make another that winds up giving them a rich, wonderful life. It's also an exploration of longing, of depression and the feeling of being worthless and trying on different lives on for size. It is intensely personal and almost entirely told from a male point of view. Though Jimmy's newly-discovered sister Amy does play an important role, we don't really see things from her eyes.

Since that time, Ware has worked primarily on two projects, both of which were far more ambitious in scope than Jimmy Corrigan. In some ways, Building Stories is a scaled-down version of what will prove to be his real epic, Rusty Brown. The former follows a young woman, a married couple and their older landlady in an ancient Chicago brownstone. It then branches off and follows the young woman in greater detail. Rusty Brown, on the other hand, starts off by introducing us to its seven principal characters in a school setting for two chapters, and then proceeds to go character by character in extended chapters that follow their lives in unusual ways. (To date, only four chapters have been published, including two character spotlights.) Building Stories feels like a sort of warm-up for that kind of intensely detailed storytelling, especially with regard to characters who don't necessarily share a lot in common with Ware. The young woman's range of experiences only overlap with Ware's in that she went to art school, but her life following that was radically different. The married man in the building is a brutish wannabe musician who emotionally abuses his wife, a woman who dumped an emotionally needy guy in favor of someone she saw as being more exciting. The landlady has essentially never left the building after being forced to take care of her sickly and needy mother. There are echoes of Jimmy Corrigan to be found here, echoes that would be muffled in Rusty Brown.

Let's go into more detail about empathy. It is easy to empathize with those who are like us. It's not hard to emphasize with the young woman, who has a partially amputated leg. Indeed, the trick with her is not to idealize her. She is flawed: selfish, judgmental, self-destructive and self-pitying. She is also kind, generous, bright and forgiving In other words, Ware seems to argue, she is human. Ware also asks us to empathize not only with the young woman, but also the abusive husband. Empathize is not the same thing as "condone" or "forgive", but simply to understand how a particular person wound up in the place that they did, doing the things that they do, and how they might well be different. The man is frustrated with his life, frustrated that he's not a famous musician and that he has no money. He takes it out on his wife, regularly cutting down her looks and chastising her for things that aren't her fault. Ware gives us a bit of background on this guy; he's an asshole, to be sure, but even assholes need love and are capable of kindness. His biggest flaw as a character is his complete lack of empathy, and that has poisoned the well with his wife. Even when he comes home from work and wants to share a weird story about encountering a nest of raccoons, he can't help slipping in an insult that proves to be one too many.

The husband and wife receive the least amount of attention in Building Stories, and they feel underwritten in comparison to the young woman, the landlady and even Branford Bee, the anthropomorphized sad sack who plays a part in all of these interconnected stories. Ware doesn't quite convince the reader to fully empathize with either of them in the way that he does with Woody Brown and Jordan Lint in the Rusty Brown serial. Both of those latter characters are contemptible and awful in many ways; Lint is the sort of alpha male character that Ware no doubt grew up despising and Woody's contempt toward his family is despicable. However, Ware proved up to the challenge of portraying Lint as a fully-formed human who has harbored deep-seated hurts and nurses bad memories in a way that has an obvious effect on how he treated people later. One can even feel for him as he goes through ups and downs, though Ware pointedly notes that no character's story ends until they are in the grave. There's no such thing as a "happy ending", only a happy moment that is often fleeting. That's certainly true of the young woman, and it's a big advantage of the format for Building Stories.

Rather than a single, linear narrative, Building Stories is broken up into fifteen readable objects, which includes the oversized box it comes in (there are some short strips on the side of the box). There are fold-outs no longer than a minicomic, huge broadsheets, a long hardback, a shorter journal of a single day in the building produced as a sort of Golden Book, a folding "boardgame" comic that has blueprints of each floor on one side and a comic on the back and various shorter comics. No order is suggested by the author in which to read them. This is not just a gimmick; rather, it is a clever formal solution to getting across the other key aspect of this work: the vagueness and emotional unreliability of memory. Memory is a jumble that is far from linear, and it changes over time as our cognitive steady-state shifts. Our subconscious also distorts, alters or buries memories too painful or embarrassing to confront on a daily basis.

That's precisely how things play out in Building Stories, as the young woman is contacted by an old high school boyfriend. At first, she's flattered by the attention. Then, she becomes annoyed by his neediness (a recurring motif for some of the men in the book) but remembers that she broke up with him on their prom night, an act of cruelty that she had wiped away. Memories of being miserable and living alone are wiped away when she experiences a moment of unhappiness being a mother and wife. Being angry at a friend for mocking her living in suburbia is buried when said friend commits suicide.

In general, the shorter pieces do a better job of getting across that sensation of memory being a burst of emotionally charged information than the broadsheets. The longer book (an updated version of Acme Novelty Library #18) is by itself a tour-de-force, as it focuses on the young woman right after college when she's a nanny. The formatting of these pages is Ware at his problem solving best. A lot of the comics in Building Stories have panel designs such that they tend to loop around, hop around and guide the reader like they were "reading" a board game.  Ware's facility and vision is such that they remain easy to navigate despite some of his wilder ideas, like making every two pages a gestalt image with a single image anchoring its center. It's the ultimate and most literal use of the grid, giving every two pages its own distinctive theme. We learn other things as well, like the details of her first real relationship as an 18 year old, a pregnancy scare, the death of a beloved pet and finally a real pregnancy that leads to an abortion and eventually a break-up. The book fills in details that other parts of Building Stories allude to and leaves open other topics that are picked up again later. Building Stories also takes a frank look at sex and how one's attitudes toward it change and shift with age, but also how losing physical intimacy is a telltale sign of a troubled relationship.

The "Golden Book" is another remarkable work in and of itself. It's a journal of a single day in the life of the building, with each page representing a single hour. It's different from the other fragments in that it specifically depicts the way that the residents of the building happen to interact. A broken toilet forces the young woman to call her landlady, who invites her down for tea. The exchanges between the two of them are awkward, with each other thinking that they had somehow offended the other, even though both were desperate to feel some kind of human connection. The man and the young woman meet in the basement when her cat escapes, and their pleasantries hide his own generalized lust for her and her disgust for him (even though she had had a dream about sex with him, to her later horror). Even the building itself is a character, as Ware imbues it with sentience and emotions; it tends to like the women who have lived there more than the men. When the wife of the man walks out in a huff, the building even asks her to come back, much like the talking schoolhouse that used to freak out Sally Brown in Peanuts. The Golden Book format of the book (with two extra thick pressboard covers) allows whimsical aspects like the sentient building while still adhering to the mostly quotidian nature of the story. The final page reveals that in many ways, this fragment was really the story of a day in the life of the building, and the residents just happened to be there.

One thing I admire about the Woody Brown chapter of Rusty Brown (it's my favorite Ware comic of all time) is that Ware provides a lot of subtle visual cues regarding Woody's life and some apparently dissonant material in the long story that takes up most of the chapter. There's plenty that Ware doesn't spell out, in part because the story is told entirely from Woody's perspective, but he leaves enough clues for a reader to figure things out. In Building Stories, he leaves few details unconnected and at times perhaps goes overboard in filling in virtually every detail of the young woman's life (except one--how she lost her leg, which made sense because that's a trauma that she may not fully remember and is subconsciously protecting herself from). In particular, Ware spends a long time detailing her later life in a variety of formats. Some of them are incredibly powerful, like the silent landscaped minicomic that's about her daughter, bookended by various attempts at sleep over a number of years. It's evocative and beautiful, especially for anyone who has children. Another, shorter comic that features her narration isn't quite as powerful, even if it does get at the incredible pain a parent can often feel. A scene where she finds her daughter playing with leaves and dirt all by herself at preschool and learning that this is a common occurrence is absolutely devastating. Other shorts where she is despairing her life are also powerful, in part because it's not clear which side is which; they loop right into each other. It's a deadly accurate way of portraying how living in a particular emotion at a particular moment feels like a Moebius strip: there is only that feeling, there has only ever been that negative feeling, and there will only ever be that feeling. It's a clever way of showing how depression is a trap that you can't argue your way out of. Another clever page is one from many years in the future, where the young woman has a dream about seeing a book about her life in a bookstore that is done in precisely the same format as Building Stories, a bit of metacommentary that's funny but also plays as poignant in this particular context.

I read the Branford fragments as both a different way of exploring memory and Ware satirizing his own material. Memory is played on yet again, but this time it's with insects with incredibly short memories. Branford himself is the prototypical Ware sad-sack, and it turns out Betty is much the same way. "The Daily Bee" paper is the more concise and effective of the two "Bee" efforts, even if they do complement each other in interesting ways. That said, they also give Ware to put his truly dark sense of humor into action. The troubles that the young woman experience are presented in a mostly sober manner, though there are occasions when she realizes that she's sort of the punch line to someone else's unintentional joke. An example is when she thinks the father of the boy she nannies for is about to hit on her and she imagines what that might be like before he fires her because her son has grown too "attached' (read: attracted) to her. The kicker is when the father tells her that this had happened before and they thought it might not happen in her case (because, it is implied she was less attractive in general but also because she was missing a leg). It's a brutal scene, but it has the cadence of a set-up and punchline. With Branford, it's much easier to see him banging around a soda can and getting beat up by other bees. His eventual demise (naturally, at the foot of the alpha male of the story) is no surprise.

Ware is a master of visual and verbal wordplay. Even the title has multiple meanings. It's stories set in a building. The building has stories (floors) and stories on each of those stories, so to speak. Ware himself is building these stories about the building's stories. It's not an accident that the young woman's husband is an architect who is affected by the housing market collapse. He's not just a builder, but someone who designs buildings in a manner similar to the way Ware creates stories in a market where publishing has taken a nosedive. There are blueprints to the building that contain stories. The cover has a giant B and a picture of Branford Bee next to it. You get the idea; Ware piles up all sorts of visual details that stretch across each of the fragments as motifs, like the bright color palette and switch between his cartoony style and a more naturalistic style.

Even Chris Ware's side projects are ridiculously ambitious in scope and daring in terms of form. I'm amazed that he attempted something of this complexity while still working on Rusty Brown. That said, what I have seen of the latter work will prove to be his true master work, as he's internalized the experimental nature of Building Stories and pulled from it its most interesting techniques while expanding on them. In many ways, Building Stories is a sort of dress rehearsal for Rusty Brown, only in Ware's case that means several hundred daring pages of the artist stretching himself thematically as well as in the kind of characters' lives he wants the reader to inhabit and understand. By the end of reading the final document, the reader knows everything about the young woman except her name; we are given full access to her memories and feelings over a 25+ year period. The contradictions of different memories, the clash of emotions over time and the ebbs and flows of a woman dealing with depression, loneliness and alienation as well as connection, motherhood and moments of aesthetic bliss are spilled on the page. The reader is asked to take it all in, nudged by Ware to allow her her faults and to feel the same kind of empathy he clearly does for his own creations.

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