The best/worst thing about Building Stories is that it added up to absolutely nothing. Sure, there are minor arcs, imposed narratives — you find out things, other things are resolved, but nothing beyond the petty dramas and frustrations and longings and nostalgia and regret, etc., of everyday life. Which is you know, the ultimate devastation (refusal of grandiosity, meaning). Well, at least to me.
I am new to comics and know pretty much nothing and no one besides the Fun Home, Persepolis, Maus stuff and really liking whenever they do comics on the Hairpin (ha! For real though). But something about comics (just, overall?) is really, specifically appealing. I won’t even pretend to be able to articulate it in the way it deserves, or to sum up an entire genre. But (OKAY FINE I WILL), it reminds me of poetry a bit, in a way, in the way it, er, spends more time with each thought. By its nature we spend more time with each sentence. There’s a picture there! Everything feels very deliberate, and therefore a little meditative. Important. And yet what we linger on and what we explore and what we see, are often sort of goofy looking little pictures. Not to diminish them! I can’t even begin to parse the artistic choices being made here or comment on a style and the way it subconsciously sets a tone or makes us feel this or that or how long it takes to be able to do something like this (a long fucking time, I imagine?). But — and especially with Chris Ware — the drawing itself feels very (for lack of a better word) vulnerable. Exposed in its… bare-boned-edness. There is not a lot to hide in here:
I goddamn hate this baby. It is so weird and pink and bold and takes up so much space (clearly) right here in the middle of this page. Why aren’t there more lines in it? Why does it look like a fucking image vector? It hurts to look at too long, and especially at night. I tried not to.
He said in this A+ Rookie interview that, “comics seemed (and still seem to me, actually) an unpretentious potential vessel for solitary authenticity.”
A refusal of pretentiousness. I think that’s what that baby is. Ugh it hurts to look at.
But anyway what I was getting at earlier was that I know nothing about comics and nothing really about Chris Ware (besides what I learned in that Rookie interview) except that his stuff is allegedly really, very SAD. “Devastating.” Sad Boys love it, blah blah. And you know, what I find sad and what sad boys find sad is usually very different. They’re easy targets — too easy. And their sadness usually seems very safe. [I dunno, that seems flip and irresponsible to say but fuck it, that’s not what this is about — this is about narrative!]
BUT THIS IS NOT SAFE.
Not because any of the plot points (if you can call them that. I mean one of the threads i a cartoon bee, so.) are remarkably sad: loneliness, creative frustration, body hatred. All fairly straightforward and clumsily, quickly told (Chris Ware in his writing also seems to refuse the slick reveal or the showing vs telling etc. More of a bumbler. Which might be the worst in prose but in comics works I guess.).
What feels so dangerous is that when I say it really adds up to nothing, I mean it. There are, if you haven’t read or seen things about this (Pierce’s post about it was what got me to finally throw down the $50), a bunch of different pamphlets and broadsides and little books and littler books and one big thing that folds out like a game board. When I read them I read them as they came out of the box. One after the other, without noticing what time it was. Dustin read half of it standing up over the coffee table, forgetting to sit down. You expect a certain degree of wonder & awe when you unwrap this thing (surely that’s half the point of it), but that wonder & awe is no less meaningful and genuine when it does come. It springs forth anyway. Like two kids at Christmas (give it to someone for Christmas, someone like me who usually cries in the shower that they can never recover the good Christmas feelings of their youth). And you shout out things about it to each other and pass bits along and the order gets mixed up and then you realize there actually is no order.
The characters repeat their stories at different moments, just like life. They bring up old boyfriends or revisit events (redrawn, too), and depending what order you read the pieces in, the backstory might have more or less meaning. You can reread things and suddenly think, “Oh so that guy was the guy who,” and it makes a little more sense (not that it didn’t make sense the first time), not unlike the way we learn things about people and everything clicks into place in retrospect. The stories balloon out and out and go back and sideways and you see them from different perspectives. All of this but not in a movie way. There is no narrator hovering above all this. Chris Ware is not there winking at us. You don’t finish the book and say, “Ah, this means ___.”
I genuinely kept waiting (and really, just, hoping) something would be revealed that would “make it all make sense”. The book is incredibly straightforward and pretty much makes sense the whole way through, but I wanted some sort of meta-commentary or some sort of reveal — something like, And surprise, this whole book was written by the baby the whole time! Or, like, we are on some other planet where the banal trivialities of our lives are stamped onto paper goods, or god fucking knows. But it never came! There was literally no end. And no start. Just some overlapping stories about really pretty boring and typical people’s lives — that was pretty interesting and fun to read! That’s it. And that is…horrifying. See: that’s what I want. I want Chris Ware to be like, “The point of this book is that there is no point. No linear narrative. And this was necessitated by the form of blah blah blah.” But no. I think it was just fun. A delight. Maybe the ultimate sign you’ve made it, too: your publisher lets you print a big fucking box of crap in a dozen different ways, and charges $50 for it. And people buy it. And that’s it! Our lives are small and mean a lot to us but don’t really have any bigger meaning, and that’s it. Noooooooo.
Oh, also, the 2nd most devastating part was (see above) the way this husband and wife duo is always looking at their computers and phones :(