Interviews

Chris Ware, The Art of Comics No. 2

Interviewed by Jeet Heer


Chris Ware, ca. 2009. Photograph by Yves Tennevin

When you first approach Chris Ware’s house in Oak Park, Illinois, on the western edge of Chicago, it seems like the essence of tree-lined Midwestern normality. Inside, though, it’s a mini-­museum, or perhaps a curiosity shop. The decor is early twentieth-­century middle class: not antiques but the sturdy products of an age when mass production was still compatible with craft values. It’s not unusual to discover a magic lantern, a phonograph cylinder, or a stereopticon.

Yet in Ware’s house, you’re never quite sure what’s historical relic and what’s his own handiwork. Once on his bookshelf I saw a copy of a book I knew well, a hardcover collection of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie from 1970. I was puzzled ­because the cover was unfamiliar, and the book, so far as I knew, had only one edition. As it turned out, Ware was unhappy with the existing cover so he designed and executed a new one for his private use. Ware reacts to anything second-­rate or shoddy as an affront; his house is a microcosm of how he might ­remake the world. Ware delights in finding hidden depths in seemingly antiquated art forms, a tendency also evident in his decision to dedicate his life to renovating comics.

Ware’s studio is on the third floor, in the attic. The windows give him a view of the sidewalk, and on the wall he has a photo of Frank King, the ­creator of Gasoline Alley. He works on a wooden drafting table, cluttered with rulers and other geometric tools as well as a pencil sharpener of the type found in high schools, attached to which is a note from his daughter, Clara, that reads, “I love your art daddy.” Finished pages hang on hooks so Ware can refer to them as he works on narratives that will take years to complete.

Ware was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1967. He belongs to a recognizable cohort of cartoonists that includes Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, and Seth—all of whom grew up in an era in which comics were still a mass-market staple of childhood, easily available on newsstands. As they grew older, they encountered Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Françoise Mouly, Kim Deitch, and other underground cartoonists who brought comics from the realm of the commercial into that of the personal, and embraced subjects fit for adult ­readers. Ware’s generation, which came to prominence in the 1980s and ’90s, took the next step, creating comics that aspired to a greater narrative scope. Although Ware’s work has been frequently exhibited in museums and galleries, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, it has also been praised by fellow novelists. Zadie Smith has said, “There’s no writer alive whose work I love more than Chris Ware.” Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books about Ware’s latest book, Building Stories, Rick Moody argued that “the American novel . . . has a lot to learn from this very convincing and masterful work.”

There was some back and forth as to the best way to conduct this interview. An early attempt at a recorded phone conversation failed, the dialogue devolving into a metadiscussion on the interview form and the pitfalls of transcribed interviews. So we settled on e-mail, a form that Ware was more comfortable in and which also allowed him to amplify many points raised in the abortive phone interview. 

Jeet Heer

 

INTERVIEWER

Is it true that your grandfather wanted to be a cartoonist?

WARE

He took a couple of art classes at the University of Nebraska in the 1910s with vague notions of becoming a cartoonist, but when he and a friend stole some of the dean’s stationery and sent out letters to all the fraternities requiring them to appear at the gymnasium for mandatory VD testing, his college career ended abruptly. He managed to land a job at a newspaper in Lincoln, though, eventually ending up at the Omaha World-Herald, where he worked his way up to sportswriter and editor in the twenties. As late as the 1970s he would still doodle thick-mustached, celluloid-collared cartoon characters for me, the remnants of his earliest ambitions.

Later, as managing editor of the paper, he was responsible for what comics appeared and so was on friendly speaking terms with syndicated cartoonists like Bill Holman and Walt Kelly. He was also one of the earlier editors to add Peanuts. A few of these cartoonists sent him hand-drawn Christmas cards, some of which he framed and hung in his basement office. A few of the guys would even call him up at home. My mom says she remembers talking to Milton Caniff on the phone as a little girl.

INTERVIEWER

She ended up in newspapers, too.

WARE

She did. When she and my father split shortly after I was born, she took a job at the World-Herald and worked very hard to prove herself there, not only as a woman in what was considered a man’s job, but also as the daughter of the managing editor. She quickly became a part of various lunch clubs and occasional afternoon bar hops with the older guys at the paper and held her own both intellectually and professionally. She was, and still is, an excellent writer, to say nothing of extremely smart. When Art Spiegelman met her at my home in Chicago, he called her a “firecracker.”

As a kid, I’d go downtown with her on weekends when she was ­writing or editing a story and sit upstairs at one of the empty desks and draw, or I’d wander around and look at the drafting tables in the art ­department. I was amazed at the careful work those guys did, and it especially fascinated me to see how a drawing could be transferred from one piece of paper to a plate of metal to thousands of copies printed out on the rumbling presses below.

But because she had to work to support me, I also spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house, and I became very close to them, especially to my grandmother. I’d sit with her at the kitchen table and listen for hours while she told me stories of her childhood and the early years of marriage to my grandfather, memories of the two of them going to bathtub-gin parties and getting so hammered they could hardly drive home, or simple memories of growing up at the turn of the century and the smells and sensations of, well, everything she could recall. She had a genuine talent for storytelling, a peculiar ear and eye for detail and for lively words, which made me feel like I was time traveling when I listened to her. I’m certain that it was this evocative warmth and her peculiar, almost songlike sense of syntax that made me want to become a writer. Or at least a version of one.

INTERVIEWER

What part did comics play in your life when you were growing up?

WARE

I misguidedly viewed superhero comics as a sort of preview of my upcoming adult life and spent more time tracing and copying the pictures than I did reading them. I’d replace the costumes with my own and stick a vision of my grown-up face on the muscular bodies, which I suppose indicated psychological problems of its own, but anyway . . . Maybe comics were a way for me to define myself against my more athletic peers as well as disappear among them, because I imagined I had secret powers I would someday use to prove my moral and physical superiority in a shining burst of revelation in the school lunchroom or gym class or wherever.

It was the Peanuts collections in my grandfather’s basement office that really stayed with me through childhood and into college. Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy, and Lucy all felt like real people to me. I even felt so sorry for Charlie Brown at one point that I wrote him a valentine and sent it to the newspaper, hoping he’d get it. I’ve said it many times before, but Charles Schulz is the only writer I’ve continually been reading since I was a kid. And I know I’m not alone. He touched millions of people and introduced empathy to comics, an important step in their transition from a mass medium to an artistic and literary one.

Mostly, though, I watched a lot of TV. A lot. I’m pretty sure half my conscious life was spent “waiting for something good to come on” and ­puzzling over the inner lives of Darrin and Samantha and the Brady Bunch. I was so anesthetized by it that one afternoon I almost electrocuted myself by mindlessly sucking on an extension cord while watching Star Trek. That moment was something of a wake-up call, actually.

INTERVIEWER

What effect did all that TV watching have on you?

WARE

Television was probably my first real drug. I have little doubt that it fired off the same dopamine receptors in my brain that marijuana later did. Specific hours of my childhood day would be tonally defined by what was on. Monday through Friday at three-thirty meant Gilligan’s Island, and so that particular half hour always took on a sense of bamboo and Mary Ann’s checkered shirt, later to be replaced by the tweed and loafers of My Three Sons. I was sensitive to the broadcast vibe of ABC versus CBS versus NBC versus PBS and to how their particular programs made me feel, even how the particular resolution of each channel was different. 

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean?

WARE

Well, ABC always felt sharp and acidic, for some reason, and NBC softer, and I’d associate or think of real moments in my life as being more “ABC” or “NBC,” as if they were adjectives. For years I couldn’t figure out why soap operas felt so nauseating until I discovered it was the thirty frames per second of video versus the twenty-four of film—a very indescribable, felt sort of thing for a kid, like the visual buzz of incandescent versus LED light that’s changing our sense of the world now.

When I started trying to make comics in high school, it’s no surprise that I ended up imitating the feeling and rhythms of television, from the falseness of the characters and situations to the camera cropping of the ­imagery. By the time I got to college I realized that if I was ever going to do anything meaningful, I had to completely detox from TV, so I quit watching it altogether, and I also very self-consciously tried to eliminate any influence it had on my drawing. I came to deeply distrust the kind of storytelling that defined television and movies—the three-act structure with a protagonist that works commercially for twenty-two-minute passive entertainment but has no relation at all to the possibility for narrative self-revelation on paper.

The problem, of course, is that we humans have craved these constructs and clichés, and we’re now so steeped in them that they’ve restructured our unconscious, which any writer or artist trying to deal with re-creating actual consciousness can’t ignore. And which of course has been a concern of contemporary fiction for decades now.

INTERVIEWER

Did you study art in college? 

WARE

I studied painting and printmaking at the University of Texas and took a few experimental film and video classes. I built mechanical sculptures in the woodshop and generally tried anything I could to make myself feel better about my own doubts and inadequacies as a person and potential artist. Thankfully, I received a very thorough liberal arts and literature background, of which I was in sore need, though I was also reading a lot of Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Hemingway on my own time. I took enough philosophy electives that I even considered minoring in it, but I abandoned that plan when I got a C in symbolic logic. While all this was going on, I also drew daily or weekly strips for the student paper. Sort of schizophrenic, I suppose.

When I look back on those years I’m very grateful to the University of Texas for the tolerant, encouraging atmosphere it provided. I’m especially grateful to one of my painting teachers, Richard Jordan, who encouraged us students to trust our most embarrassing ideas and to question the reasons we thought we were doing certain things. 

INTERVIEWER

Then you entered the Art Institute’s MFA program in printmaking. What was your experience like there? And why Chicago?

WARE

The tone was a little different there—less “what are you going to do next?” and more “why are you doing that?”—though this may simply point to a contrasting teaching goal between undergraduate and graduate school. I moved there partly to get away from the horrible hot weather of Texas and partly because I knew Karl Wirsum and Jim Nutt taught at the Art Institute. They’d been defining members of the 1960s and ’70s art group the Hairy Who, which had used the language of comics as a means of expression rather than as a stand-in for the empty crassness of modern culture. I took Jim as an adviser for a year, and even though he told me early on he disliked comics, his acerbic and intelligent observations stuck with me. Years later, I met Karl more informally, when he invited me to visit his inspiring, overflowing home studio. I took life-drawing classes from one of the Art Institute’s few remaining figural artists, Richard Keane, who, coincidentally, had taught Richard Jordan decades before. I was lucky to know him and the art historian Robert Loescher, who were both willing to talk about my comics as stories meant to be read, not just as abstract shapes and colors on a page.

INTERVIEWER

Why might they only be read as abstract shapes and colors?

WARE

Well, I was in art school at a time when it was very, very difficult to make an image that said what it meant. My aim was to be as direct in my art as one would be telling a story to a friend. But whenever some sort of genuine humanity or feeling crept into the embryonic art some of us were trying to make, it was almost always labeled as sentimental, illustrative, or sexist—real brain-fascist stuff—and I found that frustrating. Sometimes it felt more like how I imagine the fashion world operates than what I thought the aim of art was supposed to be. 

INTERVIEWER

How so?

WARE

Well, we were encouraged to find that “one new thing” that would define us as individual artists, whereas I simply was trying to figure out a way I could write and draw about everything. I wanted to make art that had its own internal life, in the way that Moby-Dick or Pale Fire or Maus or Peanuts or Philip Guston’s paintings are alive. I found it challenging to convince my teachers that an aspiring cartoonist might also have serious goals, and that I wasn’t drawing comics to follow in Lichtenstein’s footsteps or to say how stupid Americans were but to employ them as a visual language to write about what it feels like to be alive. My favorite criticism was that I was “selling out,” especially since any moderately successful painter could probably make more money selling one painting than any moderately successful cartoonist could make in an entire year of published work. 

INTERVIEWER

What was the difficulty in convincing them of this?

WARE

The problem, as I was led to understand it, was that to make art actually “about” something—whether it was other people or plants or anything—was considered illustration and thus irrevocably aesthetically corrupt. The only way to do it, apparently, was to make fun of the image or couch it in quotes—à la Lichtenstein or David Salle or whoever—all direct hand-me-downs from the scientific seriousness of the Cubists and the ­social criticism of the Dadaists through the so-called heroism of the Abstract Expressionists. Though I guess Pop finally gave collectors permission to ­actually like pictures again, but with a major asterisk.

I can understand and even admire these aims, especially in the wake of two of the most horrible wars in history and the oppressive centuries of wealth and power and rarified culture that prefaced them, but jeez, the quote marks that fine art put around picture making in the mid to late twentieth century just seemed a dead end to me. Sarcasm can only go so far. I just figured there must still be various ways to make art “about” something without making it bad or sentimental. Comics basically seemed a way ­toward this goal for me, especially since they are a language meant to be read, not seen—which is a frighteningly interesting and very human way of perceiving the world, and one that’s generally given short shrift, especially in art schools. None of this is to disparage Roy Lichtenstein or David Salle, however, whose paintings I greatly admire.

INTERVIEWER

Unlike pretty much every other male cartoonist of your generation, you ­never seem to refer to the superhero comics of the sixties and seventies. How did you extirpate that influence from your work?

WARE

Pretty easily, actually. The rhythms and visual patterns in 1960s superhero comics are false and histrionic, especially when applied to what it really feels like to be alive, so I avoided using them. As far as that sort of adolescent, ­adventurey stuff goes, I came to prefer the earlier, more ideogrammatic cartooning of the thirties and forties, like Joe Shuster, Roy Crane, Ray Gotto, Dick Calkins. Their simplicity and awkwardness seemed more human and adaptable somehow. Not that I don’t really admire Jack Kirby’s powerful and almost transcendental slow-motion, heavier-than-a-neutron-star way of drawing the ­human figure—I think he was a genius—but it doesn’t sync up with the way I’ve actually experienced life, or with my own aims as a writer. 

Incidentally, this brings up an aspect of comics someone should really try to figure out—that sensation of weight and movement that every cartoonist brings to the human form via a strange and indescribable connection between rhythm and gesture. Charlie Brown “feels” solid on the page compared, say, to the nearly weightless early Krazy Kat, despite the bold strokes and heavy shadows of Herriman’s pen. Frank King’s balloony figures almost lean into their futures, while Chester Gould’s immobile statues seem cast in some infinite past. Dan Clowes’s have a weird, balsa-wood quality that exacer­bates his Nabokovian disposition as the master clockmaker. 

In short, I think cartooning gets at, and re-creates on the page, some sixth sense—of space and of being in a body—in a way no other medium can quite so easily, or at least so naturally.

INTERVIEWER

Nebraska is a strong presence in Rusty Brown, just as Chicago is in Jimmy Corrigan. How much time do you spend thinking about Nebraska as a place, and not just as a time in your life? 

WARE

Really very little at all, unless it comes up in a news story in the New York Times. I’ve now lived away from Nebraska for much longer than I lived there, so I have little connection to it anymore. When I was a younger artist, Omaha served as a sort of magical lost place that I was trying somehow to regain, but not anymore. The hills, streets, and homes now have a lost-wax shape in my memory that I can turn around and look at from every angle and that makes up the landscape of my dreams even though the places and people are largely gone. This loss of childhood place is, of course, the experience of every single adult human being on the planet, and I don’t mean to whine about it. 

Not that it hasn’t stopped me from occasionally looking on Zillow to see if the house I grew up in is for sale, with a mind to buy it and move back in.

INTERVIEWER

In your comics, there is a strong connection between memory and phys­ical spaces, buildings in particular. Does this have to do with your own way of ­remembering, or with comics as a medium, or some combination of the two?

WARE

I’m vaguely familiar with the idea of “the poetics of space,” and I guess it’s something I’ve been indirectly writing and drawing about for years now, but I’m woefully uninformed about any real theories around it. Whenever I come across some article about recent neurological research, like how our brain connections are apparently not just a mass of spaghetti but are organized around X, Y, and Z axes, I feel sort of reassured that maybe I’m on the right track, like maybe we build squared-off spaces to contain our lives partly because our memories need the same sort of filing system, and maybe that’s why the most effective means of remembering something is to place it in an image of a house, or a “memory palace.” Or maybe not.

INTERVIEWER

Is that why you dont generally use perspective when you draw space in comics?

WARE

I avoid the use of perspective because I don’t think it effectively translates the way we remember physical space into the two-dimensional form of ­comics. Isometric projection, which keeps coordinating axes at the same degree, seems to key in to my felt memory better than any mass of as-seen conflicting angles does. Japanese narrative art embraced this approach thousands of years ago. Plus, perspective simply makes the page a mess, and in comics, composition is paramount. 

Art Spiegelman has defined comics as the art of turning time back into space, which is the best explanation of the medium I think anyone’s yet come up with. The cartoonist has to remain aware of the page as a composition while focusing on the story created by the strings of individual panels. I think this mirrors the way we experience life—being perceptually aware of our momentary present with some murky recollections of our past and vague anticipations of where we’re headed, and all of it contributing to the shape of what we like to think of as our life. I try to flatten out experience and memory on the page so the reader can see, feel, and sense as much of all of this as possible, but it’s really not much different from composing music or planning a building.

INTERVIEWER

How is creating comics similar to composing music?

WARE

Early on, I noticed that I heard a sort of soundless music in my mind when I read comics—especially comics without words—which was created by the rhythm of the gestures and facial expressions of characters as they appeared to move around on the page. This music seemed to reflect the same sensations in conversation when, say, one punctuates one’s words with a gesture or a lift of an eyebrow, all of which seemed to key in to the skills we use to decide whether someone is lying to us or not—like “listening” to the way someone moves—and thus very tied in with the language of comics. Once I realized this engine, for lack of a better word, was running in the background of comics, I tried to pay more attention to it, and then to structure my stories not only around it but on and within it. Rhythm is one of the most important aspects of comics, and not just a rhythm of words, but of words in concert with images and colors, all within the composition of a page and, ultimately, a book.

INTERVIEWER

Someone once remarked that you have a repertory company, which you ­reuse in various works. You introduce new characters using short, disconnected strips, as if to get used to them, then you launch into larger narratives that explore their lives and world. Whats the advantage of getting to know characters that way?

WARE

I think the remark you’re referring to is a complaint I made about my limited ability, early on, to draw more than three or four different people. My wife called it my “Carol Burnett complex,” meaning I really only had a handful of basic facial types I was capable of drawing. For example, if I needed an old lady, I’d just have to put Tim Conway or Harvey Korman into a wig and hope that no one would notice. I think I’ve gotten beyond that somewhat now.

INTERVIEWER

Was this a matter of technical limitation?

WARE

It certainly started out that way, but eventually it became a more considered part of my approach, since any cartoonist has to constantly walk a tightrope between the ideal and the specific. 

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean?

WARE

The question is just how much information you can put into a face and still have it work as that inverted mask, the link to a reader’s empathy that Charles Schulz discovered with Charlie Brown. It’s alchemical, completely immeasurable, but something one has to balance, and very carefully. Occasionally I’ll deliberately put the reader on the outside of a character, because there are moments in life when one feels that way either toward others or toward oneself, but it’s something I rarely do.

INTERVIEWER

You, or rather some alternate-universe version of you, are a character in Rusty Brown. Why did you feel that was necessary or useful? 

WARE

Well, I needed a reprehensible character and made it me. I guess I was also expressing a certain discomfort with the general idea of autobiography in comics. Sometimes I wonder whether drawing oneself is necessarily an honest or revealing thing to do. The truth is, I identify more closely with the female protagonist of Building Stories than with any character who looks like me—and I draw myself a lot in my stories, or at least people who look like me. Rusty Brown, taken as a whole story, is more of a self-portrait than the Mr. Ware character who inhabits it. Really, the ideas and theories we form about others and their motivations are just as much portraits of ourselves as they are descriptions of other people. It’s impossible for them to be anything else, when you think about it.

INTERVIEWER

What role have Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly played in your life?

WARE

They’ve almost been like a second set of parents to me. I met Art in 1989 when he was in the middle of the second volume of Maus and I was in the middle of art school. Meeting him in person and seeing those pages of Maus in progress was a deeply galvanizing experience. 

INTERVIEWER

In what way?

WARE

At that point I was still only doing single-page or short-form comics, and really, no one had done anything as lengthy or serious as Maus. Seeing it all happening right there on a drawing table was like visiting that newspaper art department with my mom—I immediately had a sense of how it was all coming together, that it was actually humanly possible to make serious, long comics.

I don’t think it’s news that Art is also one of the smartest people on this planet. The sentences he utters in regular conversation are more multilayered than most cartoonists’ finished work, and talking to him about comics was very unlike talking to my painting teachers, because he intuitively understood what I was going for and there was no having to explain anything to him. He knew about rhythm and patterning and the positioning of speech bubbles screwing up a page’s color composition, for example.

I often worry our friendship is profoundly unbalanced, as I feel very inadequate offering Art any opinion or advice, especially if he’s bummed out about something he’s working on. There have been times I’ve wished I could help him, but generally anything I say to him sounds platitudinous and silly, ­especially since it’s more than likely I’m throwing his own words back at him, given that I’ve internalized so much of his thinking and ideas. 

INTERVIEWER

And for the past fifteen years, Françoise has been your editor at The New Yorker.

WARE

That’s true when it comes to the covers, and every so often the strips as well. She is also a good friend. There are periods, like when I’m working on a cover or a strip for the magazine, when I talk to her more than I talk to Art. She’s the only human being on the planet, other than Art, who knows how to edit a comic strip. She understands how composition, pattern, and rhythm all add up on a page to something larger than its parts, that taking something out of a comic page can make it collapse, and that you can’t “make the words larger” on a page the way one can with typeset text. That’s like asking to make the bricks in a building bigger once it’s been built. I think it probably has something to do with her training as an architect. 

INTERVIEWER

Youve mentioned that your sense of the possibilities of comics were ­enriched by both Weirdo and Rawtwo magazines that are sometimes seen as being in diametric opposition.

WARE

When I was about twenty, I wrote something pretentious in my sketchbook about how Robert Crumb’s Weirdo and Art and Françoise’s Raw ­represented the two branches of possibility for comics as an expressive medium. I tried to pay as much attention to both of them as my brain could handle, but I guess it was Raw from which I stole the most, with Art Spiegelman being the prime exemplar and creator of the graphic novel, with Charles Burns and Gary Panter and Mark Beyer providing the X, Y, and Z axes of expression to build on, and, of course, with Richard McGuire’s comics cosmically opening the whole language up four-dimensionally with his strip Here.

At the same time, I don’t think there’s an artist alive who draws better than Robert Crumb, and without his example as a cartoonist, none of us, ­including the aforementioned, would exist. His rigorous self-questioning urge to see the world and to understand it from the inside out was and still is the measure by which I and my cartoonist pals judge ourselves—especially his sketchbooks, which inspired me early on to try to see better and use my own in a similar, somewhat derivative fashion. His line is his inner animus alive on the page. Genius is an overused word, but it applies one hundred percent to Crumb.

INTERVIEWER

When I first saw your work in Raw I was immediately struck by your color palette—the restrained way you use color to suggest mood. Thats carried through to Jimmy Corrigan and Rusty Brown, where colors play a role comparable to a leitmotif in music. Where did this sense of color come from and how has it evolved over time? 

WARE

I guess it’s something of a blend between Hergé’s technique and Edward Hopper’s compositional approach. I intend my generally naturalistic colors to suggest the way one sees the world, and my black line drawings to suggest the way one remembers it. Sandwiched together, they more or less stand in for the way we experience it.

INTERVIEWER

You associate color with direct experience and outlines with memory?

WARE

Sure. In a way, it’s really the difference between painting and drawing, if one wanted to be art historical about it. It’s also what the core of comics is—a combination of memory and experience into a simplified visual language. What one thinks of as pictures in comics are really the equivalent of drawn words—words meant to be read, not looked at—which is analogous to the way humans perceive the world. Looking is a part of it, but not all of it. It’s ultimately the limiting effect of language on experience, a ratcheting down of perception by the human mind that begins the moment we learn how to communicate with words and to name things. Sometimes I think it’s why time seems to speed up for adults as we age—because we spend so much of our conscious time remembering rather than simply looking. To say nothing of the distractions of cell phones and Facebook nowadays to help us along.

Beyond that, by modulating repeated bits of color and by playing warm and cool moments and objects against each other, I try to link various parts of a story together, sort of like the way our memories rewrite our experiences to suit the person we’d like to imagine we are, cleaning things up to suit our tastes. We’ve all had the experience of telling someone about an interesting experience when that person stops us to remind us that they’d been right there with us when it happened.

INTERVIEWER

Your palette doesnt always reflect the protagonists memory or outlook, though, does it?

WARE

No. In the case of Jimmy Corrigan, I especially wanted to have beautiful, ­musical colors and patterns contradict a rather morose and hopeless character’s vision of the world, because I do believe the world can in fact be beautiful to those who open their eyes. I sometimes worry I carry this approach a little too far and get caught up in the sensuousness of a page, but again, I believe it’s the way our minds work. The simple act of remembering means creating an edited, “colored” memory of something that was initially probably flabbergasting, messy, and confusing.

INTERVIEWER

It seems like many of your favorite writers—I’m thinking of Joyce, Nabokov, and Updike—specialize in synesthesia, in finding words that have the flavor, sound, or smell of experience. Why are writers of this sort so important to you?

WARE

Somehow, sensations woven into the fabric of the prose seem to arrive with something like the immediacy of real life. They can even get back to an ­almost prelinguistic moment, when all impressions felt “fresh.” Maybe ­because of my grounding in visual art, I’m drawn to synesthetic vividness, especially to Joyce. His ability to implant images in the reader’s mind with what are essentially page-surface incomprehensibilities astonishes me—­poetic sensations in Ulysses that suggest certain shuffling sounds and grainy, hot ­impressions, and only by the end of the page does one realize Leopold Bloom has been walking on a beach.

Comics, in some ways, are already structurally more synesthetic than “text-only” writing, with their combination of pictures and words inducing a flowing sense of movement and sound and sometimes even smell. The hard part is getting it all to work together on the page and in the reader’s mind, which sometimes involves all sorts of unpredictable seat-of-the-pants decisions, like adding in a panel or an image or a color so that something feels right, where before it felt suddenly false. There’s no predicting any of it, especially for someone as racked by self-doubt as me.

INTERVIEWER

When I read “Jordan Lint” I often thought of Updike’s Rabbit books—the life journey traced through the decades, the central character whose cruelty and selfishness are examined squarely but not unmercifully, the familys fate an emblem of larger trends. Aside from those surface similarities, do you feel an affinity for Updike?

WARE

It feels very inappropriate for me to even talk about John Updike. A listing of the titles of his collected stories offers a more well-rounded view of life than my entire life’s work. His writing feels more immediate to me than painting, photography, and film and eloquently disproves that dumb cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words. 

The weird “Lint” chapter was inspired both by Portrait of the Artist and by Updike’s story “How Was It, Really?” about a late-middle-aged man who tries to remember his life but only comes up with a handful of details and dissociated moments. I thought frequently of Rabbit Angstrom and of how Updike said that by creating a character who was more or less loathsome, he was able to strangely allow a little more of real life in. Maybe Updike’s wanting to be a cartoonist in his youth and his time on the Harvard Lampoon had something to do with the outside-in-ness of Rabbit’s narrative distance, despite the books’ eventual paradoxical closeness. In the long run I think it’s the writer’s duty to find some reason to love, if not fall in love with, all of his or her characters, no matter how repellent they may be.

Updike once described writing as something of a moral exercise or ­experiment. Writing is not playing, but now that I have a daughter, I see that it involves some of the same impulses. As Lynda Barry might say, you take Barbie’s and Ken’s pants off and see what happens.

INTERVIEWER

Since you mentioned Lynda, it seems to me that in both her comics and her creativity seminars, she has a powerful sense of art making as playing, a sort of playing that isn’t inconsequential but vital to sanity. Is there something about art making that keeps that playful side of us alive?

WARE

As an undergraduate, I was trying to find a way back into making art that didn’t make me want to kill myself. I felt very embarrassed and self-doubting about wanting to draw pictures that re-created the warmth of my childhood and memories of my grandparents and mom, and the usual heart-stompings and relationship disappointments that one’s early twenties bring left me feeling doubly whiney and vulnerable. I found that the only thing that would fill what felt like a physical hole in my chest was writing or drawing about the pain and aloneness of life as I’d experienced it, no matter how cringeworthy. In this, I took my cue from novels and stories, which I assumed tried to do the same, something that seemed to be the most generous thing any writer or artist could do. This had the side benefit of helping me figure out how to imbue a cartoon image with something resembling real feeling, even if those feelings were very personal. And Lynda’s example provided the clearest path back toward this childhood act of confronting the emotional with pictures, a natural inclination that’s gradually flogged out of us in school and also drains away during the self-consciousness of adolescence. The key is really making art for one and one thing only, which is for itself. But you can’t start that way—you start off making it for yourself and end up, hopefully, with the other. Of course, such a goal seems self-indulgent and even counterintuitive, but it’s a start.

INTERVIEWER

It seems like any substantial graphic novel takes a very long time to make. Spiegelman worked for thirteen years on Maus, Charles Burns spent a decade on Black Hole, you spent seven or so years on Jimmy Corrigan, a half decade on Building Stories, and probably much longer on Rusty Brown. When you work on a project that long, is the sheer duration reflected in the story itself? 

WARE

I’ve somehow convinced myself that this painfully slow accretion of pages is an asset endemic to the medium, the strangest, least controllable part of it all being the way the cartoonist’s drawing style mutates over time, seen most obviously in how Charlie Brown changed between 1950 and 1980. Schulz didn’t plan this metamorphosis, it just happened, and these physical shifts in characters seem to have something to do with the cartoonist’s sense of self in space and time. So, such long-form slowness is one way cartoonists can allow the forces that shape life on this planet to enter into their work.

I think most readers assume that since comics are such a quick medium to read that they must also be quick to draw. My daughter, Clara, makes fun of me for it. She’ll sit down and draw a comic strip in fifteen minutes and say, See, Daddy? It doesn’t have to take a whole week.

INTERVIEWER

All of your books are striking as physical objects. And of course, many of your comics have figures that can be cut out and made into further objects, such as dollhouses. Why is the physical side of comics so important?

WARE

I’ve said this a million times now, but a book can be something of a metaphor for the human body—it has a face that can reveal itself or lie, it has a spine, it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The layering of panels and pages and chapters essentially makes a sculpture in space and in the memory of the reader. I also think there’s a certain poetic harmony ­between the physicality of a book and the ineffability of what it contains, like our bodies with our child selves buried alive inside, to say nothing of what we think of as consciousness somewhere in there as well.

One of the reasons I stayed interested in comics was their potential for getting at the four-dimensional shape of existence, and a lot of my lame undergraduate stuff—pedantic panel-crossing characters, spinning chairs in space—was a sort of unremarkable, self-conscious fooling around with all that, which has had a lingering taint on how I think of the page, book, et cetera, as a “perpetually existing” sort of shape that only comes alive when read. The best comics make drawings seem to come alive on the page and make the visual connections between moments across pages and even chapters concretely explicit, which is a very different experience from looking  at page after page of gray text. Not to carry this too far, but unlike regular reading, which induces blindness in the reader, comics bring together the half-awake “night and day” of seeing and remembering directly on the page. 

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard some readers complain—or worry—about Building Stories that they won’t know the “right” sequence with which to read the fourteen booklets. The premise, I guess, is that there is a secret correct order, which you aren’t sharing with us. What would you say to such readers?

WARE

The point was to make a book with no beginning or end. Anyone who says there is a starting point to the book itself would be, well, wrong. In 2012, the Scottish journalist Stuart Kelly told me that there are 87,178,291,200 different ways in which to read it, and he said his father was a mathematician, so I guess I believe him.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you want to make a book with no beginning or end?

WARE

When we meet someone for the first time, we don’t hear their entire life ­story. We learn bits and pieces and start to put together a sense of that person by mortaring in the cracks and holes around their anecdotes and personality quirks with our assumptions and guesses. Later, we’re able to think of that person more or less as an entity, from all sides and all times, and maybe even to imitate or make fun of them. But everything we think of as real is still always our own fiction. We’re all fiction writers.

INTERVIEWER

Not everyone notices how unreliable the narrator of Building Stories is. Is any one strand of the book realerthan another?

WARE

Well, insofar as the book is a snapshot of the protagonist’s dream-imagining of the book she wanted to write but never did, everything in it is real. That said, there are deliberate contradictions and uncertainties of detail that, I hope, reflect the way we all change our recollections depending on what we’re trying to recall or prove to ourselves. Some of the stories, like the ones about her neighbors, are meant to be exercises for her creative-writing class. Some are her musings about what other people’s lives might be like, and some are purposefully awkwardly written for just this reason.

The ideas I have about my friends and neighbors and what their private lives are like are all real to me, even if they’re assumptions or completely made up. I think Proust was the first to highlight this sense of the imagined-before-meeting and the remembered-after-having-met, and how the two continually circle and affect each other in our memory, sometimes for years. 

INTERVIEWER

One of the most moving parts of Building Stories is the silent long-form pamphlet that follows the main character’s relationship with her daughter from the time the main character is pregnant to her child’s infanthood and then to the child’s girlhood. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work that so completely distills the experience of parenthood, the simple rush of time as one memory replaces another. What is the origin of that particular work? 

WARE

This was inspired by a conversation I had with Ira Glass, with whom my wife and I used to spend a lot of time in the early 2000s, before he moved his radio show to New York. We still see each other once or twice a year, and on one of those occasions he asked me how things were with my daughter and I said, like all parents do, Fine, but jeez—they sure grow up fast. He looked up from his dinner and said, rather accusingly, Cliché! Which at the time sort of pissed me off, but which I later I realized was justified, and I asked myself if I could make a strip that tried to capture this sense of the speed of life without resorting to banality. The strip itself overlays the combined waveforms of passing years and seasons and minutes of a single day so that at sunrise the protagonist’s daughter is a newborn but at the end of the day is nearly twelve and on the edge of her own womanhood.

I think this is the basic structure of all human experience, the morning-to-night and light-to-dark days we live structuring everything from art to language to relationships, from warm to cold, wired to tired, Renaissance to Mannerism, new show to jumping the shark, birth to death—it’s the shape of life itself and in everything we see and feel.