‘Very nice. Who’s next?’
Chris Ware’s new book, Building Stories, isn’t a book at all. It’s a cardboard box, about the size of a board game, covered in bright, blocky illustrations and stuffed with comics. A couple of these are hardbound: one in plain charcoal grey; one with a picture of a girl on the cover, drawing. The rest are paper: some the size of the Beano, some as big as old broadsheets – one is done up as a newspaper for bees, called the Daily Bee, motto ‘God Save the Queen’. Others are mere slivers, a frame or two high. There’s even a comic book that works like a board game: you unfold its stiff cardboard and read it like you’re playing Snakes & Ladders, following an elaborate maze of arrows from frame to frame. The cartooning is old-school: minimal shading, lots of primary colours. Most writers of serious comic books, many of them inspired by Ware – according to the Canadian cartoonist Seth, Ware made his generation realise they needed to ‘try harder’ – fit a sober style to their grown-up stories: Seth’s diachromatic noir, Adrian Tomine’s clean-line realism. But Ware, for the most part, favours the vivid, pared down style of Siegel and Shuster’s early Superman strips. There’s a mismatch, as there was in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, between the style of cartooning and the bleak stories Ware tells; the style makes the stories easier to persevere with.
Building Stories follows the lives of three sets of characters who live for a time in the same three-storey walk-up in Chicago. A young ex-art school student who’s had a leg amputated has the apartment on the top floor; a couple still together despite the man’s contempt for his partner and her growing frustration at his lack of affection on the middle; and a lonely old woman – who owns the building – on the ground floor. They’re all trapped in lives of oppressive stasis. Neither member of the middle-floor couple has the confidence or energy to get out of the relationship, though they hate each other. The amputee can’t get a boyfriend, though she desperately wants one: she places a personal ad in a local paper at one point and spends an evening alone in a restaurant waiting for her date. The old woman is so caught up in remembering her own frustrations – she could never find a man because she had to spend so much time looking after her sick mother – that the presence of her rare visitors barely registers.
Even the building sounds world-weary. ‘“I’ve never seen her before,” thought the building,’ one of the comics begins. ‘“Could it be possible I’m available again?” … Then, snapping to, and though it was embarrassed by the ill repair of its entry … it nonetheless staggered forward from the shadow of a passing cloud and stood up straight in the sunlight.’ The building’s decrepitude sometimes brings the characters together, as when the student goes to the old woman’s flat to ask her to ring a plumber to fix a broken flush. But mostly they remain shut up in their own rooms, thinking about one another: the man on the middle floor fantasises about screwing the amputee in small, circular, blue thought bubbles; she wonders whether his arguments with his girlfriend are caused by drinking or philandering. They’re all constantly shutting doors on each other, and when they do we see the word ‘shut’: not ‘clunk’ or ‘chk’ or ‘click’, but ‘shut’ – the effect, not just the sound. Their isolation is emphasised by each of them having a (Beano-sized) comic about themselves in which the other characters feature as walk-ons if at all.