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Building Stories h/c (Boxed Set)

Building Stories h/c (Boxed Set) Building Stories h/c (Boxed Set)

Building Stories h/c (Boxed Set) back

Chris Ware


Page 45 Review by Stephen

The biggest, heaviest chocolate box you will ever buy. Chocolates not included.

“This is not a playhouse, understand?”
“No… it’s not a playhouse…”

BUILDING STORIES is constructed around a single, century-old, four-storey tenement house and its occupants: their pasts dredged up during their routine, day-to-day present with barely a hope for the future. From time to time the building offers up its own often whimsical perspective, and there’s also a bit of a bee tour.

Their stories are spun out in different directions within fourteen separate segments of this enormous boxed set: two hardcovers; a huge four-piece portrait that folds out like a games board; thick, broadsheet newspaper comics, several more tabloid-sized affairs and some assortedly formatted mini-comics. Naturally in Chris Ware’s diagrammatically obsessed hands, the back of the box is itself an entertainment, suggesting whereabouts in your own well-appointed living quarters you might “set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents”.

Opening your own copy of this box that keeps on giving is like no other experience in comics, with colours that will dazzle, particularly the enormous broadsheet whose cover comes with the lushest of greens if a leafy, summer suburb in a well-to-do neighbourhood. The hardcovers alone would set you back thirty quid, so I have no idea how Cape can afford this. Still, just in case my euphoria is proving contagious, however…

“Whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else,” writes Ware, “this book is sure to sympathise with the crushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle- and upper-class literary public (and which can return to them in somewhat damaged form during REM sleep).”

That’s a pretty accurate overview of this catalogue of lives lived alone, including if not especially the couple whose light in their love life has long since gone out. The man imagines bringing home an unusual anecdote to which she responds with interest… but instead can’t resist another in a long line of snide remarks designed to destroy her self-confidence, and it all goes irreparably wrong. Over and again his first, ill-considered jibe is, “You’re not going out in that, are you?” before, “Hey! Hey, I was only joking.” He’s the sort of guy who’s jovial on the phone before putting it down and muttering, “Asshole!” What a dick.

The tenants never speak to each other, just of each other when they are speaking at all. Instead they hear each other move about through paper-thin walls, increasing the boxed-in isolation, while the spinster who looked after the building while she still could, who failed to seize on romantic gestures she forgets were ever offered, now thinks of her widowed, bed-ridden mother she cared for until death.

“It must’ve been dreadful being confined to these walls, living under the footsteps of those able to go out into the world.”

It is a work of the most extraordinary empathy. Ware astonishes with his ability to put himself in other people’s shoes, as these individuals dredge up their pasts rather than face any future. As they do so we begin to understand why.

Its centrepiece is a new, slightly larger edition of the long-out-of-print ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY VOLUME 18 (review reprinted below).

At the end of the second hardcover, however, (a day in the life of the building’s inhabitants told in hourly updates) ACME 18’s still unnamed protagonist dares to find hope in an old friendship rekindled during a rare interaction. The tenement in its wisdom poo-poos her optimism for it understands the cold hearts of men and dislikes their disruptive intrusion. It knows Phil won’t call, and if you’ve already read ACME 18 by this point (there is no set order of reading but I suggest you start there), you too will fear for the woman whose only boyfriend up to that point left on a world tour without even saying good-bye. Well, he did say good-bye and also he told her he loved her. But he never came back and he never called it off, the coward. Its epilogue, then, is very well played. I’d look at the date quite carefully.

The epilogue also informs several more of the comics in ways which I never saw coming and I wonder how cryptic I need be? There’s certainly plenty for parents to ponder on here, for Ware is an expert on generational issues, of histories repeating themselves often with increasingly fucked up, quantifiable consequences – as JIMMY CORRIGAN amply demonstrated, and the Rusty Brown saga is in the process of proving. There nature and nurture worked in tandem to compound problems in early childhood which go on to manifest themselves throughout those sorry lives, and one fears for any of Ware’s fictional progeny. Absentee fathers are so often at the root of things, and even during this rare ray of sunshine, so unexpected, that cloud looms large on the horizon during the longest landscape mini-comic here, a comic which is emphatically silent.

Structurally apposite, it is time for a brief, comedic interlude and a look behind the building’s historical curtain to learn what it’s racked up over its 100-year history:

13,246 lightbulbs
68,418 orgasms
32,655,497 water drips
6 suicide notes
2 Heimlich Manoeuvres

The sequences seen from the building’s perspective boasts some immaculate narrative paths, up its stairs then down its corridors and out of half-open windows. It’s seen a lot of tenants come and go over the years, but we never expected one particular tenant to leave except maybe in an ambulance, post-pill-popping. That she had any future, let alone this one, is astonishing.

It is, however, in her nature to dwell, whether alone or not, and Ware recognises the pull of the past: paralysing remorse for things long past, hot flushes of guilt when struck by a sudden resurgent memory. Especially when it’s too late to make amends.

Mortality looms large here: there’s no avoiding it, whether its parents, pets or friends snatched out of the blue, and I think if Ware has something to say it’s appreciating whom and what you’ve got while they’re still there, whilst understanding how swiftly such moments of clarity can be eroded by new irritants, and how easy it is to let friendships get buried under the weight of day-to-day details while you totally loose track of time.

“I just talked to her, like, a month ago*, you know?”
“Mom. Mom are you going to come back out?”
“I know… I know…”

* Actually, four months -- Ed.

Communication – or lack thereof – is another recurring theme. No one really listens to each other in Ware’s works, and so often here the relatively comfortable couple in their new suburban enclave sit opposite each other, absorbed in their own individual laptops or tablets which light up their faces, their attention focussed on anything and everything except each other.

BUILDING STORIES, as it says, “requires some assembly”, but the order in which you assemble then devour each segment is entirely up to you. As you do so you’ll find they do fit together, scenes in one component being revisited in others, shedding light on a scene you thought perfectly complete or after wondering what Ware was getting.

It’s all wonderfully indulgent, including The Daily Bee, a newspaper devoted to Branford, the Best Bee In The World, himself in a marital crisis born of way too much self-awareness and a moral conscience to boot. And then a window’s reflection of a flower fools him and, oh dear, bees are stupid, aren’t they? Also, in his mini-comic: why you should never drink out of a Coke can in summer.

Many, many thanks to Joe at Jonathan Cape for securing me a rare advance copy of the single comics project I have most desperately wanted to get hold of in my entire career. At the time of typing it is assembled in all its three-dimensional glory behind the Page 45 counter. Come in and gawp, we implore you!

Acme Novelty Library 18 (included in Building Stories)

"I am entirely, 100%, horrifyingly alone."

From Chris Ware, Master Craftsman, his strongest work yet. A self-contained volume, it opens with a young woman lying alone on her bed, curled up all foetal, trying to block out her own black thoughts which go round in circles but which boil down to this: "Is it possible to hate yourself to death? If it is, I'm trying..."

Beds prove to be the way that she measures the phases in her life. In only two of them is she not alone: one at the apartment of the boyfriend she once had, one in her old room at her parents' house, where she takes that boyfriend at Christmas. Now...?

"Whenever I go home, I sleep on a sofa bed, since my Mom turned my old room into an office a few years ago. I don't mind, though... because it helps me keep all the pieces in place."

And there she is at four different times of her life in four different places in that single room. Over and over again we see her lying largely on her back staring up at the ceiling, until the final, silent page plays itself out...

It is one long, adult lifetime of isolation and loneliness as she rakes over her memories, and you might notice I've used the words "she" and "her" rather a lot so far, because in so surprisingly few panels is she ever being talked to that I don't think we ever even learn her name. Her mother calls her "honey" a couple of times, and the family she lives with briefly after minding their house for a year on her own, refers to her solely as "Nanna". Otherwise she lies, sits or stands alone, boxed in by the panels like the ripe and colourful fruit boxed in at the market.

Flowers recur throughout the book as well. The first is a daisy-like flower which she plucks from beside her tenement's stone steps, carries upstairs to her apartment, "arranges" alone in an old jam jar and then sits and stares at. (She is very sedentary, and with good reason, but since it only dawns on you gradually within the book, I'll leave that for you to discover). She works at a florists, which she opens on her own, having been left a note by the owner/manager. There the blooms are splendid sprays of beauty and colour, the lilies like labia - and if you think I'm stretching things there, I can assure you I'm not and must warn you of one particularly explicit image here in case you leave it lying around the family home before reading it - in marked contrast to her own dowdy and sexless existence. Although she did have a boyfriend once, if you remember, and therein lies a secret...

Now, I'm very aware that all this talk of depression, loneliness and despair sounds like a bit of a downer. It is. It is, if that is your life through no fault of your own. For once, you see, Chris has created a character who is neither culpably repulsive nor feeble nor socially inept. This woman is actually kind, compassionate, and yet her treatment (when she is being treated at all) has left her entirely without hope for her own happiness or future. It's a terrible existence and it is upsetting, but it is some individuals' existence and well worth reading about. It's certainly very affectingly accomplished.

As lavish and lovingly coloured as ever, the pages here are a contrast of fixed, ruled lines around soft, shapely bodies. It's the very pinnacle of ligne claire. They also range from large double-page spreads as a tenement building charts its own history (""It's been a good life," it thought, shedding a shingle") to densely patterned pages of tiny panels, and herein lies my caveat for those unused to the trickier compositions of comics, for even I had to spend some time on a few of the pages pre-planning what order to read the maze of memories in. I'm thinking specifically of those spent as Nanny to the family's son. These double pages are arranged around a central photograph. If you look closely you'll see a few helpful directional lines, but mostly it's a matter of simply reading the left hand page and then the right, rather than being seduced across the spread.

If this is your introduction to Chris Ware, fantastic. I try not to use the word "genius" in reviews except glibly, but you are about to be introduced to someone whose own power of imagination and level of skill equals, in its own unique way, that of Alan Moore or Dave Sim. At which point people right-minded do tend to use the word "genius".