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Haniya Rae: Inside the Box with Chris Ware

October 26, 2012

The new graphic novel Building Stories plays with time, form, and the physicality of the book.

Image of Building Stories courtesy of Pantheon

By Haniya Rae

She’s pregnant in one frame, the next she’s dressing her daughter in a princess costume, the last, she’s worried alone in bed; a typical string of frames correlating to one of the central characters. Each scene in Chris Ware’s new graphic novel Building Stories tugs at the imagination, pulling for missing information where words provide none. As a master graphic novelist, Ware offers only slight hints about his character’s motives, relying instead on broken thoughts and carefully drawn faces to convey feeling.

Building Stories comes in a large cardboard box. The box feels like it should contain a boardgame, decorated on the outside with Chris Ware’s signature bold-type designs and small snippets of the comics to come. Inside there are perhaps a dozen different items, ranging from books to pamphlets to posters, each crafted for a particular sequence revolving around an individual or interactions between individuals in the building. There isn’t anything in the box that is even remotely like an ordered checklist of where to start and where to end.

One of the most brilliant pieces is a book formatted exactly like a classic Golden Book, complete with end pages of floral patterns, a place to write your name. The content, however, is anything but a children’s tale—it details the depressed lives and temporary relationships of a building’s tenants, a group of characters who may or may not eventually free themselves from a circular existence.

Ware loves to play with the illusion of time. Often, the reader is led through multiple days in a small span, via flashbacks, flashforwards, and singular panels where the character, aware that the moment is passing, wishes it could never end. Because each article inside the box is read “out of order,” it is at first frustrating, but after each piece is consumed the appended reading memory is rewarding.

Though the box and graphic elements within it are playful, Building Stories is a serious work. Like other Chris Ware stories and drawings, the themes and content are adult, and are rendered directly. The collection is certainly a monumental piece, and it’s hard to see how it could be experienced other than a physical object. A digital replication, as of yet, would not allow for a golden strip of binding.

Haniya Rae is Guernica‘s assistant art editor. She graduated summa cum laude from the Maryland Institute College of Art where she studied Painting and Art History. Her work has been published in Art in America:Drawing and she was awarded a France-Merrick Fellowship for her work in community arts.

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