In Chris Ware’s own words:
I’m hesitant to call Building Stories a ‘book’ when it’s actually more like a series of stories collated in a big box, ‘fourteen distinctively discrete Books, Booklets, Magazines, Newspapers, and Pamphlets’ to be exact. These stories explore the lives of the inhabitants of a three-story building in Chicago, focusing largely on the story of a namless middle-aged woman with an amputated leg. Carrying this hefty item home on the tram I thought to myself, ‘gee, this is heavy’ and also, ‘I hope nobody knows how much I’m geeking out right now’.
When I arrived home I opened up the box and spread the contents across my lounge room floor, feeling at a loss where to begin. I’m used to digesting stories in a particular way, through recognisable forms that dictate how I will interact with them and the process through which I will absorb the information. Now all those rules were gone and I’d love to sound very edgy here but actually I felt overwhelmed. After about five minutes of minor anxiety at which story to choose, I finally settled down to read one of the big A2-sized broadsheets.
Chris Ware’s style is original, experimental and evocative. Reading these comics, I had the giddying impression I was reading someone’s diary. We’re privy to characters' thoughts and every minute change in mood, even contradictory shifts. For example, a man makes a careless remark in one panel and his wife thinks, ‘I hate you’, while just a few strips away, he leaves a charming note, and now the wife thinks, ‘I love you’.
I felt close to these characters; Ware’s comics are intricately detailed and to read the pieces I even had to physically lean in close to the pages. As one reviewer said, ‘When you read a Chris Ware comic you can be fairly sure that you’ll end up with a migraine from the tiny writing’.
All these factors, the different sized comics and the way you must position your body to read everything, creates an amazing reading experience that is all-encompassing. I actually felt a bit dirty afterwards as though I’d been spying on the characters while they bathed, had sex, cried and slept.
As with Jimmy Corrigan, the tone is bleak. In this New Yorker article they refer to Building Stories as ‘Chris Ware’s Big Box of Melancholy’. This is quite an appropriate description. Most characters are not happy, and because they are so like the people we know and sometimes even recognise in ourselves, this absence becomes all the sharper.
(The New Yorker article is worth a read as it includes a slideshow of some of the things that inspired Ware such as Duchamp’s ‘Museum in a Box’.)
Building Stories is an amazing achievement, a way to rediscover reading as an interactive experience. Ware takes what I most love about comics, their interactive potential and sensory imaginings, and pushes it further.
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