Chris Ware is deliberately smashing down the boundaries of the graphic novel. Building Stories is an incredible piece of work that comes in a box, and consists of 14 different comics, of varying sizes and lengths, from short books to simple leaflets (including a couple of unwieldy broadsheets and something that resembles the board from a board game). No guidance is offered on where to start, so you can’t help but embark on reading it with a feeling of excited trepidation.
We ended up reading in the order the pieces are arranged on the back of the box, though this isn’t chronological or particularly recommended. It seemed to work well enough, though what it suggests more than anything is that it probably doesn’t matter what order you read it in.
The story orbits around a nameless young amputee, who lost the bottom half of her leg as a child and now lives on the top floor of a three-storey Chicago apartment block. Below her live a bickering couple; while the ground floor is the home of the elderly landlady, who inherited the block from her parents. The stories are about the pursuit of happiness – the overwhelming feeling that something better is just around the corner, if only some of life’s boxes can get ticked (get a job, settle down, get a husband, have a child and move to a comfortable life in the suburbs).
Each of the comics in the box picks up a different set of characters or locations. The building itself is given thoughts by Ware, as it counts the number of births, deaths and arguments that have occurred within its walls. And even a bee, living in a nest in a nearby tree, who spends a day trapped in the basement, is given his own set of anthropomorphised problems to deal with.
The illustration is exquisite, with Ware’s draughtsman-like building housing his characters with an architectural uniformity. Ware’s perfectionism is obsessive and there isn’t a line out of place. His layouts are complex but he connects things with arrows and motion. It’s an incredible feat of comic artistry.
The ‘book’ is challenging in almost every respect. The content is typical Ware, looking in detail at people’s lives and pulling threads of interest from the most banal everyday situations. The characters think their lives are dull and boring, yet Ware embraces this and turns it into an exploration, if not a celebration, of the modern human condition. The book is about the disintegration of expectations, and how our lives just don’t seem to turn out the way we thought they would, even when we get the things we think we wanted.
Building Stories will inevitably leap off the bookshop shelf at you because of its size, but it’s a challenging purchase – it looks expensive and is not going to fit neatly on your bookshelf. Don’t let either of these things out you off. The content of the box is easily worth the asking price and, while I can’t help you with the storage issue, it’s good enough to make some room for.