Welcome back to Explicitly Graphic, a monthly column by Cynthia Clark Harvey (who's working on a graphic novel of her own). From time to time, Harvey will review graphic novels, talk to artists, and dive into the scene of all things explicitly graphic. Today, she unwraps Building Stories by Chris Ware.
I can be a little (a lot) contrarian when it comes to a thing that's "universally" acclaimed. Take, for instance, the original Star Wars. When it came out, everybody who'd ever gone to a movie was seeing it and talking about it, from 9 year old neighbor boys to their parents and beyond.
Once I heard exclamations over the bar scene and the flight sequences and the robots and Chewbacca and dreamy Harrison Ford, I was over it. I felt like I'd seen it. Until I actually did see it in a theater a couple of years after it was released. I LOVED it. I loved it so much I was embarrassed how much I loved it.
So it was with Chris Ware's new graphic novel Building Stories, the culmination of 10 years of work. I saw tantalizing hints of it in May at the Comics Conference in Chicago, heard him speak on a couple of panels and was resolved to get a copy of it the minute it was released.
Then, boom, in October, it was released, immediately had praise heaped upon it, sold out of its initial print run of 40,000 (miniscule by 50 Shades or Hunger Games standards, but substantial by graphic novel standards).
There I was, standing on the outside looking in, grousing: I know it's about the occupants of a Chicago apartment building, I've already heard that it comes in a box, has 14 different pieces that can be read (examined?) in any order, has a fold up game-like board, abysmally tiny fonts in some parts and features a main character who is a one-legged Debbie Downer.
But then I wondered, what if it really is another Star Wars? Another game changer in its genre? What if I am denying myself a delicious pleasure that others have already partaken of just because, if I didn't find it first, I don't want to be one of those bandwagon jumper-uponers, folks who only know who they're going to vote for when they figure out who's going to win?
Well screw that, I decided a few weeks ago -- I want this book -- now named the Number 1 book of the year, amongst all books, not just graphic novels, by Publisher's Weekly. So I ordered it up tout de suite and waited on pins and needles until it arrived.
Christmas in January.
Unpacking the box and its nearly seven pounds of printed matter is part of the Christmas-ish excitement. It's like one of those great toys we got as kids, one with lots of pieces to figure out how to assemble.
The box itself is part of the fun, with visual puns and a pictograph on the back that suggests "appropriate places to set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents within the walls of an average well-appointed home." See, just like Mousetrap, but with sardonic instructions.
On tearing off the outer shrink wrap and lifting the lid, I found a neat stack, also shrink wrapped. In order from the top of the stack down, it contained:
- A wordless, horizontal minicomic in a traditional panel style
- One sheet accordion-folded comic
- Another one sheet accordion-folded comic
- A colorful multipage booklet telling the story of Branford the Bee
- A Little Golden Book
- 8 ½ X 11 comic book
- 8 ½ X 11 comic book
- 9 x12 comic book
- Hardcover graphic novel
- Newspaper, "The Daily Bee"
- Game board diagramming the building
- Multi-page over-sized tabloid
- Single page quarter-folded tabloid
Since Chris Ware insists that there is no order in which to read the pieces, I decided to do it in a decidedly unimaginative way. I read it in the order it arrived, top to bottom. This was immensely satisfying and provided me with a story arc, and a physicality of expansion of the stories. The small pieces are at the top of the pile and at the bottom, the size of the tabloids literally make you stretch your arms to embrace the story.
Unlike most sequential art that, because of its very design, ziplines you through the narration, Building Stories is like climbing a rock wall, in that you choose where, on the page, or in the box, to place your next hold. It's hard work sometimes, and I did have to use a big old magnifying glass to study much of it, but it was totally worth it.
Chris Ware's Building Stories left me inspired, awestruck, and yes, as I always am in the presence of great art, envious. It also left me grateful that Chris Ware made it and that Pantheon published it and that people are reading it.
I have to go jump on a bandwagon now.
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