Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Chris Ware on Building a Better Comic Book

Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I feel that a book influences, and has as much of a contributing effect, on the story as the drawings, ink, colors and paper,” Chris Ware observes. “To me, a book is a fairly obvious metaphor for a human body: aside from the fact that it has a spine, it’s also bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and it can harbor secrets. One can either be put off or invited into it depending on how it’s structured and what’s offered as the point of entry. It can affect how the whole story is felt. I like books. They’re my life.”

Chris is sitting in the study of his house, a Victorian holding a Wonderland of old pop culture memorabilia and art. A clock ticks in the background as he sits straight up in his leather armchair, surrounded by shelves housing record albums and books. The soft-spoken Ware’s ACME Novelty Library not only defies the standard comic book conventions, with panel layouts designed to force the reader to physically turn the book, panels drawn at a smaller than conventional size—a less capable cartoonist would fail miserably and produce something unreadable; somehow, Ware makes it work.

“It’s not to exasperate the reader, but simply to find new ways of telling stories that might be more in tune with how we actually experience life,” Ware notes. “This said, I realize that being incomprehensible is occasionally the artistic result. It just seemed to me when I started trying to draw comics that the formal language of the medium was (and is) fairly limited, and that comics may have had more expressive potential locked within them than had been already discovered.

“While I’m working, I worry every few minutes about veering too close to pretentiousness or incomprehensibility. I frequently have to get up and walk around, then come back to what I’m doing to see if it honestly has the feeling I’m going for, or if the panels are in a readable order. Even if it does make sense to me, I still worry that it’s difficult to judge whether I’m accurately reading it or bringing something from within me to interpret it favorably. Needless to say, this is all a tremendously difficult line to walk as a writer and artist, but I think it’s something every writer and artist has to do, to some degree.”
Ware doesn’t give very many in-person interviews, usually preferring e-mail—it’s a shame: in person, Ware is affable and armed with a disarming and dry humor. Earlier, he was winding his living room cuckoo clock and pointed out how aggressive cuckoo clocks really are, when they’re typically thought of as friendly and warm, glossed over with the nostalgia of old things. He is one of those rare people who pull something deeper from the world around him, which makes him perfectly suited as a cartoonist and storyteller of human conflict. 

“Blackbeard and Sheridan’s Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics probably was the single coalescence of early work to change my thinking about comics and what could be done with comics. That book was always open on my drawing table when I was in college.”

“I don’t think I really read superhero comics that much as a kid,” Chris admits. “I think I was just looking at pictures, tracing them, and designing my own superheroes. I don’t really remember many of the stories at all. What I really remember was reading Peanuts and laughing at Peanuts and really loving Peanuts—essentially feeling a real connection to the characters. When I got into college, I started looking at turn of the century comics more closely, both from Art [Spiegelman]’s suggestion and from my friend John Keen’s; John really turned my thinking around about that, and we used to try and find old newspaper sections driving around to small town antique stores in Texas. This was long before eBay, and, needless to say, we had little luck.”

The one strip that perhaps had the most effect on Ware’s comics work—and one that is proudly displayed around his house in mementoes and framed images—is Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, a long-running daily strip that started in 1918 and was the first to have the characters age in real time. One look at King’s clean art style on Gasoline Alley and the influence is apparent in Ware’s work.

“There was a warmth and an unabashed unpretentiousness to it;” Ware reflects. “It was about family life, which really struck me as sort of gutsy and honest, because he wasn’t simply going for stupid gags or mean-spirited humor; he was really trying to get at something more tender and touching. His work made me feel as if it was ‘okay’ to take this approach, as well—and it had been what I’d been trying to do, but I’d been setting up all sorts of self-conscious art school obstacles in front of myself in the process. I just really wanted to put my deepest feelings on paper, and he helped me to start trying. I thought a lot about King’s work in art school and the feelings it provoked; I had a genuine affection for it. Of course, I loved Krazy Kat as well and I love Little Nemo and  Polly and Her Pals.” 

Ware had earlier exposure to classic comic strips—as well as other things vintage—when just a kid, and chances are it primed him for his further education and appreciation of old comics and design.

“For a while my mom dated a newscaster in Omaha, Nebraska who loved Krazy Kat,” Chris says. “He’d bring over the sort of lame reflex blue reprint book from the ‘70s and put Fats Waller LPs on our record player and he’d read Krazy Kat to me. I found the strip utterly baffling, but oddly compelling. I guess a lot of my interests were sparked by this fellow; he even stored a player piano in our garage that I’d play around on every day after school, he being very into ragtime as well as jazz. He was imbuing me with a variety of tastes that were sure to keep me from meeting girls from many years.”

Intent on creating comics, Ware enrolled at the University of Texas with a mixed bag of painting, drawing, printmaking, and English classes. It was during this period of self-discovery that Chris snagged a job at the Daily Texan as art director, where he also created his own comics. The most he seems to have gotten from it was technical knowledge:
“[It was] a job which I realized early on was not something with which I wanted to occupy my life,” Chris states. “It was extremely time-consuming and draining, though it taught me a lot about creating images for reproduction and about printing—an invaluable experience, actually, the full-time pressmen and production people working there as integral to my education as my professors were.”

Ware looks back at his Daily Texan comics with a shrug and shake of the head, treating them as the comics equivalent of embarrassing high school yearbook pictures.

“‘Experimental’ comics,” Chris admits. “Well, basically: really pretentious, bad comics. I went through a whole period of doing comics that were about comics, which is something only an eighteen year old should do (or not at all if one can avoid it.) Then I finally starting drawing comics about real life, but without words, trying to tell stories only with pictures and to get in touch with the rhthym that pictures make in the mind when they’re read (what I’ve tiresomely called for years the ‘music’ of comics—essentially the sounds one hears when reading that can’t really be put into words, and seem to harness some odd, primal energy of emotion and action.) My best friend at the time John Keen and I prodded each other into trying ever more experimental things, sometimes with mixed and annoying results. We compared angry reader letters as if they were badges of honor. He was a really interesting cartoonist and a very intelligent person. He lives in New York now, but sadly he doesn’t draw comics anymore.”

While still at the University of Texas, Chris Ware received a call from RAW editor and Maus cartoonist Art Spiegelman, a call that came with an invite to publish in the pages of the cartoonist’s lauded magazine.

“Hearing from Art at age 19 (or whatever I was) was extremely rewarding, because he had been my personal mental curator of comics from the time I was in high school,” Chris recalls. “To suddenly pick up the phone and have him there on the other end of it was, well, shocking and flattering. And most amazingly, twenty-some years later—more than half my life—we still talk regularly and he’s always very encouraging. Back then I’d send him recent work and he’d write back or call me and talk to me about it directly, though now we’re more likely to talk about how hard it is to focus at the drawing table, our personal lives, and other young cartoonists whose work we find interesting. He’s one of my closest friends and I owe him my life. The same goes for Francoise; I don’t think cartoonists appreciate how much she and Art have done to legitimize what they do, and to go out of their ways to tell publishers and other writers about work they find interesting. I still don’t understand why there isn’t a huge coffee-table book about them both; there really should be one soon, before coffee-table books go the way of the fax machine.”

Spiegelman’s influence was not only vital to the development of Ware as a cartoonist, but helped cement a personal and cartooning philosophy.

“I learned how to structure a page and how to think about comics in a language and not as a genre. I learned how to listen to what was important inside me and to think creatively, but not pretentiously—or even worse, too theoretically. Early on, as a kid, I thought comics were only either for telling adventure stories or telling jokes, but from reading RAW and Maus and his experimental work and via various things that he said or wrote about comics he changed my thinking, from the inside out.”
One manifestation of Chris Ware’s language-based approach was to focus solely on images in his work, eliminating the old “words and pictures” cliché always used in describing comics, deconstructing it by eliminating words from his comics work.

“I was relying way too much on words and using words as a way of accounting for the deficits in my drawing, and vice versa, illustrating my words rather than actually telling stories in words and pictures,” he notes. “Art showed me He Done Her Wrong by Milt Gross in the midst of this, which was an insight; a parody of the Lynd Ward wood engraving novels of the thirties and basically something of a silent film on paper that uses composition, pattern and caricature to create rhythms and associative meanings, it loosened me up. I’ve never much warmed to Lynd Ward, much preferring the earlier Franz Masareel work, though I appreciate and revere Ward’s efforts.”

In 1990, for the Daily Texan, Ware started his strip Quimby Mouse, which was his catharsis for dealing with his grandmother’s illness and death. Ware drew Quimby for two years, and it is work that he (in his introduction to the collection of Quimby) considers his “earliest ‘publishable’ work.”

Going back to Ware’s philosophy of the “music” of cartooning, Quimby employs geometric page layouts, the panels arranged to create a visual tempo between repetition and changing shape.
“Well, tempo and rhythm are really the elements than make up the nucleus of comics, I think, or at least of the nucleus of one way of telling comics,” Ware says. “Other approaches, such as where the artist illustrates text or uses large pictures with blocks of text, are fine, but it just seems to me like the real formal aim of the cartoonist is to try and harness some sense of believable motion on the page, even if the characters aren’t moving. To me, it’s the difference between starting with a melody versus starting with a chord change. I much prefer the former.”

Ware’s work also manifested itself in sculptures, a few of which (including a sculpted and workable Sparky the Singing Cat head mounted on a base) sit in his living room, automated machines that look like bygones of the early 20th century penny arcades. It’s creative exercise in a different medium for Ware, as well as a way for him to have made his creative world much more physical than allowed on a comics page.

“Sadly, the sculptural projects like the automata were more a part of my college days, when I had access to a woodshop and lots of energy and a lot less criticality of my comics,” he admits. “Ironically, the one thing I really wanted when I got out of college was a house with a woodshop where I could continue to build that sort of thing. Now I have a house, now I have woodworking equipment—but I don’t have the time because I’m too busy working on the comics. I find that building things is much more fun than drawing.”

“I can’t look at it,” Ware says of his older work, emphasizing his perfectionist tendencies. “All I can see are the ineptitudes, the failures. Occasionally, I’ll be asked if a particular academic can reprint a page, and the page that’s picked is almost always one I utterly despise. But then while sifting through my files to find that particular page, I’ll sometimes find something I’ve completely forgotten and think,  hmm, I guess that’s mildly interesting,   or  jeez, I just did something just like that but thought I did it for the first time.   Sad. I don’t have a good memory at all, which is a tool that’s fairly integral to anyone who writes stories, so as a writer I have a pretty severe handicap. Then again, I don’t think my situation is much different from most people; I’m amazed at what I will forget or repress, and what others will, as well.”

“It’s extremely important to have a ruthless, pitiless view of your own work. If you don’t, someone else will. You’ve got to try and see it as accurately as you can. I amaze myself with the excuses I’ll come up with so I don’t have to go back and rewrite something due to lazy thinking or planning.”

Ware almost earned his Master’s in printmaking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a program that the modest cartoonist did not fit in. The negative experience of not fitting in (a theme that runs rampant through Ware’s work—in everything from Jimmy Corrigan to Rusty Brown) only reinforced his decision to not finish.

“The snag was an oral report in an Art History class that I couldn’t bring myself to write,” he admits. “I got to the point where I simply could not talk about or write papers about art in a high-falutin’ way, and certainly not in front of a class of thirty of my fellow art students. Now, much to my own irritation, I guess I sometimes talk about comics in something of a brainy-sounding fashion; I guess I was implanted with that way of thinking and I’ll never get rid of it. (My wife Marnie refers to her decade following the receipt of her BFA as her ‘art school detox’ period.) Mostly, the idea of giving an oral report in front of a class just terrified me, and I never wrote the paper. Then years passed and the statute of limitations was up and I was thus without my MFA.”

His dismissal of graduate school could be viewed as a failure to overcome a personal foible, though it’s also a reinforcement of his personal philosophy—a lack of pretention tempered with a self-consciousness and awareness towards his work. Ware’s refusal to view things as “high falutin’” is part of what pushes him to evolve as a cartoonist and designer, even if it happens less frequent than it did in his earlier days.

“At a certain point one just has to keep going and let things gradually change as one works,” Ware observes. “In my earlier days, my work would change much more violently with each strip. Lately, that change seems to happen only once a decade…

“I guess that’s just the way organisms grow, at least in our universe. It’s the shape of life, how trees grow: when they’re small, they change dramatically, but then they become calcified, taking on a particular, solid shape that no shifts little until they drop all their leaves and die.

“I guess that’s what we all have to look forward to,” he jokes in his trademark deadpan manner.
“Chester Brown sent me a letter a few years ago mentioning that he’d talked to an academician who had come up with the idea that one of the most interesting things about comics is that the medium really mirrors the way we remember things, which is as still images, not as perceived gestures or, for lack of a better word, films,” Chris notes. “My first reaction to this was that I thought the woman must be nuts, but then I started to think about it, sifting my memory for any evidence of actual moving images, and there really weren’t any. And if there were, they were actually images I was trying to move in my memory, like puppets. If I remember conversations I had or arguments I had, I have images in my mind of frozen, yelling faces with sounds or words or a memory of sounds and words, but not moving images. I just don’t remember in movies, and that might just be me. Every generation remembers things in different ways. You could definitely say that kids four generations ago didn’t think in terms of camera editing the way we do.

“It really points to the manner by which we recreate our memories every time they’re purportedly accessed.   Cognitive research apparently implies that we’re constantly rewriting our memories, and when we think we’re remembering something, we’re actually pulling sense memories and concepts from various places and simply putting them together, theater-manager style. Interestingly, this process is something along the lines of what goes into drawing comics; everything the cartoonist puts on the page is from his or her memory, the exception being the use of photo reference, but even that eventually filters through some hierarchy of memory, fusion, language, and life to coalesce into what that particular artist thinks is important, which I guess is what we call style.”

Ware’s breakout signature work, Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth, is a narrative exercise in memory, imagination, and how they intersect or conflict with real life. Jimmy started as a weekly strip for Chicago’s New City and soon evolved into serialized form in ACME Novelty Library. Taking five years to complete, Corrigan follows a friendless loser’s quest to meet the deadbeat father who’d abandoned him years before. Jimmy Corrigan is not only the story of the story’s present-day Jimmy, but of his grandfather and father (both named Jimmy), as well; Ware employs parallel timelines, weaved throughout the narratives as the memories and experiences of the Jimmies culminate in the meeting of the three. Dreams play as important a part, with sudden dream sequences offering glimpses into the characters’ inner desires and torments. In Corrigan, Ware creates a sympathetic (and pathetic) protagonist, a well-meaning man-child dealing with a domineering mother and a need of a hero/father figure—be it Superman or his own father.

Jimmy Corrigan is on par with Ware’s mentor’s key work, the serialized and long-running Maus:
“I think Art said this best: in the middle of working on Maus, he felt that the initial drawings, when he was finding the story, were inadequate, and he wanted to go back and redraw the first chapter, but he realized that if he did he’d have to keep redrawing the whole thing until he got to the end—but then, of course, the end would again be different from the beginning and he’d have to start all over once more. At a certain point, one has to just let a work live with all of its inconsistencies, or somehow build this idiosyncracy into the work itself. Fortunately, life is fairly inconsistent, so that makes things a little easier. Every cartoonist works in a different way; some cartoonists are able to edit things down very tightly, which is not something I’m necessarily able to do. I try to make everything in the story integral and necessary, but there are big parts of life which aren’t.”

Chris Ware’s quest for perfection in his art is obvious: his ink line is mechanical, the lines of buildings and backgrounds painstakingly laid out by hand, the lettering still done directly on the art boards. The color palette of every Ware story is just as thoughtful and decisive a part of the story as the story and drawn aspect—all of it coming together into Ware’s narrative music or language. Ironically, Ware’s classically inspired visual style has been augmented with the invention of computer coloring over traditional techniques.

“When I was offered color printing—one really has to realize what a rarity it was to receive color printing as recently as a dozen years ago—I first started preparing my colors using zip-a-tone or percentage separations, which was a process I taught myself and learned about back in college from the aforementioned pressmen and production people. I really wanted to learn how to get or at least simulate the beautiful colors of the early newsprint comics. Of course, back in the early 20th century, the separations were acid-etched by artisans, sometimes individually for each metropolitan edition of each paper, and I was of course completely unable to come even close to this sort of subtlety with dot screens; I’d set my sights on the moon and the results were always washed-out, hue-shifted or simply heartbreaking. But with the advent of computers and digital file preparation, printing is now more than ever able to recreate that intense color and I’ve been nothing but pleased for years now.”

Oddly enough, as Ware was working on Jimmy Corrigan, he met the father he’d never known. Given one chance to finally meet him, Ware was deprived a second when a heart attack took his biological father from him. He surmised in print that the five hours it takes for one to read Jimmy Corrigan equals the only time he ever talked to or visited his own father.

According to Ware, it’s not so much during the writing or penciling that the memories that fuel his work come to the surface, but sometimes in the act of inking the art:
“When I’m writing, I think specifically about the story, but when I’m inking, I trudge over the same dredged-up stories of childhood attacks I’ve been replaying in my mind for years now— real or possibly completely invented; I’m no longer sure. Pathetically, I’ll still get angry about things that happened to me when I was a grade-schooler. But when I learned that Charles Schulz studied and wrote notes in his high school yearbooks, I didn’t feel quite so crazy. I think my generation of cartoonists and the previous generation are trying to hold on to something from our childhoods, trying to figure something out through our work, or change something about ourselves, whether it’s our perception of ourselves or some sort of deeply-buried frustration we never worked out—or simply trying to prove our efficacy as adults.

“I do believe that cartooning, a very memory-based art, has something fundamental to do with a constant sort of revision of ourselves and our lives, the same sort of resorting and refiling that goes on when we’re dreaming.”

Jimmy Corrigan’s collected form gave Ware a higher profile as it raked up the awards—ranging from industry awards like the Eisner and Harvey, or the American Book Award or being named one of Time’s “Ten Top Graphic Novels”.

As ACME Novelty Library progressed, Ware designed paper-cutout patterns that could be constructed into three-dimensional paper models. Coupled with his early 20th century-inspired graphic design and dense, fake advertisements, ACME is just as much a personal testament of Ware’s passions as well as a showcase for his storytelling.

“I suppose most of what I admire is the control and care that the artists put into the work—and I’ve said this a million times—but also the respect for the viewer that such carefully-wrought designs seemed to demonstrate,” he says of the old design. “At the same time, I don’t think this care and respect was intentional, it was simply how things were done back then. It would’ve been unimaginable any other way. There was a controlled craft and a lack of overt sexuality to it all that I find refreshing, an antidote to today’s depravity. Over the past ten years there appears to be almost a rebirth of artists looking back at graphic art and commercial art from a hundred years ago, designers using computers to emulate that finer texture and sense of careful design, and putting more effort into work than they used to, which is nice to see. It improves the general tableau of life.”

“As for the paper sculptures, they’re something of a joke on memory, how we reconstruct things from our senses, literally rebuilding the world in our minds,” Chris elaborates on the thematic through line for most of his work. “But mostly, it’s because I just love those sorts of things; I love paper cutouts and books that have things in them that are unexpected or promise some sort of magic, for lack of a less queasy word. It’s another way of looking at a story, of thinking around a story, or of thinking around a memory.”

GRAPHIC NYC: Your comics, especially, are about memory.
CHRIS WARE: Because that’s what life is. It’s all we have.

Memory is the backbone of the latest ACME Novelty Library, Lint; while part of his long-running Rusty Brown story, Lint focuses on the birth through death of supporting character Jason Lint. It exists as a stand-alone graphic novel while also functioning as part of Rusty Brown’s narrative whole.

“I guess I should be just publishing each issue as individual graphic novels, because at this point, the two collected novels won’t be done until America is absorbed into the economy of Canada,” Ware jokes. “I don’t waste time as much as I used to, at least, so I think I’m working a little more efficiently, and I haven’t had to prostitute my time with any ancillary illustration work since the 1900s. I live a very lucky life, for which I’m extremely grateful.”

Each ACME takes close to a year to complete, no longer standard comic book length, but upwards of sixty to eighty pages each.

“I think readers are already beginning to forget that what started as alternative or underground comics were just an imitation of the shoddy newsstand pamphlets but with different content and some timid format changes, if any. I was tired of that format and didn’t want to work within it; I also wanted to set a precedent for other cartoonists to do whatever they wanted. Strangely, it made a lot of cartoonists angry, as if I was trying to ruin comics, or something. Some thanks!”

Ware believes in the book as object, creating an art piece that is the sum of everything from cover to cover (and in between), during a period where digital printing and distribution is quickly on the rise.

“I think there’s a place both for books and for digital content,” Ware says. “I read the news on the computer and the iPad every night; it’s the perfect tool for news. I come from generations of editors and I love newspapers, but it’s absurd to waste resources on what is essentially the rapid movement of information, especially when that information is changing by the second. Who’s reading Newsweek right now to find out about the earthquake in Japan? If there’s another terrorist incident in America, is everyone going to be standing around waiting at the newsstands for the evening edition?

“I really admire Apple’s design, and feel that the general idea and driving principle behind it almost since their inception is to make information tactile. They’re finally getting to this point now where one can manipulate information with the hands and the body. As designers, they’re also so sensitive in ways that I don’t think any other computer makers understand, as their chief designer knows it has to do with very measured, combined subtleties of tactility and weight and gesture and materials. In a way, they’re almost a nineteenth century company, more sensitive to the world of nature than to technology, or at least respectful of it. I can certainly see reading comics electronically, with the possibilities for inter-penetrability of story and image, but I think comics will have to develop into something completely different before that happens.”

The advent of the iPad and other digital readers, as well as the long-gestating online comic book model, hasn’t garnered but so many truly experimental approaches to comics. Ware took a stab with a digital comic, recently, that taps into the tactile nature of the iPad touchscreen.

“Actually, I did a strip for Wired that tried to use touch-sensitivity as a poetic metaphor for how we manipulate our memories and move things around in our minds, about how the act of touching in a relationship gradually goes from one of tenderness and affection to one of anger and dominance, but they didn’t run it,” Ware reveals. “(McSweeney’s may include it in one of their digital issues, however.)

“Really, I love paper and I love books, and one of the aspects of comics I find so compelling is the illusion of movement produced by drawings printed on an inert substance— but if the medium isn’t inert, the illusion is broken. The disappointment would be akin to going to a movie theater and being forced to sit through a slideshow (which is, come to think of it, an experience I coerced audiences into with Ira Glass.) In short, what’s the point?”

View more of Seth Kushner's photos of Chris Ware and his fascinating personal collection of vintage toys and home-made objects at Ware's World: Inside the Home of Cartoonist Chris Ware at TripCity.Net.

See more of Chris Ware, as well as over 50 other top comics creators in Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics, by Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner, coming in May from powerHouse Books and available for pre-order now.