I first enjoyed Chris Ware’s comics in weekly installments, starting in 1992 in the free Chicago newspaper NewCity. Many of those early comics centered on the character Jimmy Corrigan, an awkward boy who longs for the father who abandoned him, and a superhero resembling a seedy version of Superman. What few of Ware’s NewCity readers might have guessed is the painfully autobiographical nature of his work. As a child, Ware day-dreamed about escaping his shy persona with the discovery of latent superpowers, and only met his birth father years after he reached adulthood.
Chris Ware: Conversations, edited by Jean Braithwaite, reveals the inspiration and artistic process of the artist through a span of twenty-two years. Many of the earlier interviews were originally published in obscure ‘zines, such as first selection from Chum Magazine (October 1994). One constant through all the years is Ware’s almost compulsive self-deprecation:
DK: Finally, what is heaven for Chris Ware?CW: I guess…if I could ever really learn how to draw really well…That sounds really stupid and self-indulgent. That’s dumb. Don’t even write that down.” (Conversations, p. 14)
Ware’s work in NewCity was eventually re-published in Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 2000). Several full page panels from it and later books are included in this volume, although Conversations is smaller than most of the originals; others are reproduced in black and white instead of color. The real riches of the book are insight into Ware’s inspiration and process. One doubts that many other comic artists would cite Flaubert or Nabokov when discussing writing techniques (Conversations, p. 29). Ware’s meticulous care to create believable, three-dimensional worlds is also worth note: At one point, he describes constructing a balsa wood model of one of the settings in Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. “I realized that at certain times I was orienting them incorrectly and that the sun was rising on the wrong side of the earth and casting shadows incorrectly…” (Conversations, p. 133)
In his recent work Building Stories (Pantheon, 2012), Ware draws a series of panels depicting the main character (we never know her name) describing a dream. She’s in a bookstore and encounters a volume that seems to grow and morph as she pulls it off the shelf. “Someone had published my book! …It had everything in it – my diaries, the stories from my writing classes, even stuff I didn’t know I’d written…All of the illustrations…were so precise and clean. It was like an architect had drawn them…” The nameless protagonist was describing Building Stories. (reproduced in Conversations, XII) As Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Available in the John T. Richardson Library at call number 741.5973 W267C 2017.
I must confess that I did not read all of We Told You So: Comics as Art (Fantagraphics, 2016). Subtitled “An oral history of Fantagraphics books,” it is an astonishing 696 pages long and heavy enough to use for bicep curls. Founded in 1976 by college students Gary Groth and Mike Catron (later joined by Kim Thompson), Fantagraphics grew to become the premier publisher of alternative comics in the United States. Fantagraphics championed cartoonists like R. Crumb, Dan Clowes and (of course) Chris Ware. Along the way, they also survived several financial meltdowns, multiple lawsuits and more than one relocation to a different state. Many of the book’s anecdotes seem to revolve around publisher Gary Groth’s legendarily difficult personality. One loses count of how many editorial staff quit after clashing with him. Still, many artists show deep gratitude to Groth and Fantagraphics, since few others took alternative comics as seriously. Packed with interviews and artwork, even a reader who knows nothing about alternative comics will find something to entertain, like this typical “Gary story”:
Tom Spurgeon: I remember once Gary got a call from a check-cashing place in Vegas. I guess Bill Willingham was trying to cash a Fantagraphics check and they asked Gary to describe Willingham and he goes, “Yeah, he’s about 6’ 7” black guy, shaved head. Early 20s.” Which is not what Bill Willingham looks like. (p. 391)
Available in the John T. Richardson Library at call number 741.5973 W3617S 2016