Comic artist Chris Ware and the language of stories
Chris Ware is an American cartoonist best known for his Acme Novelty Library series (begun 1994) and graphic novels Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) and Building Stories (2012).
His works explore themes of social isolation, emotional torment and depression. He tends to use a vivid color palette and realistic, meticulous detail. His lettering and images are often elaborate and sometimes evoke the ragtime era or another early 20th-century American design style.
Following his appearance at OFFSET Dublin, we’re delighted to share this exclusive extract from his interview with festival founder Bren Bryne.
Is it okay to kick off with some practical questions? I know there are lots in our audience (me really) who would love if you could share some insights into your process. i.e. how do you first approach new work? Do you keep a story sketchbook as well as visual one? Do you spend much time doing research? And of course what type of materials do you use?
Well, first, after I drop my wife and daughter off at school, I make a second cup of coffee and then I waste as much time as I can reading emails, the news and cleaning the house and studio — doing anything I can think of that will keep me from facing the drawing table. Once I’ve exhausted those possibilities and the shame becomes too overwhelming, it’s simply a matter of me sitting down and starting with the vaguest of notions and a blank piece of bristol board, sketching an image that’s been lingering in my “false memory” as part of a story for days, weeks or years.
In a way, it’s something like dreaming while awake, and really not all that different from what a real writer might do, the necessity of producing both the boat and the stream the same, except I guess I do it much more glacially and awkwardly.
Then, my seeing the picture on the page suggests a host of different things I never otherwise would have expected and sometimes even contradictory to whatever it was I thought the story was going to be “about” when I began. In a way, it’s something like dreaming while awake, and really not all that different from what a real writer might do, the necessity of producing both the boat and the stream the same, except I guess I do it much more glacially and awkwardly. I draw in non-photo blue pencil, a nostalgic holdover from the analog days of my youth, and after four days or so when I’ve finished writing the page, I ink it using a synthetic sable hair watercolor brush (series 795 Loew-Cornell #2) and a mixture of inks I’ve been concocting as that industry slowly dries up. Then I scan in the original drawing and color separate it as mechanically as possible in Photoshop using only cyan, magenta and yellow, trying to keep the hues as perceptually opaque as the black line work is conceptually transparent (unless I’m writing something that tries to capture the flow of memory and recollection, in which case I’ll visually approach it any number of ways.) I do keep sketchbooks — one “regular” one, one ink-only comic strip diary (since 2002), a color comic strip dream diary, a second regular one (in case the other regular one is in another part of the house) and a fifth “studio” one which is largely notes for sculptures and other nonsense.
I am always struck by the concept and consideration of scale when engaging your work. The physical production itself is always so well considered and outside the norms associated with comic books – packaging, shape, size, paper selection, texture but it never feels self-indulgent and is always mirrored in emotional scope of stories. This complementary relationship between the physical and the intellectual is so real, its obviously very important part of your practice..
Well, that’s very kind of you to say. I can’t imagine being a cartoonist (the word “artist” is buried alive in there somewhere) and not taking into account the entire presentation of a story from start to finish, but to my dismay, not all cartoonists do, seemingly happy to let others wrap a cover and endpapers around something one has spent years of one’s life on. The entire experience of the book should grow in the hands and mind of the artist so that it can then be shifted into the hands and mind of the reader. I’m rather suspect of any artist who passes along such decisions to someone else — what sort of message does that send to the reader? In the case of “Building Stories,” the idea was to make a book that had no beginning or end, just as thought has no beginning or end, and to make something that reflected the way in which stories orbit, shift and affect each other in our memories, with nothing being “first” or “last” but all, somehow, existing at the same time and in the same place. I realize that aim sounds pretentious but I also wanted to make a book that was fun and promised the same sort of aesthetic “tingle” that I get from Joseph Cornell’s artwork or Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction.
Comics are a surprisingly flexible language, really still in their infancy, and if anything I hope to at least inspire a young cartoonist or two to take their own personal approach to writing ever more textured and strange stories about the experience of simply what it feels like to be alive.
What did you learn about your work in the process of compiling your latest book Monograph? And what do you think your art school self would think of you having such a comprehensive “coffee table” art book of your work?
I learned that writing a book about one’s “artistic life” is not 1) fun, nor 2) easy and, especially 3) that one can’t complain about either. This said, to have declined the very kind invitation of Rizzoli would have been a lifelong regret, and I did the very best I could to be honest with the reader, eschewing the usual art-book tactic of pairing studio photographs of artwork with thoughtful essays by noted critics, instead simply writing exactly what I was thinking and doubting and going through whenever I made or drew this or that thing pictured. I tried to write about odd problems and obstacles I’ve come across along the way as a novelistic cartoonist with hoes that younger or other cartoonists might recognize congruent difficulties and maybe take some solace from them — or better yet, take steps to solve or avoid them. It’s a book about making artwork for reproduction, which, being a reproduced object itself, is a little like operating on one’s own brain. The one thing it isn’t is a biography, at least not intentionally so; if anything, I hope it’s an argument against working the way I do. Comics are a surprisingly flexible language, really still in their infancy, and if anything I hope to at least inspire a young cartoonist or two to take their own personal approach to writing ever more textured and strange stories about the experience of simply what it feels like to be alive.
Can you elaborate on the differences between your comic book work and how you approach illustration?
Comics are a language of pictures and the stories I tell are completely my own and a function of the language itself; the pictures, as much as or even more than the words, suggest the flow and drive of the story itself.
Well, at risk of sounding irretrievably arrogant, that wasn’t meant tongue-in-cheek. Comics, as an art of images that mean what they say, have been unfairly grouped with what at the moment is called illustration, which in the wake of decades of non-objective art is anything that one might look “at” rather than through. (Or maybe that should be the other way around, I dunno.) They also have the uncomfortable taint of being an art for reproduction, which as far as I’m concerned is their great democracy and implicit valuelessness, as well as inculcating a feeling in the reader than they’re not going to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes — and even if they did, who cares? Throw the stupid book away. Comics are a language of pictures and the stories I tell are completely my own and a function of the language itself; the pictures, as much as or even more than the words, suggest the flow and drive of the story itself. I took on magazine illustration in my twenties to pay the rent and I hated every minute of it; the task felt like little more than artistic prostitution, using one’s skills to fulfill a request for a fee. Though maybe that’s my problem, not anyone else’s. My New Yorker covers are always of my own devising and are presented and accepted or rejected as such. I think this is one of the reasons why the cover of the New Yorker has not only the almost singular cultural caché that it does, but also implies a relationship with the viewer/reader that one can sense is actually honest — that one is seeing an artist’s vision rather than someone fulfilling a request or worse, a requirement.
How does your view of your work differ now that there is a hungry and wide audience waiting and watching? Is it an added burden or do you not think of the audience when creating at all?
About two years ago my daughter came up to my studio, sat down at my drawing table and looked up at some of the finished pages I have hanging above my table and after about a minute or so she asked, “Dad, is there anyone alive who’s actually >excited< about this story ever being done?” So I don’t have many illusions what I do is extraordinarily marginal and Oort-cloudish to the culture at large. And that’s the way I like it. I never think about the reading audience other than in a sort of guilty way, i.e. that what I do takes seemingly forever and is probably somehow always disappointing or out-of-step with the world. Then again, I try my very hardest to make work that’s as finely textured and interwoven as I experience life to be, and the last thing I want is for any reader to feel gypped or ripped off. I also think it’s a mistake to try to imagine or define one’s readers, because then one starts to unconsciously write “for” these readers. If anything, I try to always write for those readers who haven’t been born yet. Besides, a portion of (if not, hopefully, a majority of) an artist’s readers are always going to be smarter than the artist is — and if there’s any fact or principle to keep in mind while working, it’s that.