Building Stories, by Chris Ware (2012)

This is the sort of book that really stands out on your bookshelf, although friends who peruse your shelves might well mistake it for a boardgame. Even the word “book” seems inappropriate, since it’s actually a box containing 14 comics in various forms, from broadsheet to bound volume to zine. When you take the lid off it’s up to you to pick someplace to start. You pick up one of the works and get a glimpse into someone’s life, then have to choose another and repeat the process again, eventually coming to see how the stories connect to each other and interact. The style is unmistakeably Ware’s, who is prone to this sort of scope, but the order and the experience are entirely of your own choice. I’m not sure how many pages it all adds up to, but it took me about as long to read as his earlier book Jimmy Corrigan, which was long (380 pages). I suspect that the unusual format is a reaction to the popularity of the ebook. You can picture Ware at a book launch, smugly thinking to himself, let’s see you digitize this! And while it’s probably been done (comics are as widely distributed legally and otherwise online as music and movies are) it would be a very different experience for the reader. It’s an admirable work, but unfortunately I suspect it won’t find its way to many public libraries.

On to the story: the various booklets trace the history of a series of people, mostly connected via residency in or near a three-storey walkup in central Chicago, which building also gets a speaking role as a narrator and observer of its inhabitants. Like in Jimmy Corrigan, recurring themes are loneliness, and the ways in which our lives intersect and affect each other as if by accident. An inconsequential decision for us could end up greatly impacting the life of a downstairs neighbour, or the insect life in our neighbourhood, and so on. Overall, the tone is notably happier by the end, which makes me wonder if Ware feels more content with his lot than when writing Jimmy Corrigan. Or perhaps that’s just where the story led him. At any rate, another fine work by one of the best writers working today in the graphic novel medium.