The Geist staff were a bit taken aback when our request for a review copy of Building Stories by Chris Ware (Pantheon) was turned down. When I got a copy of it as a gift, though, everything came clear. On a computer screen, the thumbnail cover image looks like the front of a conventional book; but in person, Building Stories is a set of fourteen books, booklets, pamphlets, broadsheets, tabloids, a giant accordion-folding game-board-format schematic and more—all brilliantly imagined and designed by Ware, and immaculately produced, and neatly stacked in a plastic wrapper with a belly-band to keep the bits from sliding around, and tucked into a supersize board-game box with the copyright page printed on the inside of the lid. Wow!
The contents of Building Stories can be read in any order, so that the connections between them come clear, or not, in the same way that memory works. Many of the elements swirl around a woman who set out to be an artist but went adrift in the sea of life and got married to an apparently nice man and moved into the building, which is also occupied by an elderly landlady and a youngish twosome who are perpetually locked in combat. Most of the adult characters in Building Stories are sad sacks—lonely, whether or not they are physically alone, with existential trouble that is occasionally relieved by a happy memory or a bit of fun. The building itself speaks a few times, functioning as a sort of Greek chorus, and seeming positively jolly compared to its inhabitants. But never mind. Angst is part of the human drama, and Building Stories is truly a masterpiece.
Ware is a wicked good observer of the stuff of domestic life (unlike many male graphic novelists, it must be said): his moment-by-moment sequences of weary parents responding to the baby who wakes in the night (Ware’s drawing of the wee baby in the middle of a full-size crib is a heartbreaker); Mum watching as her little girl, dressed in a leotard, demonstrates newly learned ballet moves; Mum arriving at the girl’s school to pick her up (“Why is she just sitting by herself playing with leaves and dirt?”). And Ware’s brilliance as a writer, artist and designer is powerful evidence that the digital medium isn’t the only home of mind-bending non-linear storytelling.