William Kuskin, Ph.D., of the University of Colorado, Boulder, introduced Denver Comic Con’s keynote speaker, cartoonist Chris Ware, as a man who presents “honesty” as an “antidote to the emptiness we see in culture now, countered by art, even if he evokes a nightmare through that honesty”. Ware guided the audience at DCC through the major thematic movements of his life from childhood through his most recent work on Building Stories, closely interwoven at every juncture with his observations and engagement with art. From Ware’s student days, instructed in art school, where he “felt alienated”, that art was essentially dead in modern times, to his early work creating “wordless comics” in student papers, he encountered the realization that reading comics produced “sounds in his mind like music” and struggled to understand that phenomenon.
Creating art, for Ware, was a process of “relieving emotional pressure”, whether in assemblage works, paintings, or dioramas. He presented slides to the audience of his early strips and “mechanical sculptures” that he created in response to watching his grandmother “deteriorating” like a “failing mechanism” in later life prior to his gradual development of strips and an early collected edition of what would later become his comics opus Jimmy Corrigan. Corrigan’s real push began, he explained, after Ware broke both feet jumping a few feet off a balcony and was homebound for several weeks, leaving him with a stack of books on Chicago history for company, a book which he began as an “emotional experiment”.
Ware spoke very favorably of his work with Fantagraphics beginning in 1993, a time when he was allowed a great deal of freedom to create an “intimate relationship with a book” for readers in terms of format, design, and content, and explained how proud he was to produce the hardcover of Acme Novelty Library at a time when there “weren’t that many hardcover fiction comics”. During this period Ware began to confront “how the human mind distorts reality and changes expectations”, he said, which “leads to human unhappiness”. Working on McSweeney’s was a time when he hoped to produce, “the best possible example” he could “for intelligent, literary readers” to encounter new work and looked to the example of Raw Magazine, which he felt challenged him to a total design approach in a book.
He then explained the basic concepts and movements in Rusty Brown, the story’s movement from birth to death, and the “structure of his developing consciousness” that forms the organizing principle of the work. Ware then guided the audience through some of his work on New Yorker covers, explaining the autobiographical roots of some of the included elements. Ware’s willingness to unveil the connections between his life and his works throughout his talk demystified the process of creation and revealed it to be almost constantly a process, for Ware, of personal reflection.
When it came to discussing Building Stories, Ware was keen to delve into art history and the objects that inspired his fascination. From the initial series of “strips” that appeared in an “obscure Swiss magazine”, wordless for practical reasons of translation, following the inhabitants of a Chicago apartment building, to serialization in the New York Times, Building Stories was something that experienced a long period of construction itself. He described Building Stories as a “book about everything” and a work that has led him to especially question “what tense” a comic is composed in, since to Ware, comics exist in the “past and present simultaneously”. He quipped that this should be the next Ph.D. thesis question for scholars. Examining some images from Building Stories also led Ware to comment on the way that times seems to move more and more quickly in life, and from his personal experience, even more so once you have a child. He briefly explained the digital aspect of his related project for Wired Magazine with “touch sensitive interface”, but commented that the project eventually led him to reject digital format since, he said, “I don’t like charging people money for electronic information”.
Building Stories, he said, is “14 books in a box” with “no beginning or end”, which is like “when you meet people”, he explained, and you “piece together in your mind the stories they choose to tell you”. The idea of a “box of comics” is one that has appealed to Ware from sometime, and one which he finds historical precedent for in differing forms, from sets of games in the 1920’s that included print elements to artists who created miniature imprints of their life’s works like a “salesman’s kit”. These, in themselves, he feels, are “beautiful objects”. In the final movement of his presentation, Ware looped back on his early impressions of art and one of his “very favorite drawings”, the Maternal Caress. The work led him to question all he had been taught at art school about the ways in which “painting is dead”. Recognizing the impression the work had on him, he asked himself, “Why is this drawing so incredibly moving?” and noted that it veered close to sentimentality while avoiding it.
This single strongly posed challenge to his art education kept him from accepting a defeatist view of modern art production. In closing, Ware treated the DCC audience to a viewing of the animated short Quimby the Mouse, a project geared toward a “potential HBO show that didn’t happen”. The enigmatic but gripping animation, accompanied by music and conveying both slapstick and silent film elements, as well as nods toward early animation, seemed to support Ware’s previous statement that some works can be “incredibly moving” while suggesting emotion but avoiding sentimentality.
The broad sweep of Ware’s visually-guided keynote talk displayed an intricate narrative of its own, occasionally recursive, but always building on realizations about the ways in which art intersects with life. Ware’s question about the “tense” of comics, whether they happen in the past or present, or both, seemed answered via the personalized guide he presented. Ware’s comics, at least, are constantly in motion between the tenses for himself and for his readers. Ware’s keynote reassured the audience of the deeply human elements in his works and the ways in which all comics are tied to human experience reframed and reconsidered.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.