Building Stories (Pantheon)

Chris Ware (Acme Novelty Library) tells small stories in a huge format, using a huge diorama to add a tactile element to these tales of the residents of a three-story Chicago apartment building.

 

n.p., color; $50.00
(W / A: Chris Ware)
 
I’ve never seen anything like Chris Ware’s Building Stories, and chances are you haven’t either, at least in the context of comics. Building Stories is aptly named—it’s not so much a comic book, or even a series of comic books, as it is a set of parts for making your own stories out of the materials provided. It comes in a big (16.6” x 11.5” x 1.75”) pasteboard box and opening it up reminded me of nothing so much as the board games and erector sets of my childhood. The other meaning of the title is that the stories are about inhabitants of a Chicago apartment building, and the building is also a character in its own right.
 
Inside the box are a fourteen different objects—a stiff, accordion-folded panel giving you an overview of the building and characters (sort of the “game board” of the set); two hardbound books, one with a binding recalling the Little Golden Books of my (and probably your) childhood; and eleven paper comic book of varying sizes and shapes, from 22” x 16” to 3” by 10”. Even calling them “comic books” is not quite accurate, however, because their forms and styles are so varied—let’s say they are wood pulp-based objects that contain some of the material that makes up the stories in this collection.
 
There is a diagram on the back of the box suggesting relationships among the parts, but there’s still a lot left for you to do. In fact, you must create the mutual stories of these characters, rather as if you had just moved to a new building (or neighborhood, for you suburbanites) and had to gradually figure out who was who and what was what.  
 
The world of Building Stories is a three-story Chicago apartment building of a certain age—nice but not fabulous. The central characters include the landlord of the building, an elderly woman; a woman rapidly approaching middle age without much going on in her life, and a couple who are not getting along at all. If I had to state a theme for this work, it would be (to quote E.M. Forster) “only connect”—these characters, like many in Ware’s previous works, long for the authentic human connection that they are sure exists, but that keeps escaping them.
 
The art is fantastically inventive, as you would expect from Chris Ware, and he uses a variety of styles and approaches to storytelling in the different parts of this set. The very physicality of Building Stories is part of the point—in contrast to the many comics that are distributed and read electronically, the best way to experience Building Stories is to lay the pieces out on your bed (or table or other flat surface of choice), and pick one out to read, then when you’re done with that one, pick up another to try next. It’s not a conventional comics experience, but if you’re up for something different, the richness of the experience is more than worth the price tag.
 
You can see some previews from Building Stories on the publisher’s web site http://graphic-novels.knopfdoubleday.com/2012/06/26/building-stories-by-chris-ware/. | Sarah Boslaugh

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