It’s possible that some of you have not heard of Chris Ware, particularly if you’ve been living in a refrigerator box somewhere. His books of comic art have been reviewed and written about in all levels of the press lately. It’s a little more likely, though, that you have heard of him but may not have seen good examples of his work unless you’ve actually picked up one or more of his books. (I say one or more because if you like Ware’s work, it’s hard not to want more of it.)
Until recently it was easy to find reviews and articles about Ware on the web, but difficult to find much in the way of posted examples of his work, except for disjointed snippets or images that are too small to get a real flavor for why so many find it so appealing.
Just recently the New York Times began publishing comics for the first time. The first comics artist they choose to publish was Chris Ware. They are serializing his Building Stories (image above), and offering the pages online in PDF format. They’re in actual postscript PDF, which means you can zoom them large enough to read Ware’s occasionally tiny panels and get a feeling for the astonishing amount of work he invests in his comics stories. His comics pages, novelty ad parodies and book designs exhibit an attention to detail and devotion to craft for which “obsessive” is a mild word.
Like a cross between Gasoline Alley, Hergé and the flat pictographic panels of comic-style instructional pamphlets, Ware’s work is usually devoid of the hatching or rendering found in most comics (except when he’s deliberately cultivating the look of woodcuts). His drawings are mostly outline filled with color. Linear perspective is often flattened or replaced with orthographic projection; and Ware sidesteps atmospheric perspective in favor of utilizing color for design and mood.
His colors are carefully chosen, often muted and always in careful relationship not only to the other colors in the panel, but also in relation to the entire page as a work of design. Many of the elements, whether panels or actual drawn objects, are abstracted to the point of becoming elementary geometric shapes.
Sometimes his images seem not so much drawn as meticulously constructed; as if a 19th century master draughtsman had programmed a difference engine to draw comics with a series of precision pantographs.
Ware also plays with the conventions of comic art page design and storytelling, playing with panel and page layout and the normal presentation of linear time in remarkable ways. The level of design work and detail can actually be a bit overwhelming.
Despite the intricately appealing look of the art , Ware’s stories are anything but cheerful. Most of his humor is in the packaging, the parody retro graphic design and the mock ads (some of which are hilarious). The comics themselves are rarely “funny”, usually dealing with themes of loneliness, isolation, regret and the looming emptiness of modern life. But don’t let that description convince you his work is a downer. The emotional effect is balanced by the beautiful art, superb design and toy-like fun of the endlessly detailed features and comic strips. His books are more lavishly detailed artifacts then simply books of comic art. Ware’s running gag of the whole of his work being the product of “The Acme Novelty Company” is perfectly appropriate.
Ware’s own site is devoted to his interest in collecting Ragtime ephemera and doesn’t mention his own work. Here are some other links for Ware info on the web: some small reproductions of pages from Jimmy Corrigan, a small gallery of individual panels, an audio interview with Ware, a bio on NNDB, the Wikipedia entry, a review of Jimmy Corrigan, review of Acme Novelty Library 15, The Fantagraphics Books listing for many of his books, an online exhibition of black and white graphics and pages, and some wonderfully large images of pages for sale (or sold) at the Hammer Gallery.
Here is an excellent unofficial Chris Ware page with information and links to other Chris Ware pages and resources on the web. These may give you a slight taste, but you really need to pick up one of his books to get a real feeling for his work.
Though he has received acclaim for his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth, and there are many volumes of his work in print, I might suggest starting with his recent collection of material which offers a variety of his styles as well as being a prime example of his maniacal, designed down to the last square millimeter package:The Acme Novelty Library Final Report to Shareholders and Rainy Day Saturday Afternoon Fun Book.
Rather than try do describe this remarkable feat of comics art, design work and publishing craft, I’ll point you to Douglas Wolk’s excellent description and review on Salon.
To borrow a phrase from his own Cut Out and Fold Miniature Working Acme Novelty Library: Chris Ware’s work is “A Rewarding and Insightful Amusement for All Those who Attempt to Master its Intricacies”.
8 Replies to “Chris Ware (F.C. Ware)”
I was a collector of Chris Ware’s work before I even knew his name. But let me explain – on most of his Acme Novelty Company work his name does not appear anywhere. I do not collect comics or follow the industry, so I could not find his name. It was three years or longer before I was told who he was. Even today, you must search closely to find his name.
Charley, your description of Chris Ware’s work is dead on, the only thing I would add is that Chris is also a remarkable writer, and not just of plots. In fact, Chris is not that concerned about “plot” as much as he is about time, place, and atmosphere. His control of English is remarkable, especially the English spoken in the United States from roughly 1890 to 1930 – the Ragtime through Jazz era. But even his work that is set in modern times has the ear of the era.
Lastly, you mention the pathos of his work, and his humor, but I would add that his recent book, “The Acme Novelty Library”, is the funniest book I have ever read. Don’t miss it.
Thanks. I agree about the writing aspect. It’s actually so well woven into the comics storytelling that I hadn’t thought of it as a separate element. I also hadn’t thought about the way his name is almost hidden on many of the books: pretty much the opposite of our mainstream fame-driven culture. He can’t beat it though, stores are putting stickers on the books with the title and his name to make sure they don’t miss out on the publicity he’s receiving. I’ll definitely pick up the new one.
Hi– I stumbled across your interesting and very enjoyable blog because I was looking for guidance on why Chris Ware is so revered these days. We are having a rip roaring discussion of this point on another blog (http://www.illustrationart.blogspot.com) with one faction (myself included) believing that Chris Ware does not draw well, but that he reflects the taste of our age: mediocre drawing skills and modest aesthetic ability can be redeemed by highly cerebral concept, prefereably with bleak, alienated content. Others on the blog, as you might imagine, believe his drawings are masterpieces.
I think your treatment of Ware is a fair one: “a cross between Gasoline Alley, HergÃ© and the flat pictographic panels of comic-style instructional pamphlets” sounds just about right. You give appropriate credit to Ware’s craftsmanship and productivity without breathlessly fawning over his work the way Salon or the New Yorker do. There seems to be a pitched battle between those who put a premium on form and those who focus on content. You seem to have avoided either extreme. Well done.
Thanks for your nice words about lines and colors and my post. I dropped over to Illustration Art and I’ve added it to my blogroll.
I have to say, though, that I do think Ware is a good draughtsman. It’s just that his drawing is so restrained within the conventions of style and design that he has set for hmself that the qualities of freedom and expressive line that we often associate with superior draughsmanship have been submerged beneath the polished surface of the work.
If you look at his control of space, however, the relationships of objects and forms to one another and to the panels they reside in, and in particular to his control of negative space, I think you’ll find he has the eye of an excellent draughtsman. You might say these are issues of design rather than draughtsmanship, but that’s a blurry line, particularly in Ware’s case.
Hey, I was wondering why I got so much traffic this month! Thanks for linking me (as the “unofficial Chris Ware”). I’m really proud of that site. One of these days I’ll get back to work on my comics web site…
With regards to Chris Ware’s drawing abilities, I would refer anyone to the “Datebook,” which I think is overlooked in your article. This is a sketchbook that contains many drawing styles that aren’t otherwise represented by Ware’s published works.
I would throw my 2 cents in and say that to question Ware’s ability as a “drawer” is besides the point. In numerous articles both by and about Ware, it’s been made clear that Ware uses the drawn page to tell a story, to communicate an emotion. It’s his view that comics is a set of diagrams; he’s even compared reading comics to playing music, in that the reader/musician turns a page of innate figures into gesture, emotion, expression.
Glad to link to your site, Yakov. Thanks for providing us with the excellent resource on Ware and his work. I haven’t picked up the “Datebook”, I’ll look for it. Thanks.
I will look at Datebook as well. I am always happy to expand my knowledge.
I fear, however, that Chris Ware fans tend to let him off the hook too easily by saying that he shouldn’t be judged by the traditional standards of excellence in drawing. Artists excuse him by saying, “well he’s really more of a writer than an artist” and writers excuse him by saying, “well, he’s really more of an artist than a writer.” As a hybrid, he seems to avoid real scrutiny in either category. But as far as I’m concerned, if you choose to use visual images as part of your medium of choice, you have to prepare to be judged.
Yakov, I am not comparing apples and oranges. Try comparing Ware’s “diagrams” with Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese calligraphy or a dozen other art forms that marry words and symbols in pictographs. See what you think about how others have solved the same graphic problem. They show that it can be done with grace and style and beautiful design. Otherwise, why not just type your message?
Chris Ware is a genius
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