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”.