by Chris Ware
2012, 260 pages, 11.7 x 16.6 x 1.9 inches (hardcover, softcovers, boxed)
Chris Ware is renowned as the kind of comic artist who makes you expect more from the genre. For nearly three decades, his unfussy, formalized style has given birth to cult strips such as Rusty Brown and Quimby The MouseM. Despite his style being modeled after the simplicity of Tintin in order to express emotion in as universal a way as possible, his style is a vehicle for the minutiae of human struggle. Building Stories is no different.
Largely comprised of strips previously published in national newspapers, but also featuring unreleased material, Building Stories is Ware's magnum opus – 14 lavishly presented stories in one beautifully designed box, itself adorned with extra strips and illustrations. The separation of the stories into physically distinct objects is intended to allow the reader to acquaint themselves with the characters in any order they choose.
Revolving around the lives of the inhabitants of an apartment block in Chicago, his pet themes of social alienation, excessive rumination and the pervasive feeling of being railroaded by mundanity are all present and correct. A number of archetypes populate the building – the lonely old lady, the bickering couple, the single young woman, but Ware imbues each with its own identity.
Arguably the most prominent character is the young woman who has a prosthetic leg, observed at various unassuming yet pivotal moments in her life, whether she's summer house sitting, lying awake at night thinking of her newborn child, or trying to overcome her anxiety in a writing class. It is tough not to feel empathy for her directionless existence, constant anxieties over wasted potential and the recursive spikes of past trauma. A soap opera in the best sense, there is more than a touch of Charles M. Schulz about Ware's existentially preoccupied, neurotic characters.
Ware also experiments with layout to sometimes dizzying effect. The effusive nature of Branford the Best Bee in the World is matched by spiraling circular panels, whereas our aforementioned heroine wearily lives out her life inside row after row of regulation size square panels.
The presentation of the strips in wildly differing formats makes this a true collector's package – pamphlets, news sheets, hardback book, comic on a fold-up "game board," and more. If you happen to be looking for the graphic novel's answer to Ulysses, then look no further. If not, buy it anyway. You'll believe a comic can do amazing things.
– Nick Parton