Chris Ware, Building Stories & the Resurrection of the Illuminated Manuscript


Good Morning:

I wonder if my family kept the illuminated manuscript I created for my 8th grade History final project. Historians differ on the precise definition of illuminated manuscripts, but tend to agree that the term describes the handmade books with elaborated decorations including gold and/or silver created in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. My project posed a lot of challenges; for one, even though Crayola’s gold crayon produced results that looked the real thing, I had to use a lot of those, and since you can’t buy individual crayons, that meant buying a lot of boxes. Fortunately, the sky blue and aquamarine colors looked great, and I still think my creation deserved better than the 88/100 (= to a B+) the teacher gave me. He loved the artwork but objected to my choice of text–the lyrics to Don McLean’s masterpiece American Pie.

A strange mistake; if any song lyrics from the 20th Century deserve illumination…

Which brings me to my first unboxing picture for Chris Ware’s new book, Building Stories, and yes, you unbox this book:

Building Stories Unboxing Picture 1

Building Stories Unboxing Picture 1

Ware has a well-deserved reputation for his graphic novels, including Quimby the Mouse, Acme Novelty Library, causing others in the field to mutter dark imprecations about how they’ll have to work all the harder. Well, they will have to work much, much harder after Building Stories. The excellence begins with the box, backside seen below:

Building Stories Unboxing Picture 2

Building Stories Unboxing Picture 2

Inside the box one finds “14 distinctively discrete Books, Booklets, Magazines, Newspapers, and Pamphlets” to quote the box itself. Note the use of the capital letters and the extra comma. Mr. Ware has studied the graphic design, cartoons, decorations and language of American periodicals and newspapers circa 1900 for years and writes in that style more easily than I can write modern American English. “…within the walls of an average well-appointed home.” Mr. Ware has filled Building Stories with language gems like this. The distinctively discrete goodies look like this before you unwrap them from their careful packaging:

Building Stories Unboxing Picture 3

Building Stories Unboxing Picture 3

And when I took everything out and set them side by side, I realized that I needed a lot more space that I thought:

Building Stories Unboxing Picture 4

Building Stories Unboxing Picture 4

So where do you begin? Well, that’s the whole point: you build your own story beginning with any item you please and as far as I can tell, you can begin at almost any point in each item. For example, I found a poem (for lack of a better description) in the inside cover of the plain book (middle right edge of the above photo) where the words are kind of sort of somewhat arranged in a figure 8. I don’t think the poem has a first word. You can start anywhere you want and read it over and over as long as you please. It’s an infinite poem written on a two-dimensional Moebius Strip with a finite number of words. For lack of a better description. I won’t publish any more pictures because at this point copyright issues might come into play.

So what’s Building Stories about? That’s another good question. Mr. Ware’s works require very slow and careful study; they contain millions of details, he put every detail there for a reason, I respect him enough to try and decide why each and every detail is there. At this point, I have uncovered two stories: the story of a three-story brownstone walkup; the story of a one-legged woman who lives there. I suspect that a third story lurks within; Building Stories, a three-story building, and Chris Ware’s obsession with detail combine to make me think I can find one more.

And the apartment building is a character, probably a male, too; the embellishments on the front windows look like mustaches styled as men wore them circa 1900, and you will never find an accident in a Chris Ware graphic novel.

Consistent with the earlier works, Building Stories‘ themes focus on social isolation, loneliness and life’s disappointments. One particular story (for lack of a better word) entitled “Disconnect” portrays the heroine in a grocery store surrounded by people on cell phones completely oblivious to each other and the food they purchase. Just as she finishes mocking the other customers and her husband, our heroine received a call on her cell phone from her husband who says exactly the things she wants to here. In the final panel, she looks lonelier than ever.

Chris Ware worked 10 years on Building Stories; I have no problem working for a few months working on his work. I think Chris Ware is brilliant, but that doesn’t mean that I understand him.

Which brings me back to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. They’re back! We don’t use gold, silver, and ground lapis lazuli, we use pixels in all the shade of RGB and CMYK. Thanks to computer graphics and digital publishing, artists and writers have resurrected the lavishly illustrated illuminated manuscripts of long ago. They don’t quite look the same as in days of old, of course, but the infinite variety of the modern illuminated manuscript (really, doesn’t “graphic novel” feel totally inadequate?) make them just as read-worthy as ever.

Vonn Scott Bair


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