Though never so explicit in the everyday lives of the worried, circular-headed suburban Chicagoans who populate his work, the engine that drives Chris Ware’s comics has always been the tension between narrative control and submission. Ware’s first full-length graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, was a beautiful and exhausting exercise in authorial intrusion, coming as it does with an actual instruction guide on how to read its nonlinear paneling. The novel’s two main stories unfold in exquisite synchrony, the structure bending under the weight of multiple dream sequences and lengthy arrows from here to there. Even the use of colors and the movement of frames exploit the momentum inherent to the single-volume format, wrestling from top to bottom and left to right on the level of rods and cones.
Confined to a medium in which the briefest expositions (the cursive words, for Ware) necessarily impose on or pause what seems like the present-tense story, cartoonists, even the great ones, seem nearly doomed to the problem of artificiality and contrivance in the reading experience itself, determining the rules of the page over and over again. Building Stories, Ware’s second full-length work, addresses this issue outright, doing away entirely with the single-volume format and instead offering (at a hefty but worthwhile price tag) an oversized box filled with books, pamphlets, newspapers, and other assorted printed matter.