Introduced as the laureate of graphic literature, the much celebrated Chris Ware booked a sell out event at a major literary festival, speaking about our fictional bubble lives, his superheroic beginnings, and his hopes and fears for the medium.
At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the largest festival of its kind in the world, this year saw the unveiling of a brand new programme dedicated to comics and graphic novels: Stripped. The first night, sold out far in advance, heralded the arrival of Chris Ware who confessed himself surprised and delighted to be at such an event.
Introduced by Stuart Kelly, former literary editor and one of the judges for this years Man Booker Prize, Ware was on top form and expressed amazement at the packed house, laughing, “I’m not a very exciting person, as you can probably already tell!” before joking about his highly reflective forehead under the powerful spotlights.
At this first graphic novel themed event, it’s interesting to note that Kelly, a seasoned festival regular, smiled that this was possibly the youngest book festival audience he’d ever seen – and indeed, compared to many of the other events coming and going, the age range certainly slanted towards the under-40s.
Tackling the appearance of Stripped head on, Ware, creator of Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories, was asked just why graphic novels (and comics) are making such a leap into this new mainstream. Replying that it was relatively simple, that there were more cartoonists determined to create serious work, and that the output this last year alone had been “amazing”, Ware shied away from being described as a novelist, smiling that anything more than cartoonist was just “too fancy”.
It was a slight uncomfortableness that permeated the entire talk here and there, a suggestion that discussing graphic novels at a literary festival was all well and good, as long as the novel part was stressed at the expense of the graphic, with the latter being asked to name painters and other higher artists as influences. Whether this was a genuine hangover from general fiction events, or a more deliberate endeavour to tie comics to the literature pole is a tad unclear, but I’ll lean towards the former for now.
As did Ware, highlighting the fact that, “there’s still this idea that comics are a genre, which they’re not, they’re a language,” with people suffering from preconceived ideas about what a comic really is, supported in recent years by the comic book movies that sweep our headlines. With no bitterness towards those superhero films, Ware suggested that it actually “keeps comics honest as an aesthetic experience”, expressing the hope that if a reader doesn’t like a comic then he or she can blame the creator rather than being made to feel stupid – certainly a different, and quite refreshing, attitude to hear!
Ware also expressed some worry that as comics are becoming more respectable, and taught in universities and so on, that they would have a “syrupy fog surrounding them”, obscuring them from the reach of the everyday reader. “They’re a working class art form,” he stated, and the “art of the people,” with a caveat that he hoped he didn’t sound too strident. It was perhaps a bolder statement than he realised, fired into the heart of a traditionally highbrow literary festival, though Scotland is no stranger to having its homegrown authors sprout up from working class roots.
The working class element of comics and their ability to transcend class barriers in imparting important information is something that I, from that very background, am particularly passionate about. While Ware talked about superhero comics being able to deal with real problems using fictional characters, he stressed that his stories are about real people, adding that “real life is plenty strange enough”.
Asked about his comic book influences, Ware pointed back at the superhero comics, laughing that he didn’t so much read them as copy them, “tracing muscular men and then drawing my face on top of them!” Charles Schulz’s Peanuts was lavished, quite rightly, with praise, as Ware suggested that he may be the only cartoonist or author who is as capable of being read at 6 or 60 with the reader still getting something “profound and meaningful” from those drawings.
A mention of Seth’s It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken from Kelly pleased Ware immensely, as he marvelled that the book was so “weirdly overlooked”. (The 1997 faux-autobiographical graphic novel is definitely worth looking out if you haven’t read it.) Ware pointed to Maus as the greatest graphic novel, declaring that it “may never be bettered”, and Art Spiegelman’s revelations within MetaMaus (which went behind the scenes of the classic work) made him “feel so bad and lazy” and that younger cartoonists need to up their game.
Pressed for his literary influences, Ware duly rattled off a list of authors from Tolstoy to Updike, but singled out Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as the one book that had really impacted him, saying that having been “moved to tears, I realised a story could touch you so deeply and affect you so emotionally”. He read it in a night after almost flunking English at school.
Dodging a link back towards working class literature, Ware said that the story had connected with him simply because it was so “powerfully human” and said that that really is what all books and comics are about – “fundamentally you’re trying to connect, to create a sense of empathy with other people”.
Ware talked briefly about his studies in painting and sculpture as opposed to literature, and that his images are “intended to be read in the same way that you read words on a page”, while “keying into your own memories and emotions”. Citing Guston, Duchamp and Cornell amongst his favourite painters, Ware explained that his own style was simple to try and create an image that was “so clear you almost don’t see it”, that is, to be able to read it effortlessly like words on a page. “If I drew too beautifully, for lack of a better word, it would distract from that.”
Talking about his unconventional layouts, Ware acknowledged the most common grid format as being based on our understanding of reading text, while he strives for no edges or borders, just as our memories have no edges or borders, with an orbital centrality in order to illustrate the whole sphere rather than feeling like things are being flattened out. He also spoke about how certain things resonate with our brains in ways we don’t quite understand, and that this also crossed into how a page develops naturally for him: “It’s one of the reasons art can be moving, because there’s connections there [that] we’re not sensitive to necessarily.”
While Building Stories is comprised of 14 stories that are printed separately and can be read in any order, Kelly pressed Ware on whether he had intended them to be read in any particular order, and what order he had created them in. Ware revealed that the book had grown naturally, the stories independent from each other, and stressed that an idea has to grow rather than be constructed. At the same time, he said, “I want my stuff to look synthetic because it’s fictional. I want it to have a sense of artifice”.
Returning to the idea of creating fiction to act like our memories, Ware said that he wanted to “make a book that didn’t have any beginning or end because that’s the way our memories are,” and that Building Stories would “hopefully be some kind of slight analogue to that, which wasn’t too pretentious”.
Revealing that he was from a newspaper family (his grandfather an editor, his mother a reporter), Ware enthused about his affection and affinity for the physical book form, later answering a question about digital comics by saying he’d found his own experiences there somewhat “unsatisfying in a weird way” though acknowledging that he probably sounded like an old man! “Poetry needs to be written down, [it] needs a physical component.”
One of the final audience questions asked Ware his opinion on manga, of which Ware lamented the lack of translated material available and underlined the fact that “Japan specifically has had a tradition of reading images for thousands of years longer than western civilisation has”.
With manga and comics often artificially separated in the West it was an interesting topic to come up given the lack of manga guests in a country with a thriving manga industry, but perhaps that will be addressed in future years. It does seem as if that ‘literary’ label is held back from manga right now. As Ware said, “drawings are very devalued in western culture,” and seen as a preparatory stage for more proper (insert air-quotes) art.
Ware also gave shout outs to McSweeney’s (the publisher founded by Dave Eggers) and his own comic heroes: Joe Sacco (sat in the front row), Robert Crumb, and Art Spiegelman. As a non-comics creator (I assume!) Obama was mentioned, as a “really good person” with the addendum that those drone strikes were sure not looking good.
Circling back once more to the idea of fiction as non-linear, non-edged, non-neat memories, Ware summed up his thoughts nicely: “We are all living in a bubble of fiction. We think that our memories are true but they’re not. All of our memories, our entire lives, are fiction. We’re editing our lives as we go. That’s where the real power of fiction comes from.”
One story within Building Stories stars a small bee. Kelly pointed back at the influences of Duchamp and Cornell, asking whether there was a touch of the surreal to the bee’s inclusion. “Not so much,” laughed Ware, “I was just trying to think, ‘what would it be like to be a bee?’” Of course it was a little more than that, as Ware went on to explain that it also tied into empathy, the stories he makes up for his daughter as he walks her to school each morning, and our understanding of ourselves as humans. But still, sometimes a bee is just a bee.
All images and photograph courtesy of Jonathan Cape, photo via their tumblr.
Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter.