Interview with Chris Ware Part 1 of 2

Posted by on January 31st, 2011 at 12:01 AM

MW: Here is part of a sequence from later in the book where Jimmy meets his stepsister, his father’s adopted child. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but can you talk about her importance? You’ve sometimes talked about her as the most important character of the strip.

CW: She’s the only real character in the book. She’s the only one I’ve actually imagined as a real human being, the only one I can see beyond the book. The other characters seem to … well, the dad to a certain degree has that, but certainly not the main character. The film director Paul Thomas Anderson once said that when he made movies, he fell in love with his characters, and I certainly felt that way about her more than anybody else in the book. And I think that’s the state you want to be in most when you work on any kind of story, or any kind of art that is story-based: if you don’t actually feel some sympathy and ideally fall in love with your characters, then something’s wrong. You should really have a really strong affection, even if they’re the most venal, hateful people — you should still have some sort of sympathy and understanding or empathy for them. It’s sort of an insane state of mind to be in, without that, I think you’re missing something as a writer — the warmth isn’t going to necessarily be there for the readers. But that’s probably not what you’re asking me, I’m just skating around.

MW: No, I mean, presumably, you also feel affection for the other characters, it’s just that this one is more rounded, more …

CW: Yeah, you know, I just felt that she was more of a real person to me. I realized this recently… I have a cousin who I met when I was, like, 16 years old, who knew my dad pretty well. And she was kind of “You should really meet your dad!”

And I was like, “oh, I don’t really think I need to”; I was 16 years old or so, and she was really trying to bring us together, and she just died of cancer about six months ago, and the instant that she died, I suddenly realized that I had based this character of Amy Corrigan on her. And she’s really the catalyst that brings Jimmy and his dad together. She’s trying to repair and figure out her own life, because she’s adopted of course, so in a way she’s trying to fix her life, but then ends up messing it up, but also trying to help.

MW: To what extent did meeting your father, actually meeting him in person, influence the way you approached sequences in the book?

CW: It didn’t really that much. My wife actually hadn’t met her father either; there’s a whole generation of us in America — even our president now, actually — who didn’t really know one or the other of their parents, because of all the fun that generation had, I guess. My wife’s dad I’ve met a couple of times, though, and there is a sequence in this book, which actually includes things he said that I just wrote down and used. And his gestures were really a kind of overcompensation for the things he was saying, so I took note of a few of those things, which I guess is maybe a mean thing to do, but I didn’t mean anything hateful. I’m a father now, and I cannot imagine divorcing my wife and not seeing my daughter for 10 or 15 years — it seems like pure hell. There would be nothing worse, and I don’t know how anybody could deal psychologically with the guilt and shame and pressure of that.

Fundamentally, I feel sorry for the dad character in this book to a certain degree. I don’t think about it at all any more, but if I’m in this position where I have to think about it again, I… I hope he is presented somewhat sympathetically. He’s not really a bad guy. I mean, my real dad, the first time I talked to him on the phone, he found out that I got married, and I think like the third sentence he said to me, he asked if I got married, and I said, “Yeah, I got married a couple years ago.”

He said: “Why didn’t you invite me to the wedding, ya shit-bird?” [Laughter from audience.] It was the first time I heard the phrase “shit-bird.” What is a shit-bird anyway? He was in the Navy and he was so uncomfortable; he wanted so much to just put things on sort of a conversational level that his brain was overcompensating, it was really kind of sad and painful to hear him say that, because he was obviously just trying to connect in any desperate way that he could.

MW: One of the noticeable metaphors you use is the superhero, and [directed at audience] as you can see here Jimmy is wearing a Superman shirt, being not very super, and …

CW: I think the Superman mythos … I mean, at the same time this book came out, Michael Chabon’s book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay came out, and he thoroughly examined the idea of what a superhero is so much better than any of us could have ever done. It’s only one facet of it, but in my case I’d always seen the Superman-figure as a father figure, a father stand-in, and certainly when I was growing up that’s what all superheroes were.

MW: Yeah, he becomes a stand-in for the father, and you also undermine the super-human status, of this type of character. This [showing page with superhero falling to his death] always gets reproduced, of course.

CW: Right. Jimmy Corrigan, it’s implied that he’s a comic-book reader and a comic-book collector, it’s on the dust jacket here, it’s kind of subtle, but it’s obvious that his mind is filled up with these fantasies and in a certain way, the same way that I was, he has filled his mind with these ideas of what an adult male figure is supposed to be, and in a way, the book itself being a comic, it kind of falls in on itself, I suppose.

MW: I should note that this is a sequence from Jimmy’s point of view: He imagines seeing a superhero on the building across from where he works who leaps and falls.

CW: There’s actually a movie that just came out called, uh … Kick-Ass, I think? It starts out with this exact same sequence.

MW: Yes. Mark Millar is ripping you off — while badmouthing you. So this corner, which is in Chicago, plays an important role in the book. This is from the sequence describing the childhood of Jimmy’s grandfather, set during The Columbian World Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, and there’s a big parade where all the kids are dressed in the red white and blue, the American flag. What does that represent to you, this World Exhibition? It becomes a centerpiece of the book.

CW: Well, as you said, this is the same street corner that’s in the previous page, which shows up at a number of key points — they’re supposed to interpenetrate the book. I’ve put them in the same places on the page, because when I was reading in high school, I noticed that if I’d forgotten a character’s name, I was more likely to remember the part of the page of the book where I had seen it, and I would flip back and I think it was in the upper left-hand corner. So that’s something I try to do in comics.

As far as this goes, in 1893 Chicago was chosen to host the World’s Fair, and essentially it sort of made Chicago the center of the world for better or for worse, at least in its own eyes — it made Chicago feel very self-important. It’s where the phrase “the Windy City” came from, because of all the city fathers’ bloviating bullshit; it actually doesn’t refer to the wind, it refers to the breath coming out of their big, fat, sausage-fed bodies [laughter from audience]. And this actually happened, not at this particular street corner, but they got all the kids in the various neighborhoods to dress up in the colors of the American flag, it was called “The Living Flag.” Again, it’s a joke in the book, because the book is also about symbols, and how we interpret symbols, and a flag is the ultimate symbol, so … A bunch of art-school nonsense, I’m sorry …

MW: The story of the Corrigan family becomes the story of America too, and the creation of modern America. And very importantly in this picture, down there on, and in, the corner is a little newspaper boy in a red cap, but he’s not part of the flag, and he is black.

CW: Right. He’s the same newspaper boy that appears later.

MW: Yes. And that becomes an important subtext in the book — the history of slavery and segregation.

CW: Right. I guess I paid attention in English class or something.

click to view large image

MW: And you show everything to be interconnected in several places, but not the least on the inside dust cover, which describes … [directed at audience] the front cover here, it can be folded out, and the cover that you see here describes the main character, Jimmy Corrigan, and on the back of it there is this, which is a history of America. It describes the macro-context for …

CW: Yeah, it’s a map of this story. I mean, the title is “The Smartest Kid on Earth,”, so the front of it is the character and on the back is the Earth. It’s a joke, the title itself is sort of a joke on how you think of yourself as an adolescent in America, where you feel like you know everything, and by extension America in a way sort of thinks it knows everything too.

MW: You show how different immigrants populate America and how their lives are connected specifically through the story of this family. You seem to be making an argument that every family is emblematic of the American experience and of American history. You even seem to suggest that American society, modern society, capitalism, is somehow the reason why people like the Corrigans have never met each other and are alienated in the way they are — that capitalism or modern society has that effect. The same society that was built on slavery.

CW: Yes. I never really thought of it as alienating people, but I guess you’re more likely to feel like there’s no class division in a country if you’re a member of the upper class, I mean that’s kind of a standard operating understanding. I remember being on the bus one day in art school and suddenly just having this weird, not really vision, but just sudden realization: What if you traced back where the ancestors of every person on the bus came from? Did they come here voluntarily or did they come here under duress? I was thinking of myself in that same morass, which … if anything maybe, that is the theme of the book. I’m not a great historian by any degree, I can only think of things through people, which I guess is the difference between a novelist and a historian — there’re historical novelists, I guess, but I can’t think of things in large abstractions, I can really only think of them in terms of how human beings interact or what drives them to do certain things.

MW: There seems to be this inescapable association you get whenever somebody tackles American history and American life in this kind of long-form format, which is to associate it with this idea of The Great American Novel. That seems very much to be what is going on here. I assume it was not something you were at all conscious of while you were creating it, but it does kind of inscribe itself into that context as a book. Do you find that useful at all, that idea of The Great American Novel?

CW: Not really. It’s become such a cliché, I guess. I just wanted to make a comic book that had a bit of density to it, and build on the cartoonists whose work I really deeply admire. I could list hundreds of cartoonists whose work I’ve stolen from, and I try to acknowledge them all, so I just wanted to make a book that didn’t lie, as much as I could.

all images ©2010 Chris Ware

The conclusion of this interview.

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5 Responses to “Interview with Chris Ware Part 1 of 2”

  1. [...] Creators | Matthias Wivel posts the first part of a transcribed interview with Chris Ware conducted in May at the Copenhagen International Comics Festival. [TCJ.com] [...]

  2. [...] det andet af i dette fremragende interview, som Matthias Wivel stod for på Komiks.dk sidste år: Del 1, del [...]

  3. [...] before I loaded the constituent parts onto my laptop for the train ride home from work, but Matthias Wivel’s interview with Chris Ware, conducted at the Komiks.dk festival in May 2010 and now published on The Comics Journal’s [...]

  4. [...] from children.Need to read more about Chris Ware? (who doesn’t?)Here is a recent interview on The Comics Journal and here is a re-examination of the book, also at The Comics Journal.Here is a link to a PDF copy [...]