This interview was conducted in front of a live audience in May 2010 at Komiks.dk, the international Copenhagen comics festival. Ware was an official guest of the festival and his visit coincided with the Danish publication of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. I concentrated on that book, but also tried to address more general issues in Ware’s work and extended the discussion to his current books.
I found it an inspiring talk, to the extent that I went a wrote an essay on the book, posted nearby. My thanks to Mr. Ware for graciously accepting to do it, and for sitting through what was no doubt an extended ordeal for him.
I am grateful to Henry SĆørensen for transcribing the interview.
MATTHIAS WIVEL: Welcome to this interview with Chris Ware. My name is Matthias Wivel and Iām a member of the board of the Danish Comics Council, and a ā¦ [Ware exhales in disbelief; Wivel and audience laugh.] I know, itās absurd ā¦
CHRIS WARE: To an American to hear the words āDanish Comics Councilā is just ā¦ it would never happen in America, or it could actually happen but then weād know weād been taken over by the communists. But you should be proud of yourselves.
MW: Oh, we were taken over a long time ago, so ā¦
CW: Right. I am very grateful to be in a country where thereās a Comics Council.
MW: In any case, Iām here to conduct this interview, but Chris, of course, will have to do all the hard work.
CW: I will? OK. Thank you very much for coming, itās very nice to be here and I hope I wonāt say anything too stupid or inadvertently insulting, and Iāll do my best to not put you to sleep, which I seem to be quite skilled at. We were just doing an interview yesterday at a university, and in every interview Iāve ever done there was someone in the front row, like ā¦ [pretending to doze off, laughter from audience] and itās like, āI gotta say something to wake her up!ā
MW: In case some of you are not familiar with Chris Wareās work, Iāll just briefly introduce it. Just now, this book [holds up copy of Jimmy Corrigan] has been published in Danish. This is his first full-length graphic novel and it came out in 2000 in the original language and is now out in Danish. Itās called Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth or Jimmy Corrigan ā Den klogeste dreng i verden, and we will be talking primarily about that. Since then, of course, Chris has done a lot of other work ā heās very prolific, working on several projects concurrently, and weāll be talking a little bit about them too. His work has been very influential on younger cartoonists in America and internationally, so Jimmy Corrigan is a very significant book finally to have out in Danish. It grew out of serialization.
CW: Yeah, I was doing a weekly newspaper comic strip in the early 1990s for a free weekly paper that had movie advertisements and personal ads in it and stuff like that. I was still in art school when I started it and I thought this story would only last maybe about three months or so, just a few episodes, but because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at all, and I am a terrible writer, it got completely out of hand and it ended up lasting for seven years, which is why when you read the book, the first 100 pages or so are completely insensate and itās very poorly written, which I apologize for ā I didnāt really think of a way to try and fix that, but thatās just the way it is. And then I serialized it in a comic book called The Acme Novelty Library in the 1990s, and then it was eventually published in hardcover form in 2000 by Random House and Pantheon Books.
MW: Itās interesting how a lot of these so-called graphic novels of the ā90s were originally serialized, because of course that was the format, that was the tradition in comics, and so this form grew out of a long process of making it up as you went along.
CW: Yeah, I think that writing is a means of thinking and of creating. I couldnāt plan anything piece by piece in script form before I drew it. The drawing is as much the writing, if not more the writing, as the actual words themselves. As far as serialization goes, that goes back to the early days of novel-writing; even Dostoyevsky and Charles Dickensā books were serialized, and they were written on sort of a panicked weekly deadline basis, and they are sort of episodic when you read them, so itās a proud tradition of the poor writer trying to feed his family, basically.
MW: Can you talk a little bit about how Jimmy Corrigan developed into a longer story? Yesterday [at the University talk] you said you almost invariably develop characters over time, and flesh them out as you go along, or at least that you used to. And Jimmy Corrigan appeared as a number of small strips before it started coalescing into a larger narrative.
CW: Yeah, I mean, basically, youāre just showing what a terrible planner I am, but for a while I was doing strips that were entirely without words, because I was trying to get at how much story I could tell simply by using pictures and the sort of internal music of the characters and how much of their inner emotional states I could communicate just by using gesture and pictures. And so I got to the point where I was just drawing mice and cat heads all the time ā because they were these simple little ideograms ā and couldnāt draw human beings anymore, so I did a couple of joke strips with this character Jimmy Corrigan, and I kind of latched onto him as my only contact with humanity on the comics page, and then he became this main character.
This is completely, I mean, thereās no planning to this at all, itās just this sort of crazy way of working organically and letting something happen on the page for lack of any better sort of thoughtful literary charter, I guess, so ā¦ Iāve no idea whatās going up behind me here [on the screen]. Is it like pictures of me naked or something? [Laughter from audience.] So, I think thatās actually the way most of my characters start, as joke characters, and then I become more pathetic or sympathetic towards them and they become more true to the feel of my stories. Thatās one of the hardest things to do in comics: to create a character through which the reader can actually feel his or her own emotional memories. Itās much easier in a novel, but when youāre in a sort of half-blind state of looking at pictures on a page, youāre always being bounced back off the page. I really think that thatās Charles Schulzā greatest achievement as a cartoonist: He really created the first sympathetic cartoon character in Charlie Brown ā that was the first cartoon strip with a character that you really, really cared about deeply, so Iāll thank him for that. That wasnāt your question, Iām sorry ā¦
MW: No, thatās great. Iāll just briefly summarize the main narrative of the book, which is the story of three generations of an American family. Three men, with Jimmy being the third. It also describes his fatherās and especially his grandfatherās life, and central, of course, is the story of the adult Jimmyās first encounter with his father, who he had never met before. How did that develop?
CW: I grew up as an only child, emotionally impaired; I hated myself, everybody hated me, etc. etc. I had never met my real father and it kind of lodged in my brain like this weakness, this emotional weakness; I thought, āSomeday Iāll meet him,ā you know. We Americans are really weak people. I donāt know if youāve noticed this or not, but we like to whine about ourselves and feel like weāre put upon, even though we are destroying half the world just so that we can be comfortable. But anyway, Iāve grown up in America, so I guess I got that mental trauma. I did this story as sort of an experiment: āWhat would it be like if I had my real father?ā And of course in the middle of working on the story, he actually called me up. So one day I was suddenly talking to my real father and I got to meet him once, briefly, before he died right before I finished the book. So that was the initial emphasis for the story. And in working on it I thought about how families and lives interact in ways that we are both aware of and unaware of, soā¦ but as far as a theme to the book, I didnāt really have any specific idea or anything that I was trying to communicate ā I was just trying to get at this sort of possible richness of life as Iāve experienced it on the page.
MW: Yes. This is from the sequence where Jimmy first meets his father in person, and ā¦
CW: Very awkward drawing. Sorry.
MW: Thereāll be some nicer drawings later. You seem very, as you say, occupied with communicating emotion and emotional reality in this way. Could you talk a little bit about how you went about doing that?
CW: Actually, when I first drew that page, it was supposed to be those large panels. I drew them extremely realistically, like, their eyes were drawn realistically, you could see all the wrinkles in their faces and I planned the story that way at that moment, because I noticed in my own life that the most profound emotional moments and the moments when youāre suddenly in the moment, you are actually seeing with your eyes and you are seeing things you donāt see the rest of the time as you just kind of glide through life. But I just couldnāt ā¦ it didnāt sit right with me, and I ended up redrawing it as a very simple cartoon. Now I do that a lot more in my own strips, I shift between detail and lack of detail a lot more, but I couldnāt make it work way back then.
MW: This is slightly later in the story. You devote a lot of time, or a lot of space, to describing the interaction between Jimmy and his father, and in very subtle ways to suggest the mood and the emotions. Youāve talked before about how your pacing works to underscore this way of conveying something you canāt depict.
CW: Iām just trying to get a sense of reality and the sort of rhythms that dominate or define human conversation. And when I construct a page, I read it over and over and over again to if there are any false moments in there. If it feels acted or forced Iāll change it, or sometimes Iāll add an extra panel just to get at something that feels akin to the way human conversation or human interaction feels to me, and the kind of awkward moments, and the blips and jerks, pauses, head scratches and that sort of stuff. It can get a little overwrought, but at the same time I was just trying to create a sense of that awkwardness, which happens especially when you are meeting people for the first time, and youāve built it up in your mind. And the main character is obviously very emotionally impaired, heās living in a sort of fantasy world, he doesnāt really understand how the world works at all. So this is his first confrontation with that, I guess.
MW: And for people who are used to genre comics, you use very static images, in which you employ the cartoon idiom to make small changes to the faces from panel to panel, in order to suggest change in a mood or emotion.
CW: Well, that basically comes from my having done the comics without words and trying to communicate emotion that way, and especially Victorian comics, or Victorian comic pages, I should say. Comics that were done before the advent of film and cinema. Filmic language sort of took over comics in the 1940s and ā50s with adventure strips. I think that thinking of the panel as a camera is really ā¦ well, itās one way of doing it, certainly, but the advantage of being a cartoonist is that you are not looking out into the world to make your work, youāre looking into yourself. So if you think of the panel as something that you are looking through, then itās kind of a backwards way of thinking about it. If youāre going to use the innovations of film directors to communicate emotion then youāre just falling back on a crutch that I think is not specific to the medium in which you are working. So I was trying to find other ways of communicating things that were more endemic to comics.
MW: Youāve sometimes used the analogy of music instead of film.
CW: Well, fundamentally, a comic is that. When you read it, it creates this sense of rhythm or music or melody, even if thereāre no words in it. If you listen to the sounds in your head when you read a comic that doesnāt have words in it, youāll actually hear these kinds of imaginary sounds in your mind. Itās sort of like when you try to think about what the voice in your mind really sounds like? Whose voice is that? Is it really your voice? So Iām trying to get at that a little bit. Which I think is something that all writers try to get to, but Iām using pictures as well.
MW: Is it also something you do when you think about laying out the page or the sequence, I mean in terms of having a unified melodic or rhythmic formula?
CW: Yeah, I mean, fundamentally, itās an art of composition, the same way that, if youāre a musician or a composer especially, youāre trying to compose something that is coherent and holds together, the same way that our memories are coherent and hold together, but our experiences are not. We take in our experiences and then put them together in a way that makes sense to our personalities and explains our lives and our friends. But the experience itself can be very incoherent and sort of uncomfortable. I guess that sounds pretentious. I should just be telling dumb jokes.
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