Interview with Chris Ware Part 2 of 2

Posted by on February 1st, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

MW: Here, on the left, is a page from one of your published sketchbooks, and on the right is one of the early mouse strips that you mentioned earlier.

CW: Yeah, that’s one of the later ones where I actually started introducing words. I tried to construct certain strips around the word itself and then add in the pictures, which is the opposite of how most cartoonists work — that is, drawing the pictures and sticking the words on top. I wanted the words themselves to be overwhelming in the way you feel when you’re going through something really deeply, emotionally traumatic — like somebody’s broken up with you or something like that, and you’re just repeating these phrases in your mind to the point where you’re not even looking where you’re going, and you try somehow to sort it all out, but …

MW: Obviously, these are two very different forms of drawing, and I know that you’ve talked about the difference between observational, mimetic drawing and cartooning before, but could you just briefly [Ware cringes, Wivel laughs] do it once again?

CW: All right. It’s like a pop song now or something, I’ve said it so many times. Well, to me, drawing from life is about observation and about looking, and to me, cartooning is about remembering and about reading. Fundamentally, the difference between comics and fine art, for lack of a more pretentious distinction, is the difference between reading pictures and looking at pictures. When I draw comics, I draw pictures that are ideograms — you read them rather than look at them. If they are interesting as images, you are more likely to slow down and concentrate on them.

MW: Is that bad? To slow down?

CW: No, it’s not bad. I can’t control it; I realize that my urge to control it probably comes from some horrible Germanic heritage or something, “Oh, you must look at the next picture now!” I imagine reading comics as just running through this kind of mechanical piano roll, like you just read it, you can’t control that part of it. I think it’s also related specifically to the way human beings process and understand the world: We make generalizations that eventually we think of as words, [picks up water bottle] like, this is a bottle, fundamentally, a plastic bottle, when we look at it we don’t see all the beautiful reflections of light, the transparency, the colors of it, because if we did we would go completely nuts — we just know that it’s a bottle. We can see somebody who we’ve seen before who maybe was a jerk, and we might think “Jerk!” You know:  “Get out of the way!” Or “Oh, beautiful girl!” or something like that, and that is a way of navigating the world that can stop you from seeing the beauty of it and not actually experience things. This is why I think as adults, we can’t really enjoy life as we get older — we spend so much time worrying about the past and about the future that we don’t really experience anything. When we do experience anything deeply emotionally it’s mostly in memory, when we think about things: “Why didn’t I pay more attention to that?” Meanwhile, everybody around us is getting older, our children are growing up, and before we know it, we’ve got an IV in our arm, and we’re telling the nurse, “Please adjust my bed!”

MW: In terms of experience, I guess drawing from life is also a way of experiencing the world and seeing it. And in these sketchbooks, you constantly make these notes to yourself that you have to learn how to draw …

CW: Well, I should say — I don’t mean to interrupt — but I should say that one of the reasons I came to these conclusions is that when you draw from life — I assume most of the people in this room are cartoonists or want to be cartoonists — if you draw from life you’ll find yourself in a completely different mental state than when you are drawing a cartoon or when you’re reading or when you’re just talking to your friends. You’ll find yourself paying attention to things, and you’ll find time slowing down in a really peculiar way. And I think that’s really the fundamental gift of art and what painting gave to people for so long — it was a way of making people stop and see things that we simply aren’t really built to do, because we’re language-based animals. That’s how we get through life; the fundamental milestone in our lives is when we learn how to speak and read; that’s what transforms our minds and makes us into adults aside from, obviously, the physiological changes during adolescence. But it was drawing from life that made me realize that, so it’s a completely different mental process.

MW: But of course there is a connection, and I guess you suggest this in your collected version of Quimby the Mouse, where you print a long, very personal essay about your grandmother, which is juxtaposed with these mouse strips. And then in the sketchbook, which came out later, there are little notes written while these things were happening in your life and what you described in that essay pops up there. So you create these connections between your life and the life on the paper, which is obviously not autobiographical in itself, but has elements of you. Could you talk about the choice to do that?

CW: I was just going to say, actually, that it was not intentional at all, so it wasn’t like I thought, “All right, I’ve got this book,” and then three years later, “I’ll try and get it …” I don’t even remember half the stuff I wrote down. I mean, everybody’s lives are fairly compressed, we have very specific milestone moments or emotional moments, and it’s going to happen that way. It’s the same way in Jimmy Corrigan; there is so much of this that I didn’t plan, from the pages themselves to the way the story was structured. But everybody’s mind is structured in a very specific way, which is what makes us individual people; every single person in this room is such an unusual person. And if you simply trust yourself as an artist to allow those things to come out naturally, without allowing your intellect to stop it from going onto the page, you’ll be surprised at how things in your work will connect in very surprising and strange ways. There’re things that you do that you are not even necessarily aware of. You know, I’m not advocating automatic drawing or anything like that necessarily, but there really is something in our minds that if you just let it come out reveals a built-in structure, I think.

MW: And to be fair, it’s mostly the more obsessed fans … I almost feel like a bit of a Chris Ware stalker bringing this up, but …

CW: I’ll tell you my hotel room. [Audience laughs.]

MW: … But it does add resonance to these stories. A little bit more about cartooning: This is a page from one of your current on-going projects, “Building Stories”, and something people often talk about in terms of your drawing style is that it’s kind of dispassionate, distanced, and I think that’s a very purposeful approach …

CW: I prefer the word ‘constipated.’

MW: Right. [Laughter from audience.] I wasn’t going to say it.

CW: Are you asking me why?

MW: Yeah, the choice of this very clean style.

CW: Well, again, it’s to try to get at sort of an ideographic style of drawing, a cartooning style of drawing. I think the closest analogy in the history of art would be Japanese prints, which are really not in any way representational — they’re all about how things are remembered. Their idea of perspective is not about how something is seen, it’s about how something is felt and remembered, and I try to get that in my work too. If I can use the word ‘work’; it makes me sound like I think I’m an artist. So, I don’t try to draw how things are seen, I try to draw how they’re remembered, I guess that is the best way to put it. And I don’t want them to be interesting lines or interesting drawings, because then my hand comes into it too much.

MW: Why is that a problem?

CW: Because I just think it’s harder to read, in the same way that I wouldn’t want to read Ernest Hemingway’s rough draft of one of his novels, I would want to read the typeset, clean version, because I don’t want to be aware of his handwriting or anything. Not that you couldn’t be, necessarily. It’s certainly interesting to see an author’s corrected proof — you can see his scratch-outs and things that are added in — but fundamentally the intention is to have it read smoothly. It’s the words that matter; it’s the story that matters, and fundamentally, I’m interested in the story, I’m not interested in …

MW: But what about sensual experience? Compared to Jimmy Corrigan, I think your current work has more … you use color a lot to suggest not just storytelling elements or to underscore storytelling points, but to evoke a sensual experience. For example, the plate of food here is more realistically drawn, or more sort of sensually rendered and colored than much of the rest of what’s going on. Could you talk about that development a little bit?

CW: Uhh … I don’t know … I guess it’s not really conscious. I’m drawing with thinner lines and I’m adding a little more detail in this particular story. I want the level of texture to be a little bit more like the level of texture as I see it in the real world.

MW: But that moves into kind of drawing from life in a way.

CW: Well, it can, but still, I’m trying to keep it in an ideographic mode, I guess, for lack of a better word. I’m trying to shift more between the two, I guess, but I don’t want the expression of my hand to be a part of that experience, at least in this particular story; there’s some stuff in my latest issue that is at the printer right now that is intentionally that way. Which is not to say that I think that’s bad at all. I think Gary Panter is one of the greatest artists who has ever lived, but it’s just not something that necessarily suits the way I’m trying to tell a story. And I know I get accused a lot of somehow being judgmental of artists who draw expressively, but just because an artist does something one way, doesn’t mean that they think that everybody else should do it that way. I mean, that’s insane. Only Republicans think that way. [Laughter from audience.]

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

  1. […] now published on The Comics Journal’s website, is an absolute pleasure. Page one, page two, page three, page four. Here’s a great bit: MW: …something people often talk about in terms of your […]