Interview with Chris Ware Part 2 of 2

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

MW: Something very important in your comics is the suggestive description of inner life, of the feeling of time, of memory, of experiencing the world. Maybe not in this mimetic, drawing from life way, but in suggesting how emotions appear to you and how you feel them. There’s a sequence here from Jimmy Corrigan where Jimmy’s grandfather as a child is taken to the World’s Fair that we talked about earlier, and he’s describing his memory of it as an old man. He appears in a nightshirt and suddenly he reflects on that. [Directed at audience] You see here, suddenly he remembers: “Whoa, did I actually wear that nightshirt? No, I probably didn’t; I was actually probably wearing something else,” and then he comes back into it here. And there is also this girl that he is infatuated with, whom he can’t remember whether he saw there or not, but he kind of remembers that he did. Comics is an art form that uses space to suggest time, and time is such an important element. How do you engage with this problem? It’s been an on-going concern of yours, and obviously something that is very complex to deal with.

CW: Yeah, I guess that early on I thought about that a lot more and I thought about comics as sort of a fourth dimension of time spread out and all sorts of art-school nonsense. I don’t know, I read a lot of books about these crazy Victorians, like there was kind of a fad in the 1890s with the fourth dimension, and that book, Flatland — I don’t know if anybody’s ever read it or not. There was this crazy guy named Charles Howard Hinton, who claimed he could envision the fourth dimension and see himself from a child to an old man all at once, but basically he was just using it as an excuse to like screw a bunch of his friends’ wives, and he advocated polygamy as some way of seeing the fourth dimension … obviously, he was a genius. [Laughter from audience.] So he sure thought about space/time all right. But … what did you ask me again? [Everybody laughs.]

MW: What are the specific challenges that you’ve experienced trying to do this in comics? I mean, comics have a very specific tradition of dealing with time, like a Peanuts strip for example, the way it sequences a moment or whatever, and actually opening that up to accommodate these kinds of very complex experiences. The way we experience time is so personal.

CW: Well, in this book specifically, all of the events that happen in what is thought of as the present day, which is still actually only 1983, are told without narration, so I tell them using the traditional panel with dialogue and with no other narration, but everything that happened in the past has narration, which allows me to have it flow much more tightly and to chop things into pieces, because those are memories. So there’s a difference between memory and experience in this book. The book is very specifically built around parts of a city and what happens in those at different times. As far as space goes, I guess that time interpenetrates it.

MW: One of the things about comics too is that they are both sequential and simultaneous, and you exploit that quite a lot, especially with your more diagrammatic … I know this comes up all the time, too … [Wivel laughs.]

CW: Well, there’s a quote from Goethe that “architecture is frozen music”, and I think it actually applies to comics more than anything, because you’re taking images, making them still, and they don’t actually come alive until you read through them; it’s sort of like reading sheet music in a way. You asked me earlier about the drawing style, and I don’t want the emotion of the story to be in the expressiveness of the drawing; the emotion should be in the story itself; it should be in either how you feel the story as you’re reading it or how you remember it. It’s just an artistic choice I made.

MW: You often use these diagrams for it. These are two pages from “Building Stories” — they’re part of the same sequence, but they’re not facing pages. They show the building where the main character lives. On the right hand she is lying in bed, imagining what might have happened in her room — “Why is this hook in the ceiling?” — and she has different scenarios. And downstairs there’s the landlady. She hears a bottle smashing outside, which triggers a memory of when she lived there as a little girl, when there was a milk cart running there. And then there is the boy who used to live in the woman’s room upstairs, who was infatuated with the girl downstairs, who became the landlady, and his imaginary scenarios of what might happen if they got together. So that kind of thing. You work what would seem like a very dispassionate approach to emotional effect. How is working with diagrams different from working with more traditional comics?

CW: Was it Thomas Mann who wrote that “You have to put your emotions on ice and serve them up cold”? A painter friend of mine quoted it and it stuck with me. I really think that’s ideally what you want to have as a writer: a sense of being able to see something clearly and present it to the reader, so that they can feel an emotion in the same way that a character might. I mean, essentially, the world has no regard for us at all; we like to imagine that God or whatever cares about us, but that’s nonsense. We’re just organisms who fight to survive. We’re in this building here, where I guess livestock was auctioned off, so if we could go back in time and tell some of those farmers: “Oh yeah, in a hundred years there’ll be a bunch of people sitting around discussing picture stories,” right here where hogs were shitting all over the place … it seems ridiculous. I guess I was trying to get at that. But that’s everywhere around us. We just move through this space, but it’s there at all times. Our sense of having some importance is based on the fact that we don’t know where we’re going or how we’re going to die, and really, everything has already happened in the world, if you see it as a non-time-based entity. I don’t believe that time is actually happening; I think it is just a construction of our consciousness — we’re growing and our experience of life is simply our consciousness dealing with this. Our entire world is structured; if we knew what was going to happen in the future, we wouldn’t need ethics or moral structure. [Pause.] I sound like an idiot. This is an American problem. [Wivel laughs.] We’re very under-educated, so…

MW: Let’s just briefly round off on your current projects. One is Building Stories from which we’ve seen a couple of pages, the other one is Rusty Brown, which you’re in the middle of, and which kind of continues some of the character types, or at least … there are certain similarities, certain parallels, to Jimmy Corrigan in terms of father and son and this feeling of alienation, but it delves more into this fan culture around comic books and science fiction and things like that.

CW: Well, that’s a very small part of it, actually. There’re seven characters and each chapter of the book is devoted to one particular character. I don’t know if I should even talk about this, but the structure of the book is based on a snowflake. A snowflake is a six-sided geometrical construction that starts with just a grain of dust and as water molecules freeze around it as it rotates through space. In accord with the surrounding temperature and humidity, it actually creates a six-sided, more or less symmetrical figure as it grows. That’s why snowflakes are shaped the way that they are, and they’re all different. So the story is based in that way on those characters, and the main character, Rusty Brown, is this little piece of dirt around which these other stories revolve.

MW: So the aspect of it that deals with fan culture and with obsession with …

CW: Yeah, actually, the fan stuff, those are just early strips that don’t really have anything to do with it.

MW: But the latest published chapter starts off as what appears to be a self-contained science-fiction story, which it becomes evident has great resonance for one of the characters in the main, diegetic part of the story. So it seems like you’re moving increasingly … at least with these two characters …

CW: Well yeah, but then the next chapter is about the … I don’t know if this is worth going into. The story starts out in a school, and all these characters are different ages, and each chapter delves into one of these characters, but that particular story is about the father of the main character, who is sort of a wannabe science-fiction author, and he wrote this one story that got printed in a crappy science-fiction magazine in the ’50s and then never wrote anything again. That came out of my listening to these science-fiction radio shows as I was inking my strips. All these authors with these stories — they’re really pretty terrible stories, but they got published, and the writers thought, “I’m gonna be an author.”

MW: And they have personal resonance for you, obviously.

CW: Yeah, I read that stuff when I was a kid.

MW: And again, when you read that story, it seems to be presented as it’s told in the original book, but it becomes increasingly evident that it’s a memory of the story rather than the actual story. So again we’re dealing with this attempt to convey experience.

CW: Well, it’s basically these normal issues about sex, that’s what it comes down to.

Click to view larger image.

MW: [Laughs] I wasn’t going to say that. One thing I’ve appreciated a lot in your recent work is that you ‘re dealing with a greater range of characters and emotional situations than earlier. I can’t quite escape this real life/art-connection that we briefly talked about before: Of course the strip here is again from “Building Stories”; it is printed in Kramer’s Ergot 7, an anthology of comics, which was printed in a huge format, full broadsheet size. It tells some fragments of the story of this woman who is the main character of “Building Stories,” and we see her child in the middle, drawn life-size. The book is so big that this is actually the size of a real child. Anyway, you yourself have become a father and it seems to me that it has affected your approach to your art.

CW: Yeah, it kind of fixed every mental problem that I had within an hour. So I highly recommend it if anybody out there is thinking of having children, you should really, I mean, it’s the only reason we’re here, and if you have any doubts in your mind about yourself or where your life is going, it’ll be answered easily and almost instantaneously. It’s a cliché to say, but it also immediately sets you aside from yourself and you’re no longer the star of your own mind, which is really not a very good state of mind to be in. Unfortunately, in my country it is one that seems to be encouraged until about the age of 60 or something, now. I really think the main export of America is this sort of fountain of youth that we somehow manage to tap into, like with pop music — it’s not out of the question to see 50-year-old men still dressing like teenagers and I just feel like, “What happened?” It’s like we won World War II and now we can be idiots for the rest of time. [Laughter from audience.] It used to be that adults were proud to be dignified. I was just reading Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, and he was reading English by the time he was 4, he learned to read English before Russian, and he was reading scientific journals by the time he was 7. Clearly being an adult was the aim, it wasn’t just to be an idiot, and when you’re in college to get drunk all the time. I don’t know what happened, but it’s not a proud tradition we’re exporting, I don’t think.

MW: But do you feel that maturing in this way and this experience of having a child has helped your art?

CW: Oh yeah, sure. I mean, it’s given new meaning to the phrase “precious moments,” that’s for sure, because I have much less time to work than I used to, so I don’t really have time to sit around and think about “Oh, how terrible. I have no time to work. I’m an awful artist.” Recently, when I told my daughter that I was going to go up and work on one of my strips, she actually said: “Are you just gonna go upstairs and blame yourself?[Audience laughs.] She’s only four years old, so … [Wivel laughs].

MW: Right, I think that’s a fantastic note to end on here.

CW: Well, thank you very much for having me here and for sitting through my nasal, irritating voice for so long. Anyway, thank you.

MW: Thank you so much for doing this. [Applause.]

all images ©Chris Ware

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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 […]