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Cartoonist Chris Ware is in his own category

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If you were building a Chris Ware, if you were constructing the most celebrated cartoonist of the past couple of decades, drawing up the plans for an Oak Park illustrator so routinely referred to as a genius that the accolade is more like fact than opinion, the first thing you would need is doubt. Preferably, self-doubt. But uncertainty, self-flagellation, humility-verging-on-delusion — any of these would work.

And though you would pour this malady straight into the foundation, you needn't worry about the sturdiness. Ware is thick with worry. He frets and cringes, wonders if he's being pretentious, worries that his worrying resembles false humility. But primarily, he doubts.

His wife, Marnie, told me he gets upset when people bring this up: "But many of us always feel 11, and no matter how much Chris accomplishes or how many people tell him he's a genius, a piece of him will probably always feel like that kid in the lunchroom who sits by himself, lonely."

When he was a child, Ware connected deeply with Charlie Brown, he said. He remembers connecting so deeply that he sent Charlie Brown a valentine. "'Peanuts' was the first comic strip with a truly empathetic cartoon character, and Charlie Brown was the first character who grabbed you by the heart. A comic strip is good for telling jokes and for looking down (on characters), but in Charles Schulz's work, you always felt through his characters. So I felt truly sorry for Charlie Brown, which is an amazing thing to produce using just four little pictures. I felt horrible for him. I gave the valentine to my mother and asked her to send it to Charlie Brown and she said OK then probably put it in the place where all the letters to Santa Claus went."

At 44, Ware, who made his name drawing such alternative classics as "Jimmy Corrigan" and "Quimby the Mouse" and the ongoing "Acme Novelty Library," is arguably now the leading practitioner of what he refers to as "the empathetic doodle." He also looks like what Charlie Brown might look like at 44. His head is bulbous yet cylindrical, his expression melancholic yet sweet. He mumbles, comes across as awkward, shy. When he was 13 and his love for comics veered into a deeper appreciation for the medium, he sent Schulz a letter, explaining he might want to be a cartoonist. But he got the address wrong and the letter was returned. It's the kind of story that, boiled down to four comic strip panels, would read like Charlie Brown.

No beginning, no ending, just a feeling.

Windows into life

The next thing you need if you're building a Chris Ware is ambition. Consider "Building Stories," his new book and first major work since "Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth," the 2000 graphic novel that won him scores of literary awards and led to Ware being invited to show his work at the 2002 Whitney Biennial in New York. (Dave Eggers writing in The New York Times, called "Jimmy Corrigan" "in terms of sheer aesthetic virtuosity ... arguably the greatest achievement of the form, ever.") That said, the first thing you want to do with "Building Stories" is not read it but gaze at it, run your hands across it. A couple of weeks ago at Ware's house, when a Tribune photographer asked if he could see the book, Ware left the room and returned with a box. It didn't resemble a book. It looked more like an old board game.

He handed it to the photographer. "What is this?" the photographer asked. "My book," Ware said, then added, deadpan: "Exactly the reaction I was hoping."

The photographer put the box on his lap, lifted off the lid and marveled. Ware turned his back. I asked if this was the first time he had seen someone look at it. Exactly why my back's turned, he said, cringing out a flat smile.

You'd understand too if your latest book wasn't a book at all but 14 individual books full of ennui, stacked inside a box — 14 books that tell the interlocking stories of the residents of a Chicago apartment building. (Needless to say, there will not be a Kindle version.) The top book in the stack is rectangular and wordless, the story of a woman who, more or less, exists — she pushes her child in the stroller, seasons pass, the child grows older, the woman lonelier. Another book (its gold spine, a nod to classic Golden Books) is narrated by the building itself, which, in one sequence, tallies up every pregnancy, water drip, suicide note, cat, television and spiritual crisis that's passed though it in 104 years. There's a copy of "The Daily Bee," the newspaper ("God Save the Queen") put out by the neighborhood hive. Another book shows cutaways of apartments and unfolds like a board game.

Novelist Zadie Smith, a friend of Ware, told me, "When I read it, I kept thinking how sophisticated and unusual the rhythms were, and how fragmented it felt but fluid at the same time. I also wondered if anyone was doing anything like this in prose. There's not a lot of guidance on what you should read next, and yet the emotional effect is extraordinary. As soon as I stopped worrying about the order of the stories and just read them, it was fine."

Ware told me there's no order to the books in the box, no correct way to read through them.

"I was hoping to get at how memory actually seems to work, which isn't always chronological. I also hoped to induce that brief vertigo in the reader when one gets so deeply lost in a recollection that present seems to all but disappear and the past almost seems more real." He said one inspiration was Canadian short story master Alice Munro, who "links together brief moments of detail and texture with quick, broad passages indicating time's passage." There are no acts, no chapters. Snow piles up on windowsills, a woman remembers the smell of her father's coat, a girl catches fireflies while the faces of parents glow by the lights of their iPhones. Throughout, the art is signature Ware, dense, formal, colorful — drawing as much on the clutter of old newspaper ads as on the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell. Each panel feels like a window into a life.

When Ware gave a short preview of "Building Stories" last spring during a cartoonists conference at the University of Chicago, cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, one of Ware's friends, had to choke back tears. "My head, and I think everyone's heads, was spinning that day. There was a collective gasp." Canadian cartoonist Seth was more blunt: He cursed, buried his head in his hands.

On the phone the other day, Seth told me: "You know how some work gives an illusion of who the artist is? You imagine R. Crumb laughing as he draws? You never get the impression Chris laughs while working. It's all hard won. When we met, I remember thinking I had to try harder. A few years ago I got depressed by him, because he was so good every new project starts to feel like a nail in your coffin. Though at some point you recognize he's in his own category. You can't compete. Picasso's contemporaries likely felt this, too."

Work speaks for itself

Once the ambition is secure, the third step in building our Chris Ware is adding the background: Ware lives on a bucolic street in Oak Park that feels a lot like a page from a Chris Ware book. On the other hand, that early September morning when I visited his home I had been reading "Building Stories" for the second time and as you might with a writer, my brain felt under the influence of his rhythms and language. I noticed the bright green and yellow leaves outside his home, the utter stillness of the morning, how it was broken by a chatter of squirrels. There was a tempo to the street and the morning, yet nothing much seemed to be happening. I also noticed the numbers on his home and no soliciting sign on his front door had been created by him — the lettering had a familiar squareness, the same blockiness with which he signs his name.

"I had a messy signature as a child," he said, "and my grandmother said this suggested I had no regard for other people. She was right." And so, to this day, he has no scribble, only a meticulously lettered signature.

When you enter his home, which he shares with his wife and 7-year old daughter, the first thing you notice is it looks a lot like his work — a 1908 Edwardian dense with right angles, clean lines and good taste. There is no obvious TV or stereo or bags from Target. The only sound is the loud tick of a grandfather clock. Tidy stacks of art books are everywhere. Penny arcade-style mechanical toys that he built in college — a two-headed wind-up cat, a mini-book dispenser — rest on a shelf. His wife, who attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (and is now chairperson/ of the science department at Prosser Career Academy), has a pair of her own landscape paintings over the dining room table. Otherwise, every wall holds a piece of original comic art from the heyday of newspaper comics and on every mantle sits a building detail from Louis Sullivan, his favorite architect. Woods are sturdy brown oaks, leather chairs black. In the living room, lighted display cabinets hold vintage toys, wooden and tin ancillary merchandise from "Peanuts," George Herriman's "Krazy Kat," Frank King's "Gasoline Alley."

King, whose strip originated in the Chicago Tribune in 1918, carries particular resonance.

"When I was in college at the University of Texas, my friend John Keen and I would drive to these small towns and go to antique stores looking for old newspapers with the strip. It was one of the few strips that captured a sense of life's passing, the defining characteristic of course being that everyone in it ages. It was also an example to follow. My aim was to create something human, meaningful and moving, and it was a reassurance that yes, you can do something other than jokes with comics, which I wasn't so sure about when I was starting out."

Ware grew up in Omaha, Neb.. His mother was a newspaper reporter. His father was in the Navy; the two didn't meet until Ware was in his 30s and working on "Jimmy Corrigan," partly the tale of a sad, squishy man visiting the father he never knew. Ware once described their reunion as a brief, uncomfortable meeting between "regretful men." Asked to describe himself as a child, Ware said: "Nervous, self-doubting, unathletic, nerdy. I wasn't sure if kids liked me — no, I was sure a lot of kids didn't like me. I dreaded school and often had a stomach ache."

At the University of Texas, he worked on the school paper and began drawing "Quimby the Mouse." By chance, a clipping service sent cartoonist Art Spiegelman a copy of the paper; it had a mention of "Maus," Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel. It also had Ware's new comic. Spiegelman, whose wife Francoise Mouly is art editor of The New Yorker, called Ware, said he admired his work, asked to see more.

Ware said that of course it was a massive boost of confidence. After graduation he moved to Chicago. He liked snow and old buildings, he told me. He got into the printmaking program at SAIC, then grew paralyzed at the idea of giving an oral report in front of an art history class and never finished the program. About this time, Ware's comics began circulating nationwide, and New York-based graphic designer Chip Kidd, now associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf (and godparent to Ware's daughter), called information in Chicago, looking for Ware. "I said, 'Hi, You don't know me but I think you're great.' And he didn't hang up. Later that year, I was giving a talk to an art directors club in New York, so I asked him to design an invitation for me."

It went out to dozens of graphic designers in New York. Ware created a four-sided invitation that resembled the ads for green Army men in the back of comic books: "Send away for 200 little art directors!"

Throughout this time, even as Ware was making a reputation, friend Archer Prewitt, longtime cartoonist ("Sof' Boy"), member of Chicago band The Sea and Cake and nearby Oak Park resident, said Ware often seemed beyond uneasy in any public setting: "Chris was a completely mannered individual who had a prickly side that flared up and I found really engaging. But we would get asked to lecture at a college or somewhere, and he'd do it but get unhappy, go into a dark place. I thought it wasn't good for him. Neither did he — he had these compelling ideas on serial imagery and comics but I think those experiences taught him about how he wanted to present himself, because really, he would rather let his work speak for itself."

'Very attuned'

Lastly, you can't complete a Chris Ware without a studio. Ware's is on the top floor of his home, above the second floor display cabinets holding antique banjos and the library with its framed postcard from John Updike. Just outside his studio is another cabinet that holds a miniature box containing miniature books — a Lilliputian warm-up of sorts for "Building Stories," created in 1989 during a summer art program in Maine.

Ware's studio is long, its roof peaked, every surface seemingly wooden and full of gravitas or a putty-colored piece of metal office furniture. A drawer behind his chair holds the original drawings of his New Yorker magazine covers. On a nearby table sits a scale model of a building from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, which figured into "Jimmy Corrigan." It was a present from Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, a friend of Ware's. They've worked together on Louis Sullivan shows for the Chicago Cultural Center and WBEZ-FM (with radio host Ira Glass).

"You often think of intense people as clinical, not able to respond in a meaningful way to things," Samuelson said, "but Chris, he's very attuned to the way buildings work as both artistic compositions and how they have feelings, how they seem personally aligned with lives in them."

All of which would make Ware's decision a couple of years ago to allow his home to be part of a walking tour for the Historical Society of Oak Park & River Forest all the more baffling. But his palate is softening, his already pronounced empathy swelling. Though he rarely goes out, his recent New Yorker cover, showing children headed back to school and parents to work — a portrait of Oak Park's Beye Elementary, featuring his daughter's pensive backward glance and Ware himself peddling home — seemed warm and social.

"Rarely does he say he's happy with something he has done, even in private," his wife said. "Chris still goes through genuine despair that he is no good — in 20 years I haven't understood where it stems from. But as he's become a father and matured, he's more concerned with universal truths, encompassing stories."

If "Jimmy Corrigan" was about the hurt of childhood, "Building Stories" is about the disappointments of adulthood. But also about the contentment of parenthood. And also, he told me, partly about, remarkably, "abandoning one's own creative ambition." He said this even though art from "Building Stories" is on display at the Carl Hammer Gallery, and even though the book, itself a lesson in ambition, has an elaborate $80 addendum of sorts, the plans for building your own paper version of the building in "Building Stories." It's so beautifully designed I can not bring myself to cut it up. The back cover even includes a note that refers to it as "an absolutely unnecessary addendum to the already unmanageable 'Building Stories' graphic novel."

I asked Ware why he is still so unsure of himself.

"Because I am, because I'm not sure what I'm doing is emotionally truthful and can't shake the self-doubt I had as a kid." And, added the melancholy genius of Oak Park, "because I've come to live with it."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Chris Ware at Printers Row Live!
He will discuss his latest graphic novel, "Building Stories," with Tribune reporter Mark Caro at 3 p.m. Saturday at Tribune Tower. For tickets and information, go to TribNation.com/events

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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