by Steve Matuszak
For all its sophistication, cartoonist Chris Ware’s body of work, as Ware relates in his recent, hefty book Monograph, has a humble origin: listening to his grandmother tell stories of her past. According to Ware, she did so “with a vibrancy of detail, a firm feeling of reality and a sense of life which I’ve not experienced since in any conversational setting,” forging a powerful connection between them through story. “The lingering feeling of it,” Ware explains, “is what made me want to become a writer, or an almost-writer.”
The desire for connection, for the reader to be moved, to feel not just emotion but something intangible, something like the rustle of memory, can indeed be found in the virtuosity and formal complexity of Ware’s comics. Though Monograph is not in comics form—it is (as the title suggests) an artist monograph, collecting photos from Ware’s life and of his paintings and sculptures, reproducing pages from his comics, both in rough and finished form, as well as from his sketchbooks and personal journals, all accompanied by Ware’s commentary and reminiscences—it is yet another iteration in his attempt to capture the lingering feeling he experienced in those conversations with his grandmother.
Monograph is arranged roughly in chronological order, beginning with Ware’s childhood in Omaha before quickly moving to his years at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was an art student and would draw his first comic strips for the college paper The Daily Texan—work that would capture the heart of Art Spiegelman, who immediately invited the young artist to contribute to RAW, the venerable comics anthology from the ’80s and ’90s. The book then follows Ware as he moves to Chicago to matriculate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a period of time when he would create strips like “Quimby the Mouse” and “Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth” that would make their way into his innovative comic book The Acme Novelty Library and eventually lead to the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth and to Ware’s more widespread recognition, including his subtly complex New Yorker covers.
There is a lot here. While most artist monographs offer plenty to look at, what one is looking at in Monograph are often comics, which, as Ware is well aware, are meant to be read. So some pages in Monograph become nearly vertiginous as one has to rotate the book (on occasion several times) to read the strips’ panels, some of which might have been intended initially for a larger format, the lettering still legible but shrinking precariously, especially when some of those “panels” are themselves comic book pamphlets affixed to the pages of Monograph, asking one to read even smaller pages and panels. The movement of these pages, spiraling off into ever finer articulations, recalls a photograph in Monograph of the coiling, filigreed ornamentation of architect Louis Sullivan, which in Ware’s estimation “was able to harness in sculptural form the energy, shape and flow of life in near abstract form.” And, most resoundingly, it delineates the structure of Ware’s more formally complex comics, like the one gracing Monograph’s cover, in which scenes are shot through with intersecting strips that depict characters’ fantasies or provide glimpses of backstories, thought balloons drifting up from other thought balloons, iconic imagery and diagrammatic notations—lines and arrows—allowing the reader to set out one way or another and back again across the page to discover new narrative threads and interpretations in the abounding visual rhymes (only some of which, Ware reveals, are intentional).
Throughout Monograph, Ware makes clear that as a cartoonist, he has wanted to evoke in the architecture of the comics pages, “the energy, shape, and flow of life” through visual rhythms that, he realized, are especially suited to the art of comics. It is an insight that came to Ware early in his career as he experimented with wordless comics, stripping the art form of the distractions of word balloons down to its very structure, where “underneath the balloons and in between the panels something akin to the music of emotional gestures that fills our days was being recreated.” It is that music, Ware began to understand, that animated his favorite comics, including Krazy Kat, Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, and on to the formally adventurous work in RAW and Weirdo.
Because comics express time spatially, through the arrangement of panels (or at least figures) on a page, the “music of emotional gestures” in comics is visual. Readers see the gestures, which are expressed now, in the present, by the figure or panel that is the focus of the reader’s attention. But Ware recognizes that the gestures—that is, the expressions of the present—can only be fully experienced, can only be felt, in light of conditions that have brought them into being: our histories, our desires, and the world around us. And that’s what comics, by the very nature of how they work, have the capacity to show us, and in fact do show us if they are expressing the music that Ware is talking about. We see the moment of the gesture, what is expressed in a particular panel, but we also see what brings it to life, in other panels or figures on the page and perhaps even in what they imply. As Ware puts it:
The universe . . . is almost assuredly a continuum through which our consciousnesses pass, its (and our) shapes knowable only in the slices of time and memory we experience and cling to as fragments of a three-dimensional present. Not to draw too much of a bold line under it all, but in somewhat reduced form this notion undergirds the idea of the basic structure of comics, where the composition, the rhythms and the rhymes are more important than the individual pictures and panels themselves.
If this sounds a bit heady, it is really describing nothing more complicated than reading comics. Still, in Monograph, Ware is not afraid to pursue philosophical lines of thought about life, comics, and art. By its very design—the book weighs almost nine pounds, is a foot and a half tall and over a foot wide, and contains some very small print that requires one to really look at what one is reading—Ware makes clear that Monograph is not casual reading. Regardless, the abstract passages are few and are included only because Ware is striving for complete honesty. Moreover, they are an important part of what animates him as an artist, a timbre of the music of his emotional gestures, of which this book is another expression. And it is not, generally speaking, one of the intellect, but one of the heart, born of love like the stories Ware’s grandmother told him. It is the making of a music that engages the mind’s eye and illuminates our strange eventful history upon life’s stage. Or, as Ware says at the end of the book: “The astonishingly human ability to see within one’s mind . . . is the very definition of memory and of the self. It is the poetic engine of literature and it is the esthetic core of the visual art I practice—and which, I guess, I love.”