Thinking Inside the Box

Chris Ware’s Building Stories reminds me of the board game Cluedo, where a house is opened out after Dr Black’s body is found. Only in this version of Cluedo there isn’t a murder; instead, the subject is life.

On opening Ware’s box you can see life mapped out in fourteen comics – newspaper-like broadsheets, magazines, a hardbound book and storyboards – for you to pick your way over in whichever order you choose. Life for Ware is a woman inserting a tampon, and people who have fallen head over heels out of love. It is an art teacher who has one leg, plastic shower curtains and not being able to do up your jeans.

Literature is teeming with the stories of buildings, the Wuthering Heights, Bleak Houses and Manderleys, but this time the building is a three storey Chicago brownstone and everything from a flaccid penis to an existential crisis is drawn out in their little colourful boxes. The stories of the tenants are painful; this is a comic but there are no superheroes crashing and banging around to save the world. In the words of Philip Larkin “Home is so sad.”

Critics trip over each other to gush quite how original Ware’s work is, in an ‘is it a book, is it a plane?’ frenzy, but much of my pleasure in Building Stories was from the traditional influences on the box. He harnesses the excitement of opening a Christmas present, and there is a sense of a pop-up book, and something that recalls a dolls’ house – the elderly landlady is even drawn with paper tabs around her as if she were a cardboard cutout you could dress yourself. Ware himself said that a Twenties game box, a Treasure Box of Famous Comics from 1934, and Marcel Duchamp’s Museum in a Box were the items which inspired him to start experimenting with ‘comic boxes’ back in 1989 at the University of Texas.

Ware’s work also follows the legendary experiment in form that was B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, a 1960s book in a box. Johnson’s chapters were left unbound, to be read in any order, just as a reader of Ware’s Building Stories can meet the comic world however they like – as though going up in a lift and randomly pressing the button for one of the floors, maybe meeting the old landlady first as a young girl. Johnson said of his work that it didn’t solve the problem completely but “it was still a better solution to the problem of conveying the mind’s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book”.

The iconic British comic The Dandy has recently announced that on its 75th birthday this year, it will migrate to a wholly digital presence. The visual building blocks that are the ‘stuff’ of Ware’s story are another way for the physical to compete in a digital market, introducing grey space between the e-reader and the basic paperback. Building Stories is beautiful so give it a read – or, even better – give it a go.

A Step-by-Step Guide

1) Get a box.

2) Decide on a story. It doesn’t have to be one about marriages break ing down or amputees – Ware’s characters crammed in their too small boxes could equally be living in a student house, or a college staircase, with mountains of washing up and scouts nipping in and out of the frames.

3) Find yourself some pens and a ruler– you want a good bold black line on the storyboards, and some garish poster-paint colours.

4) Draw your stories and remember chronology is not an issue – you could meet a character before that incident with their college dad, or skip ahead and start with graduation.

5) Play around with forms. You could stick an old Camera ticket or a Dominoes voucher in with your illustrations of life.

6) Close the lid, and give it to your first reader to open. . .