“The one thing I don’t want to be is a storyteller.”
Let’s just say that I never had much respect for comics. Besides some Tintin or Disney entertainment, I was largely indifferent to what I thought of as profane jokes on the back of thin newspapers. I never explored the world of comics which I knew to be set at places like the Simpsons’ Android’s Dungeon & Baseball Card Shop, populated by teenage boys eager to sublimate adolescent fear and frustration by sucking on untouchable superhero fantasies in cellophane.
So, when I passed the window of a dedicated local comic dealer in late 2000, I had not planned to slow down, let alone go inside. But that day the usual kaleidoscope of lurid covers was dimmed by the centerpiece on display: a 380-page volume, landscape format, two inches wide, standing out visually against the rest with gravitational presence. I bought Jimmy Corrigan – The Smartest Kid on Earth without asking for the price.
It took me a while to realize what exactly I had bought, and I failed to make the connection to Art Spiegelman’s Maus – a complex analysis of Spiegelman’s relationship with his father and the family’s history against the background of the Holocaust – which I had come across as a kid, however never thought of as a comic. I simply didn’t know there was a thing called graphic novel, as coined by Richard Kyle in 1964. But like anybody who holds Chris Ware’s work in his hands for the first time, I instantly felt its creative impact.
Detailing his stories in meticulous and carefully crafted artwork, Chris Ware lays out an irresistibly beautiful world of deficits and defects. While nowadays a seemingly endless archive of superhero comics is shamelessly exploited for bland 3D animated blockbusters, Chris Ware set out to prove the narrative potential of visual writing. In stark contrast to the loud colors and simplistic world of action figures, he proposes a quiet and introverted vision in muted shades of nostalgia, exploring topics of social isolation, emotional pain and personal failure in modern life. And so Chris Ware’s comics are about sad children, lonely outcasts and depressed superheroes. Clearly they are not for fun.
But make no mistake: His work is also utterly charming and addictive. With Quimby the Mouse, Rusty Brown, Building Stories, Lint or the legendary Jimmy Corrigan, to name just a few, Chris Ware has created a body of stunning visual narratives which deservedly earned much praise, both by comic and literature critics. In addition to countless Harvey and Eissner Awards, he was the first graphic novelist to win the Guardian First Book Award in 2001 as well as being the first comic artist invited to participate at the Whitney Biennial in 2002. He was honored in the exhibition Masters of American Comics at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2007, and showed his work in solo exhibitions at, among others, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The New Yorker dubbed Jimmy Corrigan ‘the first formal masterpiece’ of the new genre.
In the meantime, Chris Ware is never short of self-deprecation. When he uses the preliminaries of Quimby the Mouse as an opportunity to advise you to ‘not pay any attention to what he is saying to you’, it might appear like a polite gesture to make you smile, whereas in fact it is an expression of a profound sense of modesty. Which was also the reason for Chris Ware insisting on an e-mail exchange for this interview, reasoning that ‘as a function of my own idiocy, spoken-word interviews and I are not a good combination’. Oh, how I would have loved to prove him wrong.