On Chris Ware.

William Eisner wrote the book on how comics are done, and created the course. Defining the world of sequential art was an intensive process of reflection on something that up until the 1970’s had not been understood or investigated academically. “Organizing the syllabus for this course (in Sequential Art at the School of Visual Art in New York City) brought into sharp focus the fact that during most of my professional life, I had been dealing with a medium more demanding of diverse skills and intellect than either I or my contemporaries fully appreciated.” He broke down the fundamentals, sought out the relevant histories like the connections to film and animation, and with his work and body of understanding, he effectively also created constraints on emerging artists. For years it was evidently difficult to see beyond such preconceptions.
Sequential art, Eisner wrote, is a synthesis of “design, drawing, caricature and writing”. Even this simple definition had not been put to paper before Eisner. With comics, like in many other minor fields, it was the practitioners alone who were the critics and authorities. “In the main (my contemporaries) were content to concentrate on the development of their draftsmanship and their perception of the audience and the demands of the marketplace.” While most of the work was previously instinctive and unexamined, it was only later recognised as relating to communication and art, and not, decidedly, termed as either design or literature.
This phrasing surrounding comics has had a great impact on its history. Comics are not seen or interpreted, the belief has remained that comics are read for example. People rely on these simplistic signifiers of language to build a general understanding, even though it is often a limiting one. I find in Chris Ware’s work that just escaping these basic premises set by language can be extremely liberating for the artist.

Raeburn stated “In the early years of the 20th century, artists like Windsor McCay, George Herriman and Frank King laid a broad foundation for the structure of comics, mainly because they were not yet limited by conventional, concrete ideas of what comics should be.” This for years however became the known means of execution. Raeburn sees it that Ware recognised other related disciplines that existed within comics but were not discussed. His use of architecture, references to music, and the incorporation of fake advertisements, would suggest though that Ware didn’t simply look to the history of comics, but as a formally educated artist looked to his own experiences and interests to create his work.
Ware is a fantastic, nostalgic imitator of comics as show in his books The Acme Novelty Library Date Book’s, but with this he has looked to influences and formed his own ideas. This suggests that instead of somebody who would read and be limited by a work like Eisner’s, Ware has taken Eisner’s approach and explored the possibilities of work himself. Ware for example can capture a realistic style, however avoids this style in his work. The aim in his work is to not show emotion directly as realism may do, but to create empathy and emotion in readers through their experiences of reading. Ware has not only escaped the systems of the past, he has gone on to achieve commercial success, academic acknowledgement, made fans out of critics, and maintained the support of those within his profession.

Wolk is one person who is critical of Ware in his portrayal of much of his work. However even Wolk in his harsh criticism acknowledges Ware’s accomplishments, seeing that “his inventions (...) are too distinctive to be easily appropriated unobtrusively. Perhaps Ware’s influence has taken, in the case of some authors, the more positive form of a “permission to innovate,” an encouragement to imagine non-traditional layouts.” Ware has created work different enough from others to engage them in new possibilities of creation, not merely creating an extra set of tools to potentially imitate.

Ball (written in Williams & Lyons) has written numerous times on Ware, and compiled works on him. Here, Ball opens and explores new territory looking at Ware’s work. “Acknowledging the tensions articulated (...) between comics and literature (…) and the slipperiness of these distinctions remains the linchpin for beginning to discus the role of graphic narratives in the literary canon.” Ball looks to Ware to create a new way of discussing not only comics, but literature as well. It is not as simple as one medium drawing on another, but an oscillation between the two. The works cannot be expected to exist in isolation, or viewed as only one influencing the other, but instead draw on each other in a continuum. This acknowledgement of oscillation is critical in understanding the complexity of contemporary art, design, and the studies of works in other fields. The idea of a history being linear, or of simplifying understanding to something that can be coined or synthesised reflects much of the study of Ware, but is the antithesis of the work itself.

In reading Ware there is really no dense complexity to observing and understanding the work as a narrative. The analysis of the diagrammatic form by Cates (written in Ball & Kuhlman), and references to interpretation as typography and type design as an example, are an interesting break down of a work. The need to do this is a way of justifying academic interpretation perhaps giving the work relevance to ones own field. What is more important should be that Ware is not a typographer, an author, a diagram designer, or an illustrator - he is an individual, he is Chris Ware, and should be identified as such. The need to be transdisciplinary or multidisciplinary is often discussed as areas of knowledge are specialised or generalised in order to work together. My belief though is that everyone should be acting as an individual. The point of giving a business a singular identity, or a software program a general function, makes complete sense, as these applications need to work for numerous users. In those instances unambiguous modernism works. However individuality, particularly in the creative industries, is a more accurate representation of postmodern and metamodern (post-postmodern) ideas that are in conflict with modernist systems. Simply, modernist systems need to work with postmodern people.
To apply the above idea, diagrams are not a literal means, or at least should not be, of understanding comics in general or Ware’s work. They are simply a near synonymous analogy, useful for explaining concepts. The complexity and differences should not be simplified however, as they often are. Taking for example the diagram on the dust jacket of Jimmy Corrigan, Ware conveys not only information as primarily a diagram would intend, but also the literary and emotive qualities he aspires to. Again here, I say literary, used only as an analogy for better understanding, not as a specific notion, and certainly not to say that Ware is directly comparable to literature, though many have tried.

The literature analogy fails to work in the consideration of the means of communication Ware uses, as “his readers encounter fake catalogue advertisements and coupons, collectible trading cards, fold-up paper-craft projects, souvenir calendars, essays and indicia in painfully minute detail” and most relevant to this essay, “multi-part diagrams of almost inevitably discouraging complexity.” Cates believes that these extra devices comment more on the medium of comics, literature and reading, as some of these additions do not usually increase understanding or contribute to the narrative, at least within the work Jimmy Corrigan.
Perhaps it is more accurate to view the additions as pacing and emotive devices. While many are light hearted, they allow the reader to reflect on the story. They do not function as long or consistent pauses because of their infrequency, but it should be remembered that the complete book as it now exists without pagination, was originally written and released as individual stories over a 5 year period. Within the original format, this humour makes more sense than perceiving them as being akin to chapter heads. This context makes them relevant to the zine medium, influenced by early MAD magazine additions. With so much of the background and development of comics existing in academic isolation from literature, the work is better viewed as coming closer together now than in the past, rather than as if literature and comics were in parallel but that was unacknowledged.

Banita (written in Ball & Kuhlman) views the pacing of comics very singularly, identifying most graphic novels as being fast paced. The stories Ware tells are naturally toned in a different way from the typical Marvel and DC comics, and the pacing is a reflection of this. Perhaps this simplified view comes from Banita being an outsider to the genre of comic books, and some of her simpler reflections need to be excused.
Regarding the pacing, in order to increase pace, a creator in any discipline will cut elements out. Ware as a technique can draw out a simple moment in an unordinary manner with additional frames, more like looking at the zoetrope (an antiquated animation device) he creates where the action is broken down to every frame needed to convey more complex emotions, or to convey the same emotion over time to convey a prolonged reflection. This works not only to depict an emotion, but engages an empathetic response in order to have an experience rather than an acknowledgement. Ware aims with this not to show readers what melancholy or joy look like as a picture of these things, but aims to make them go through those emotions through his medium of story telling.
A great difference highlighted by Banita between literature and the graphic novel form, is of rereading. A typical reading of a novel is done once through, and rarely does anyone reread a passage to better take it in unless it is for comprehension, the exceptions being poetry and short texts. But looking for an extended time at imagery is a normal practice. This is described as a second reading of the information existing concurrently within a first reading by Banita. While in fast paced action readers experience more shock than when they know what is coming in a second reading, in Jimmy Corrigan, the passages that involve shock or rereading, like when Jimmy Corrigan is hit by a truck, have a differing affect on second reading. The slower section after the shock depicted now relates to a reflective reading from the reader, where the reader wonders about their own interpretation as much as what is occurring in the narrative. “(Affect) does not reside in Jimmy’s defencelessness in the face of the unfortunate events, but in the narrative intensity created by the prolonged display of his reactions, often in images that do not feature the protagonist but suggest the emptiness of his mood.”

It is furthermore through Banita’s interpretation that the idea of Ware’s affinity for nostalgia relates not only to celebrating and obsessing over the past with details and iconography, but also using nostalgia in a melancholic sense through the narrative. Not only is Jimmy Corrigan showing what is of the past to enjoy it, he dwells on the past to learn more and remember, and relives the trauma of events. Nostalgia, though often enjoyed, is also the search for something lost. This depth when analysed seems profound, but it is intuitively created and experienced in the work itself.
Banita’s reflections inform us as if something new had occurred within Ware’s works. The work though has many properties already existing in comics and other mediums. Ware draws on traditional elements, but unorthodox ones. This is in a sense innovation as the combinations may not have occurred in this exact manner before, but rather than stating things to be innovation or tradition or progress, the complex interrelation of all of these things needs to be understood.

The normal breaks from the linearity of time becomes only more complicated where “(Ware) communicates a perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” as in, the narrator is experiencing the recollection of events in the present. The typical depiction of the past would result in a narrative construction. But the narrator here is intending to communicate, and reflects through writing on reflections and interpretations of events. This story telling device is not all that uncommon, as a diary or conversation use the same technique, however here it is another addition to the layered meaning within the story, and it is possible to misinterpret.

Similarly Ware’s diagrams through use direction in a dynamic way, and communicating time elaborately, could be misunderstood. One of the main reasons Ware has been able to explore these possibilities is that the page form allows for this, where the printing is more costly for example, and much larger for the dust jacket of Jimmy Corrigan. In Building Stories it can be seen how much else can be done with the page outside the conventional dimensions of most comics, pagination and framing, as Ware uses different cuts of page sizes, forms of printing and stock usually reserved for board games, and numerous elaborately constructed parts. There “elements demand that readers abandon the left-to-right, top-to-bottom convention, as they cause readers to turn a corner and begin reading down the right-hand side of the page” (Bredehoft) or equally, as the story continues from another section of the book. Employing this works also when Building Stories is compiled as one edition, as it does in Jimmy Corrigan. The experience for a reader though can be enhanced through the more elaborate printing methods insisted upon. For example a special edition of Nabakov’s Pale Fire exists where the multi-sectioned story is divided literally into multiple printed sections reflecting how the story is told, and includes entries written in more appropriate hand writing styles or type writing styles. Pushing this further though, is when it becomes imperative to a stories construction that it be divided in this way, and few take this on, perhaps mainly because of accessibility to readers, but also the limits perceived in the medium.
Taking the reference to Nabakov’s Pale Fire further, “the narrative effect of the page demands that we read all of these narrative lines simultaneously: to read this page effectively does not depend on choosing a correct sequence for the juxtaposed images or a correct sequence of narrative lines, but to recognize that each individual sequence and line is insufficient to the narrative purposes of the page as a whole.” This was accomplished in Pale Fire by using notes and cross references, so in order to read and understand the work, readers would need to return to an earlier written text. Ware employs both linking and diagrams within his works to create these complex structures.

It is the new, developing techniques that have given rise to academic discussion. Without this however, Ware is skilled in the traditional side of writing, drawing, and all that has been considered to make up comic design. No one element can be said to be an answer to why Ware has his current status. The work has sold well commercially, yet academics are also fans, many of whom discovered the work through study. There is an interplay of all of the elements coming together that is overlooked too often when stating success, influence, or even ownership of works. With Ware, only a broad survey of his works and their histories will give any semblance of understanding the work itself, as well as everything surrounding the work, and the same notion should be applied to all histories and understandings.