Archive for November 9, 2012

Teaching Building Stories

Chris Ware's Building Stories (2012). Photo by Alan Trotter.As one of the first people to teach Chris Ware’s Building Stories (which just came out last month), I thought I would share what I’m planning. Given the loud and enthusiastic acclaim that has greeted Building Stories, I expect that others will also teach the work.  (To the best of my knowledge, the only other person teaching Building Stories this term is Dave Ball.)  As serious readers of comics and graphic novels already know, Building Stories is a box containing fourteen textual objects — book, booklets, magazines, newspapers, Little-Golden-Book-designed book, small folded strips, board game, and the box itself (which resembles the box to a board game).

This poses some challenges.  Since these items can be read in any order, where do you begin?  Should you impose an order at all?  For practical reasons, I have imposed an order.  I’ve told students that they can read this work in any order they like, but we have a specific order in which we’ll be discussing it, in class.  The order in which the items emerge from the box determined my order.  That, I figured, was both arbitrary and consistent.  I say “consistent” because I expect that all boxes were packed similarly: so, each reader would encounter this “order” first.  As we get deeper into the work, I will also ask about how order shapes our sense of chronology and meaning.  However, to start, I’ve dived the class into groups of two or three, assigned each a section on which they’ll become an “expert,” and provided some “generic” questions.  Here’s what I told the students when I announced this plan a month ago, followed by a collection of readings (on Building Stories) that I’ve been collecting since then.  (My name for each section derives either from the first lines of text or from something more descriptive.)

Chris Ware, Building Stories (unpacked)

As mentioned in class today (16 Oct.), I’ve divided up the readings for Chris Ware’s Building Stories — this is on the page I handed out in class, and the syllabus’s Schedule of Readings (scroll down).  As I also mentioned, the book is the graphic novel event of the season.  It made its debut about 2 weeks ago, and was the best-selling book on the New York Times‘ Graphic Books list this past Sunday (14 Oct.).  In this post, I’m listing: (1) the questions (same as those handed out in class), (2) the list of readings, and (3) links to some of the many reviews, essays, and stories that have been published in the past few months.


  1. What stories does this part (or these parts) build?  Provide at least three examples.
  2. What do we learn about our unnamed protagonist (the amputee)?  In some cases, the connection will be more challenging to make. Pick three moments.
  3. Why tell this story in this form (book, newspaper, magazine, booklet, etc.)?
  4. What questions do you have?  These can be discussion questions or simply subjects that perplex you.

Each group (or pair) should address these questions, and bring them with you on your day.  Bring an extra copy for me, so that I can follow along during discussion.


13 November

Group 1

1) [wordless / 7.5 x 25 cm / nights and days]

2) “God… I can’t bear it… I can’t… I can’t” / “I don’t care… I just don’t care…” [2-sided folded strip]

3) “Her laugh is like a flight of tiny birds, taking off…” / “Momma, I don’t know how I feel right now. I mean, I don’t know how to say it. I’m just not happy or sad. I’m in between.” [2-sided folded strip]

4) Branford, the Best Bee in the World

Group 2

5) September 23rd, 2000 [Golden Book]

15 November

Group 3

6) “Shit” [magazine]


8) DISCONNECT [larger magazine]

27 November

Group 4


29 November

Group 5

10) The Daily Bee [newspaper]

11) “Recently, my high school boyfriend friended me on Facebook…” / “As a kid, I could sit in front of a mirror and stare at myself for hours, trying to imagine what I’d look like when I grew up…” [newspaper]

12) “Before winter starts” [architecture / blueprint / board]

Group 6

13) “god…” [newspaper]

14) “It all happened so fast… When I think back now I almost can’t believe it” [newspaper]

15) Building Stories [the box]



  • Kevin Larimer, “The Color and the Shape of Memory: An Interview With Chris Ware,” Poets & Writers Nov.-Dec. 2012.
  • Casey Burchby, “The Life Cycle of a Cartoonist: An Interview with Chris Ware,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 Oct. 2012.  Wherein Mr. Ware observes, “books offer a sort of reassuring physical certainty for the ineffable uncertainties of life, but then again I’m 44 and don’t tweet or have a Facebook page or participate in most of the things that blunt the textures of experience in favor of delivering them up more quickly to your friends, so maybe that’s just me.”
  • Debbie Millman, “Chris Ware,” Design Matters, 19 Oct. 2012.  45-minute audio interview.
  • Stephen Carlick, “Building stories with graphic novelist Chris Ware,” MacLean’s, 19 Oct. 2012.
  • John Williams, “Book Review Podcast: Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories,’” New York Times Book Review podcast, 19 Oct. 2012.
  • Rosanna Greenstreet, “Q+A: Chris Ware,” The Guardian, 12 Oct. 2012.  In which Mr. Ware reports, “My head looks like an uncooked ham with glasses.”
  • Françoise Mouly, “The Quotable Chris Ware,” The New Yorker, 12 Oct. 2012.  Click through each picture (at bottom) to find such quotations as: “I don’t think of myself as an illustrator. I think of myself as a cartoonist. I write the story with pictures—I don’t illustrate the story with the pictures.”
  • Chris Mautner, “‘I Hoped That the Book Would Just Be Fun’: A Brief Interview with Chris Ware,” The Comics Journal, 10 Oct. 2012.  Wherein Mr. F.C. Ware provides a helpful definition: “memory is more like a gem or a flower or a three-dimensional something that we can turn and turn inside out and get into and out of.”
  • Kat Ward, “Inside Chris Ware’s Graphic-Novel-in-a-Box,” Vulture, 7 Oct. 2012. Repr. from New York Magazine, 15 Oct. 2012.
  • “Good Minds Suggest—Chris Ware’s Favorite Concept Books,” Good Reads, Oct. 2012.
  • Calvin Reid, “Life in a Box: Invention, Clarity and Meaning in Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories,'” Publishers Weekly, 28 Sept. 2012.  In which Chris Ware offers some insight into his creative process: “I try to write in a way that hopefully reflects something of how I experience life happening…. What it’s like to be inside a body experiencing the world with all the myriad multi-layers of thoughts and memories that happen at the same time. And then the way that those things contradict each other and then the way that we think of ourselves as people, somehow all layered together.” And explains why he prefers books to e-books: “There’s something about the ideas and thoughts and feelings and uncertainties that go into books that demand a certain opposite and opposing structure to contain them. It’s almost like an aesthetic necessity that the books have, they have to confine and protect these ineffable things in a way.”
  • Christopher Irving, “Chris Ware on Building a Better Comic Book, “ Graphic NYC, 6 Mar. 2012.  A long interview, in which Ware observes, “I do believe that cartooning, a very memory-based art, has something fundamental to do with a constant sort of revision of ourselves and our lives, the same sort of resorting and refiling that goes on when we’re dreaming.”  When the interviewer observes, “Your comics, especially, are about memory,” Mr. Ware responds: “Because that’s what life is. It’s all we have.”




That (the above) is what they have to get us started.  At times, I wonder if I’m a little ambitious in assigning this dense, layered, beautiful, complex, experimental work to an undergraduate class on graphic novels.  But, based on my experience with the class so far, I think they’ll rise to the challenge.  In any case, teaching Ware is like teaching James Joyce or (in a children’s literature class) Lewis Carroll.  The bright, thoughtful students tend to be intrigued, and embrace the experiment.  Other students require more help in making sense of it.

Teaching Ware is also like teaching Joyce or Carroll because Ware changes our understanding of what the medium can do.  He writes strips that can (and must) be read in more than one direction, pages that need to be read multiple times, and books that make other cartoonists feel that they need to rethink their approach to comics.  If you’re teaching a class in graphic novels or comics, you have to teach Ware.  He pushes the medium further, and (I expect) will be pushing my students in the coming weeks.  So.  Here’s to the grand experiment!

Image sources: Alan Trotter’s 5∞, Mark Hayes’ Passing Notes.

Giving credit where it’s due: I found most of those links via Dave Ball’s Facebook page or his The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking Facebook page.

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