Book Design Corner: Chris Ware’s Building Stories

(Photo copied from Robot6)

Let’s start with the disclaimers:

1- Building Stories hasn’t been released yet, so I haven’t seen it in person. I have only seen the same teaser photos online that everyone else has seen. I didn’t attend the Comics Confab Extravagantacular in Chicago, so I didn’t even get to hear Ware talk about Building Stories in person.

2 – I’m sure I will love everything about Building Stories, and I will be first in line to buy a copy. I’m already putting out feelers to people I know on the East Coast who might attend SPX and be able to secure a signed copy for me. I’m using it more as a jumping-off point to opine about book design, and less as something that needs to be taken down a peg. There is a trollish affect in some corners of comics criticism that seeks to rip apart great work just for the sake of doing it, and that’s not what I’m going for here. And yes, I’m accepting it as fact that Building Stories will be great.

3 – Don’t interpret my abbreviation for Building Stories (“BS”) to be a value judgment on the work itself.

Okay, with that out of the way, and keeping with the list theme, here’s how my reaction to the unveiling of the general format of BS progressed:

1 – that is the coolest thing of all time
2 – that is disappointing.

Let me explain, starting with #1… Comparing Ware’s books to his pamphlets reveals two distinct design sensibilities. (I’m excepting Jimmy Corrigan, since Chip Kidd played a part in that one, although Ware’s influence is clear. I’m also, for the sake of this discussion, focusing on his own work, and not books he has designed for other authors, although his work on Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Tank Tankuro, and so on doesn’t contradict my eventual point.) The individual issues of Acme Novelty Library, both in diminutive pamphlet form as well as humongous pamphlet form, somehow manage to harmonize a multitude of graphic and textual elements. See, for example, the covers to issues 5 and 7. #5 contrasts the wide-open and elegant main panel with Ware’s signature tiny, multidirectional typography along the side bar. The color palette of these panels is markedly different, yet they manage to work together in a way that it seems like only Ware can pull off. Issue 7 blows up the scale but accomplishes a similar feat, with the loud, taxi-cab checkerboard and modernist lettering across the top, immediately contrasting with the ornate letterforms that surround a central image, as well as with the sidebar. Unlike #5, the sidebar is cleaner and more directly purposeful, and the swooping “Acme Novelty” banners extend the white text/black background theme onto the main panel. Also, the circular central image carries over to the sidebar images, also presented in circular frames with simple decorations. Still, the main panel, with its intricate border and repeating pattern decorations, differs sharply from the no-nonsense sidebar and its bold but patternless borders. This push-and-pull is what makes Ware’s design so engaging – he eschews the modern “slap white helvetica text over a dewy image” book design sensibility for a more-is-more approach (especially concerning textual elements), but without creating clutter or noise.

Where books are concerned, Ware becomes much more conservative from a graphic design perspective, although books offer him new tools to work with. (Another sidebar, sorry: I’m counting the recent hardcover issues of Acme Novelty Library as books, rather than as pamphlets, since they are book-length and sold through mass bookstore channels.) Starting with his most recent, Lint, the graphic element of the cover is a distillation of the ornate/modernist balance of his pamphlet covers – the title is simply laid out in a perfectly square sans-serif font, with an ornately decorated border. Materials-wise, though, Lint is pretty cool: unlike standard quarter-binding (in which a hardcover book has cloth over the spine and left edge of the front and rear boards), this book also has cloth over the right edges of the boards, with a paper panel down the center. That’s something you don’t see every day (unless you are a Chance Press customer and bought the hardcover special edition of Furlqump). Ware didn’t just pick any bookcloth either – as someone with a fair amount of experience with bookcloth, my assumption is that Ware either traveled to the printer or received an enormous swatch book to find a cloth that could reproduce a floral pattern that complemented the ornate decoration around the text (and in the right color and with the right sheen). Plus, the design on the front is stamped in gold, another technology not available for pamphlets. Moving back through Ware’s catalog, Issue 18 is perhaps the most traditional book he has published. Not only is it a standard book size, it is also quarter bound in natural colored cloth, with simple (for Ware) gold-stamped decorations and a black pad-printed color block with with text. Before that, Issue 17′s cover is much busier, but its graphics are uniform in style; the innovation here is the multi-colored pad printing with a very simple gold foil stamp for the word “Acme.” (I should add that I’m guessing that this is pad printing, just due to the scale. It could be letterpress printed or silkscreened, but it looks closest to a pad print to my eye.)

Ware’s other collections, Quimby Mouse and The Acme Novelty Library Annual Report to Shareholders share the same design sensibility. QM is the more daring of the two, and the very strong lettering band across the cover’s midsection does introduce some tension with the elegantly patterned ring on the cover, although this cover is toned-down significantly from the pamphlets. ANLARS takes this one step further by separating the typical Ware-ian barrage of tiny text from the book entirely by printing it on a wraparound band. Sans band, the book is about as simple as Ware gets – even with the incredibly intricate gold-stamped ornamentation, the bold black and red cover all but swallows up everything else except under close examination. And, not insignificantly, the band is printed on such thin paper that it isn’t uncommon to see copies of the book for sale at used bookstores with the band in tatters or absent entirely. The tongue in cheek individual numbering on the band demonstrates Ware’s awareness of the difference between the ephemerality of pamphlets and the permanence of books, at least as demonstrated by the mainstream book trade that doesn’t touch individual comics issues but happily clears space for a new book by a well-known cartoonist.

Okay, so with that out of the way, let me elaborate on why I was so initially excited when the BS design was unveiled. From the teaser photos, the outer box echoes Ware’s more symphonic approach to design, perhaps even taking it a step further by suggesting the disjointed nature of the contents (speaking physically rather than narratively) by breaking up the lettering of the title into individual letterforms that float near and interact with each other but don’t form such a coherent whole as you usually find with Ware-designed lettering. So, at first glance, it looks like Ware is getting a big-time canvas to showcase a design sensibility that I associate more with one-offs like exhibition posters, or ephemera like the earlier issues of his comic that (at least culturally) are designed to be consumed and discarded. In addition, I am always thrilled when unconventional book design hits the big time – anyone who has read my posts about McSweeney’s or my utopian future in which print and digital books live side-by-side knows that I love to see books pushing the boundaries of what could be considered a book. The fact that Ware’s renown allows him (and Pantheon) to produce a book object of this complexity and then sell it for $50.00 is even better – getting to see an artist execute his vision unencumbered by economies of scale can only benefit comics as a medium.

The separate pamphlet/poster/whatever else format also offers some interesting possibilities in terms of how book design and narrative intersect. Normally, when working with a collection, the outside of the book is a fairly standard affair limited to five or six surfaces to frame the contents. (Front cover, back cover, spine, endpapers, half-title page, title page.) For a collection of work produced over close to a decade, this isn’t really sufficient, but it’s not really talked about as a problem, because a book is a book. The covers hold it together, but what’s on the pages is what matters and what emotionally resonates. Right?

The possibility in BS is that it doesn’t need to be this way – as the narrative wends through different emotional territory (and yes, I’m giving Ware credit enough to assume this happens; even in a story as grim as Jimmy Corrigan, it is awfully facile to insist that Ware only strikes a single emotional note), the structure enables the different units of the story to benefit from a physical and graphic design unique to that individual unit. Maybe a very emotionally intimate section is printed in a small pamphlet whose simplicity and size dovetails with the subject matter, while large-scale cross sections of the building are printed on large folding posters that enhance the grandeur of Ware’s art by not forcing it to be scaled down to a specified page size. Again, since I haven’t seen the book, I don’t know how the different formats are incorporated into the story, but the format introduces this potential, and this potential has import not just for BS, but for the graphic novel as a whole. I’m not saying that every graphic novel should follow this format from now on, but the format does open up some intriguing new ways for book design to help tell a story, and I’m looking forward to seeing other cartoonists explore down this path in the future.

Of course, Ware didn’t invent this format with this project. Off the top of my head, McSweeney’s has done this a bunch of times (#4 is a collection of pamphlets in a box, #7 is a collection of pamphlets in a hardcover shell (one of which features art by Ware), #17 is a bundle of mail with a book in there somewhere, and #19 is a cigar box with a book plus some ephemera), D&Q reissued Adrian Tomine’s 32 Stories as a box with facsimilies of the original mini comics, and a few years ago, Payseur and Schmidt released a book called Cosmocopia that, instead of featuring in-text illustrations by Jim Woodring, had a couple Woodring posters plus a jigsaw puzzle, all contained in a multi-section box. Still, these projects are pretty few and far between, and none of them involve the segmenting of a continuous narrative into a multitude of parts. The McSweeney’s issues scream “because I can” – they’re innovative from a design perspective, but the design is all about the series’ formal daring, and not the individual design requirements of the stories they publish. 32 Stories is a neat concept, but Tomine originally published the stories like that, and so the book stands as a deconstruction of the usual idea of a collection being the reprinting/rebinding of individual comics issues into a larger book – it doesn’t really push the stories anywhere they didn’t already go in the first place. (As for Cosmocopia, it is a limited edition book by a small press that I’m not sure is even publishing anymore, so as great as it is, I see it outside of general comics publishing trends.)

So, after all of that, how could I have possibly ended up feeling like the design of BS is a disappointment? Well… part of my anticipation of Ware’s next book (this and Rusty Brown) is tied up in my curiosity of exactly how it will be collected into a singular volume. Comics publishing has become a milestone-driven game, as less and less authors serialize their work. Although Ware has been phenomenally busy designing other books and publishing his own work in installments, BS is the next milestone in his canon, and so something about its fragmented, disjointed nature feels vaguely anti-climactic. Part of this depends on how the collection is put together, and how much of the book is new material. But, as one of the dwindling number of authors who does serialize his work, Ware has published at least some of the parts, if not a majority of the parts of this book already. Obviously the final book will be different in terms of how it gathers all these disparate parts and assembles them as parts of a whole, but  to me, a lot of the drama involved in wrangling a sprawling epic into a collection is lost when the chapters are merely thrown into a box.

At play here is tension within my own tastes to see publishers and authors push the limits of book design while putting the standard cover-spine-cover book object on a pedestal. When Anders Nilsen was nearing the end of Big Questions, I couldn’t wait to see the brick of a book that would eventually result, and I wasn’t disappointed, especially by some of the innovative touches he added with D&Q (like the french flaps, which you don’t often see on the inside of a hardcover, although it makes sense to have them, since so few graphic novels are published with dustjackets). Ditto my anticipation for Habibi, whose reputation as Craig Thompson’s “next big book” preceded its publication by a wide margin. I suppose where I draw the line is with a binding – as a book collector, I like books that are bound, even if the binding is unconventional. Even though the individual contents of BS are bound, the whole thing is not, and as such, it just doesn’t feel like a “whole” to me.

I don’t, however, wish that Ware had just crammed all of this material into a standard-sized book and called it a day. The difficulty of doing that, and the limits involved, are evidenced in Is That All there Is?, the new Joost Swarte book from Fantagraphics (and every other comics publisher in the world). Fanta took some heat in the comments section of The Comics Journal for the format of this book (although I don’t believe it was their decision alone, given how many publishers put this book out simultaneously), and I got a kick out of Swarte’s advice that any reader unhappy with the format simply hold the book 30% closer to his/her face. As an advocate for larger formats in most cases, though, I appreciated the criticism – I agree that the book is too small, and someone else must have as well, given that the second edition will be larger. The problem, though, is that the material collected in this book is so incredibly diverse that no one format was going to nail it, and so some compromise was necessary.  Is That All there Is? attempts to address some format issues by calling out different formats with colored page edges; black pages are meant to be viewed tabloid-size, requiring the reader to flip the book 90-degrees (so the pages are read as vertical spreads). This is innovative, and it scratches the surface on what is possible within the fairly conventional hardcover bound book structure.

So I guess what I’m saying is, embrace the binding as a constraint to work within rather than something to be cast aside or subsumed by an alternate format. This is where I start to move away from BS itself, since it seems fairly clear that Ware designed BS exactly as he wanted it, and I don’t want to come across like I’m criticizing him for not designing his latest book exactly according to my tastes. Like I said above, it’s more a jumping-off point to look at the possibilities that creatively designed BOOKS can offer.

While I am not a professional designer, I have spent more time than the average person designing and binding books, and this is a problem that I have confronted and tried to solve many times. My latest project involved two different sized 32-page sections, a pop-up, a fold-out panel, and an original painting, and I had to figure out how to stuff the entire thing into a bound book, without resorting to a cop-out like including a separate folder with the original art, or splitting it into two separate books. (For those curious, this is what I came up with.) So, it’s fair to say that not only is this near and dear to my collecting interests, but I try to walk the walk as well with my little publishing venture.

Here are some case studies from books on my shelf on how different publishers/designers have produced bound books that incorporate multiple formats between two covers.

1. Information Graphics (Taschen, 2012)
This is a book about the art of the infographic, split into two sections: an opening section (around 100 pages) of essays, and a much larger (around 400 pages) section surveying infographics in 4 different categories. Cleverly, the essay section is printed on thinner paper that isn’t as wide as the survey section, so it feels like a different book entirely. Then, to separate the categories of infographics more clearly, the pages of the survey section have colored edges, with each color corresponding to a category. There are also a number of double gate-fold pages, creating gigantic spreads (this is already a huge book at around 15 x 12).


2. Loujon Press books
Loujon was a small press that operated out of New Orleans and Arizona in the 1960′s and 1970′s. Their output was minimal, but all of their books are impossibly well-made (all handmade and hand-printed by Jon Webb), especially considering the size of their operation. One of their hallmarks is an opening section of different-colored papers of ascending widths leading into the main text section – mostly this was for visual effect, although I can think of a few ways that incorporating staggered page sizes like this could produce some neat effects within the context of a comic book.

3. Storie Naturali (BUR, 2009)
I have written about and photographed this book elsewhere on this blog, but it is relevant here. This book is bound in such a way that many pages have pockets that contain illustrated die-cut leaves – rather than simply printing the leaves on each page (or delivering them separately via a pocket inside the rear cover or separate folder), the designer found a way to integrate the individual leaves into the pages themselves. Neat.

4. Matrix (Whittington Press)
Matrix is a (mostly) annual journal about books and printing, and within its niche, it is iconic. It is common for fine press journals to include a separate folder of press ephemera (broadsides, woodcuts, prospectuses, and the like), but Matrix took the extraordinary step of integrating all of these into the books themselves. As a result, mixed in with the standard-sized pages are all sorts of fold-out posters and booklets of varying sizes. There are probably no books on my shelf that integrate so many different types of items (all with varying sizes and paper stocks) into a single book.

In the end, I’m still anticipating the heck out of Building Stories, and I have enough faith in Chris Ware as a designer that I’m sure I will love the format. Still, Rusty Brown is still a few years out, so I’m hoping against hope for a single, giant-sized RB tome that somehow manages to herd all the strands of that epic into one binding. It’s probably unlikely, but it would sure be amazing to see.

Update, 10/10/12: Now you’ve read all of that, so at least read my update, written after I actually got a copy of the finished product.

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