Don’t BS a BSer – More thoughts on Chris Ware’s Building Stories

So I last wrote about Building StoriesChris Ware’s new box, when preview images of the whole shebang were first hitting the market. I knew the minute I saw the finished product that the previous post I wrote about it would seem dumb in retrospect… but I suppose that’s true any time you criticize something you haven’t seen yet.

Here’s the thing – I wanted to write this update post, since a few people are finding my original post by searching for BS reviews, and what I wrote was definitely not a review. Rather, it was me expressing how I approach book design, and how the greatest ideal I aspire toward as a designer is how to integrate different styles or formats into a single bound object. I was originally a little disappointed by the concept of BS, because I felt that if there’s anyone currently working who could make the ultimate BOOK – the one I have spent and will spend my career as a publisher/book binder pursuing – it is Chris Ware. It’s not a knock against BS that Ware took a different direction, just something that was personally a little disappointing to me.

Now that I have the box in my greasy mitts, the disappointment is washed away by just how overwhelming BS is to behold. This work couldn’t be executed any other way, and I guess what’s worrying me the most about my original post is that people will read it as me saying that BS could be improved if only Ware would have followed my guidelines. Absolutely not – this is breathtaking work from a bookmaking perspective. You can tell that every aspect was slaved over at one point or another – the box is made from durable bookboard, not some shitty cardboard that will buckle and fall apart in 5 years. The printing on the interior contents is impeccable. There are different styles of hardcover books, from the traditional buttoned-down quarter-bound example to the tape-bound Little Golden Book. My biggest pet peeve – comics being shrunk unnecessarily to fit a certain medium – is turned on its head by comics ranging from a few square inches to many square feet. (Seriously, those tabloid sized pages make it possible to appreciate Ware’s art on a scale previously only enjoyed by collectors who have picked up his gallery posters over the years, or those who own Kramers Ergot 7.)

After seeing BS in person, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. The one thing is… I’m not ready to jump up and declare that a new era of comics has begun. This is certainly a high point in Ware’s own career, and what I love about it is that it accomplishes much the same thing as a career retrospective while being totally new (sure, parts of this have appeared before, but this is a substantially new work). In other words, all the different formats in which Ware has worked turn up here, from baby pamphlets to giant posters, hardcover books, print portfolios, etc – it’s all in here. That doesn’t mean, though, that the “book” is over, or that comics are moving in a bold new boxy direction (both of which I have seen suggested in interviews with Ware). I get that if you’re doing an interview about BS, you pretty much HAVE to talk about the format, since the non-traditional format announces itself so loudly with this one. My issue is when one daring formal exercise has to be situated in the larger context of publishing by being at the front of a trend, rather than being what it is: an extremely innovative artist doing something extremely innovative.

The format is so inextricably tied to the content in this case that acting as if the publication of BS signals a sharp turn for comics publishing makes no sense. The same kind of thing happened when KE7 came out, and people were asking Sammy Harkham how he was going to top it with Kramers 8. I recall him saying something about KE8 being a collection of pamphlets or something, just as a reaction against the grandeur of its predecessor. What he ultimately came up with wasn’t too far off – small, intimate, focused, and with a clear sense of purpose (even if that purpose itself remained elusive). But there wasn’t an arms race to see who could keep up with KE7 – it didn’t create a new benchmark for anthologies, it just WAS a high water mark and it will stay that way into the future. Same thing with BS – how is any cartoonist going to top this? Ware himself won’t even top this with Rusty Brown. He’ll either continue what he’s already done, if he chooses the same format, or he’ll go in a different (hopefully innovative) direction. The impossibility of one-upping BS doesn’t derive from how great it is – the point is that BS is such a great integration of form and content that just making the design more elaborate for the sake of it won’t accomplish anything (even if it is pretty to look at). That is why, even if I was disappointed by the format from a conceptual perspective, I am in love with the format’s execution.

So how about no more “the graphic novel is dead” proselytizing, just because Building Stories is now a thing that exists. I’m sure Dan Clowes’s next book won’t look like this, but people will be just as excited to read it even if it is just a boring stack of pages bound between two covers. And maybe the next time I write about the book, I’ll actually have gotten around to reading the goddamned thing.

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October 2012

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