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Chris Ware’s Building Stories as Deleuzian Fabulation, or How and Why to Read Comics Affectively

By Vincent Haddad

Figure 1

In this scene from Chris Ware’s graphic novel Building Stories (fig. 1), the protagonist meekly hovers over her husband, arms planted firmly at her sides and clothes strewn at her feet, with a look of mixed dismay, shame, and forlornness. Her husband is lying in bed, completely naked, legs crossed; his face and chest are illuminated by the glow of his iPad, his averted eyes absorbed by the magical aura of a digital screen. This snapshot of failed domestic intimacy juxtaposes physical presence and technology, heightening the contrast between the mediums sometimes unevenly blamed for the replacement of the very physical, human intimacy she seeks: the digital tablet and the physical book. Ware incorporates this juxtaposition into the very packaging of the work, stating on the back cover,

With the increasing electronic incorporeality of existence, sometimes it’s reassuring—perhaps even necessary—to have something to hold on to…Whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else, this book is sure to sympathize with the crushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle- and upper-class literary public (and which can return to them in somewhat damaged form during REM sleep).1

Here, Ware assigns an active, even emotional, capacity to the book itself—”this book is sure to sympathize”—for which the protagonist, and the implied reader, yearns. The intimacy posited is not between two persons, but between a person and an object. But, how would a book have the capacity to sympathize? What makes the book, a technological innovation in its own right, more capable of transporting these affects than an iPad?

This full-page image appears near the end of a narrative unit entitled “Disconnect,” and continues the familiar narrative about how the narrator, as a stand-in for “the middle- and upper-class literary public,” mourns for the purer intimacies of yesteryear, untainted by the distractions of digital technologies. Given that Ware’s graphic experimentation introduces 14 non-consecutive narrative units and no direction of how to interact with them, this may be the first or second or last unit the reader reads. The units focalize on various characters living in an apartment building in Chicago. The often-depressed female protagonist pictured is the central character of the text, and separate units give the reader insights into her life at different moments. Other characters living in the apartment complex include an elderly landlady, whose involuntary memories of the past often visually put her in multiple temporal registers simultaneously, and a mild-mannered young woman emotionally and verbally abused by her loafer boyfriend. But, because a unique print vehicle transports each unit, including a children’s book, game board, newspaper, and flipbook, the tactility of print is a fundamental aspect to engaging with the work.

The juxtaposition presented by figure 1, that newer digital technology strains our ability to be intimate in “real” life, is a bit of misdirection from how Building Stories actually functions as a work of art. At a second look, the image calls forth the printed medium’s own history as a technological force and the fears it elicited itself as a threat to physical intimacy. The fluorescent light of the iPad draws the reader’s eyes initially, but its bright glow poses a clear contrast with the soft yellow light of the lamp on the protagonist’s bedside table, gently illuminating a book and a newspaper. This contrast reveals that her husband has no bedside table whatsoever, emphasizing his almost total abandonment of the material book in favor of this newer, all-absorbing technology. Arguably, the distinction between these two media is not the intrusion of one form of media in the private space of the bedroom versus the other, but of the illuminated screen’s visible byproduct of impotency, her husband’s flaccid penis. In contrast, the historical function of literary fiction and print as both a mode of intellectual as well as physical, and even erotic, stimulation suggests that it is only the “something [we] hold on to” that seems uniquely capable of communicating with nuance why our attempts at intimacy misfire in the modern moment.

As early as debates concerning the rise of the novel in the early eighteenth century, the capacity of language and storytelling to affect readers—to innervate, animate, and even arouse—was an often-repeated danger about reading fiction. Shading these fears, of course, was the technology itself, conveniently packaged in a bound, sometimes pocket-sized, object easily smuggled in and out of the bedroom. There, the novel offered titillating scenes for the reader to imaginatively co-create in total privacy. The reception of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in 1740, an epistolary novel about a young woman fastidiously staving off the aggressive sexual advances of her warden, illustrates the complex interrelationship between materiality and fictionality, an interrelationship central to Building Stories‘s aesthetic project. As James Grantham Turner points out, the “touching” that takes place narratively in Pamela—such as Mr. B’s advancing upon and touching the innocent Pamela within the privacy of her bedroom—came to emblematize how this new medium “operates on the [reader’s] body as immediately as a hand” (70). As reading became an increasingly private affair, the capacity of storytelling to physically affect the reader became of increasing concern, especially and ironically for those who started to mourn for the purer intimacies of yesteryear untainted by the technology of the book.

Instigating the early, ambivalent responses to novels like Pamela was a two-pronged fear about the increased access to and proliferation of physical texts and what, in 1750, the literary critic Samuel Johnson called “the wild strain of imagination” that fiction-writing excited in both writers and readers (174). To the former, one cannot separate the materiality of this new medium from the ways in which readers oriented themselves to the stories contained within. Turner lays out an incredible context for how the single novel Pamela exploded into a glut of material:

The novel inspired a tidal wave of texts and objects, a riot of consumeristic exploitation; recent critics compare Pamela to modern industrial products like Superman or Minnie Mouse. A keen Pamela hunter in the 1740s could buy the novel in large or small format, with or without Francis Hayman’s engravings and Richardson’s sequel, plus The Life of PamelaThe Celebrated PamelaPamela in High LifePamela, or Virtue TriumphantShamela AndrewsPamela CensuredJoseph AndrewsPamela, or the Fair ImpostorThe True Anti-Pamela, and Anti-Pamela, or Feign’d Innocence Detected… She could visit two Pamela waxworks, drop in on Joseph Highmore’s studio to see his twelve Pamela paintings and buy the set of his engravings, then see David Garrick in Pamela, a Comedy. (71)

The proliferation of multiple editions, responses, satires, sequels, and the physical sites of visual art related to the novel one could visit speaks to the ways in which print structured readers’ very relationships to the fictions they were co-creating and imagining during the act of reading. Turner’s description of Pamela as similar to “modern industrial products like Superman or Minnie Mouse” precisely captures the congruity between the novel’s relationship to materiality and mass culture and comics’ later stigmatization by the same forces. It was in part this materiality of comics that at first signaled to children the disposability of comics but later, interestingly, became the trademark of their value. The strong emotional attachments readers made with characters and narratives conjoined with the fragility of the cheaply-made print products created an industry of collection and preservation.2 Publishers sold multiple editions of the same issue, in addition to plush toys, plastic figurines, and molded statues, literally surrounding readers with “a tidal wave of texts and objects.” Moreover, one can rightly note how this process of collecting and ownership structures these readers’ personal relationships to the stories themselves and how the readers animate them. Unfortunately, this materiality relatedly contributed to the low-culture designation of comics, a “riot of consumeristic exploitation,” which precluded it from being a highly considered form of “literature” for nearly the entire twentieth century, at least outside of niche communities. Andreas Huyssen famously argued that one of the principle features of modernism was a “conscious strategy of exclusion, an anxiety of contamination by its other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture” (vii). It seems fitting then that increasingly opaque and aesthetically difficult modernist literature was produced just as the medium of comics, with its principal superhero Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster in 1933, utterly captured the imagination of mass culture in much the same way Pamela had nearly two centuries earlier.

However, fears about the explosion of mass and material culture around the rise of the novel, and later comics, only make sense in tandem with fears about the immersive potential of storytelling in these new respective mediums. For early critics like Samuel Johnson, the “wild strain of imagination” enabled by the rise of the form as well as growing access to print was especially dangerous when it was employed without clear authorial direction, leaving the innocent female reader to come to her own, potentially debased, interpretations of the text (174-177). Johnson noted that fiction-reading can “take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will” (176). As these early critics watched readers become physically consumed by these new vehicles of storytelling, it was a given that female readers were animated by these technological devices, literally made into “automatons” and unable to exercise judgment. One does not need to look hard to find the parallel between this concern about the affective capacity of prose fiction and similar concerns over the rise of comics. In 1955, the Comics Code Authority was established to censor potentially harmful content from reaching youth largely based on the contemporaneous national rise in juvenile crime and delinquency and the testimony of psychologist Frederic Wertham. The common historical account of this censoring organization suggests that the images of superhero violence would instigate young boys to act out violently as well. However, as Jared Gardner points out, Wertham not only protested representations of violence but the capacity of the medium’s storytelling to pervert young minds and, more importantly, bodies (Projections 86). Given Wertham’s tellingly close readings on the homoerotic domesticity of Batman and Robin, he echoes almost verbatim Johnson’s fears about the affective capacity of prose fiction to make automatons of its female readers and to express a concern about how the comics might “[operate] on the [reader’s] body as immediately as a hand.”3 Of course, it is no coincidence that these anti-heteronormative expressions of sexuality, female desire in the eighteenth century and male homosexuality in the 1950s, underscore the fears of the affective capacity of storytelling in these respective mediums.

In this context, the image of Building Stories‘s protagonist, helplessly standing by her naked husband while he is drawn into his magical tablet, indexes the complex historical ways in which the vehicles of storytelling intertwine with the very “building” of those stories and, subsequently, the ways readers orient themselves in relation to those objects and stories. To put it differently, the blankness of the screen in this image and the flaccidity of the protagonist’s husband’s penis relate to one another precisely at the intersection of materiality—”something to hold on to”—and fictionality—”the wild strain of imagination.” In fact, these contextual fears over the impact of novels on not only the minds but the bodies of readers (female readers in particular) presents a kind of total inversion of Ware’s image: a middle-aged male literally made flaccid by the lack of imaginative engagement provoked by his chosen mode of entertainment. Certain literary experiences, on the other hand, might have the capacity to arouse, inflame, and innervate, each of which I would call “affective capacities.” With this in mind, I aim to counter the ways in which this graphic narrative has been reviewed and discussed in many popular and even academic forums as expressing a nostalgic or melancholic feeling about the loss of print. Comprehending the function of this graphic narrative through these emotions can delimit the very “wild strain of imagination” to create or “build” stories in the present that I see as central to Ware’s work. Instead, Building Stories, through experimentations with the spatial and temporal organization of the comics form, illustrates how language, storytelling, and materiality significantly organize not only our cognitive perception—what we comprehend about the world around us—but also our affective perception—how objects affect us and are affected by us. Building Stories, in other words, offers a model of creativity aimed at actively imagining new futures, rather than reactively mourning for the purer intimacies of an earlier time.

To this end, I argue that Chris Ware exacts a strategy of what Gilles Deleuze calls “fabulation,” which could conveniently be translated as “building stories.” Deleuze adopts the term from fellow French philosopher Henri Bergson, for whom it actually has a negative connotation. Bergson understood fabulation as a production of stories so “vivid and haunting” that they “may precisely imitate perception, and thereby prevent or modify action” (Bergson 109). Deleuze revises this connotative association of fabulation by arguing that the power of story-building, particularly stories that experiment with temporality and spatiality, can enact modes of becoming-other and provide alternate visions for the future. As Gregg Lambert explains, Deleuzian fabulation is the process by which an auteur and reader “go toward one another” in a process of mutual becoming: “the becoming-popular of the creator or intellectual and the becoming-creative of the people” (“On the Uses and Abuses of Literature”). Creativity, here, is meant specifically as undertaking a journey of which one has no prior plan and does not already know the conclusion. These creative journeys can unsettle our relationships to our past, the habits and memories that limit our sense of what is possible in the present, and can provide us new visions of what is possible in the future. Readers of Building Stories will immediately recognize a relation to the reading experience of this work, left with no direction to navigate the non-consecutive narrative units. But, the organization of the panels and pages themselves reveals an even deeper commitment to dis-orientation and the resulting need to undertake a creative journey through the complex layers of the fabula and narrative of the text.

Richardson, reflecting on and responding to contemporaneous critics of the rise of the novel like Samuel Johnson, saw the way for the reader and author to “go toward one another” through exercising precise narrative control over what and how to interpret his novels. For example, he published several revisions of Pamela, including increasingly detailed introductions and reading guides, to prevent any so-called mis-readings of his intentions or the scenes.4 Through his subsequent novel, Clarissa, Richardson aimed to further correct the mis-readings of Pamela by intensely mapping out the behavioral cause and effect of his characters for his readers (1,534 pages of mapping, to be exact). Unsurprisingly, Johnson lauded Clarissa, stating that “the train of events is agreeable to observation and experience” (176). And yet, Deleuzian fabulation would suggest that we neither want a coherent “train” of sequenced events, nor should we unilaterally trust our “observation and experience.” Yet, literary experiences do not often work the way Johnson or Richardson desires. The unpredictability of readers privately and imaginatively co-creating fictional scenes, or what I would call the affective capacity of storytelling, nearly blotted out Richardson’s attempts to define the reading experiences of his novels. Readers continued, to his dismay, to engage with the fictional scenes in the novel with uncontainable passion and excitement. Humorously, one might note an ironic similarity between Richardson’s paranoiac revisions and multiple editions with Ware’s absurdly expansive paratextual material, in which Ware mockingly offers some faux instruction to the graphic narrative, as well as the narrative alterations sometimes made from one edition of a text to the next.5 Even more relevant, though, is one of his trademark idiosyncrasies: the use of diagrams.6 While these diagrams seem to suggest authorial order and a pathway to “making sense” of the page, I argue that, counterintuitively, they create moments of non-sense. Moreover, it is these very moments of non-sense that open up a multiplicity of possible reading pathways, complicating the linearity of time, or of the protagonist’s life as the outcome or accretion of clear causes and effects. I will show that the seeming narrative control exercised through Building Stories‘s frequent diagrammatic structures actually open the text up for the reader to “fabulate,” or “build stories,” on their own, to exercise their “wild strain of imagination” in creating new stories and possible visions for the future. Yet, this process of story-building is not separate from but deeply entwined with the embodied act of reading, forcing a confrontation between the questions of why we tell stories in the present and how (i.e., through what physical vehicles) we share them.

Interested scholars from various disciplines have approached comics with the shared objective that graphic narrative is a distinct medium that requires its own distinct reading practices. In service of this cause, this article has a related objective to illustrate how “reading comics affectively” depends upon and amplifies the reading practices determined by both a medium’s formal elements and the cultural, material history that organizes and orients readers to stories. More specifically, I contest that the semiotic undertow in comics analysis, what Barbara Postema calls “making sense of fragments,” can limit how we might understand the affective capacity of storytelling in the comics medium. (1)7 Instead, retaining the messiness of the comics form depends on conceding that our engagement with comics is not exclusively one of “meaning-making”—that is to say, semiotic in nature. Moments of non-sense may reveal why particular experiments with the comics form are so riveting, offering the basis for how and why readers animate them with such passion. In this way, Ware’s diagrams may be the clearest evidence that sensation, rather than sense, is primary to the reading experience of Building Stories. As Deleuze writes, “By means of the material, the aim of art is to wrest the percept from perceptions of objects, and the states of a perceiving subject, to wrest the affect from affections as the transition from one state to another: to extract a bloc of sensations, a pure being of sensations” (What is Philosophy? 167). Remember, it was not the rational analysis of Richardson’s sentence structure, characters, or even narratives, but the uncontrollable innervation of readers as they co-created his lustful scenes that made his novels so riveting and widely read. It is this affective capacity of the comics form that I advocate for further exploration and analysis.8

While Chris Ware’s narrative and artistic style is by no means representative of a broad swath of comics artists, and therefore perhaps a debatable figure to base claims on how we might develop a reading practice of comics more generally, he has become one face of the “the graphic novel,” quite literally.9 Comics have made huge gains as both a cultural and artistic form over the past twenty-five years, featured prominently in visual art installations as well as adapted into Broadway and art-house cinema productions; since the highly regarded publication of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth in 2000, Chris Ware has been at the center of these trends. General literary audiences were likely introduced to Ware through his multiple covers of The New Yorker or, in 2004, when he was charged with editing an issue on the rise of comics for the widely popular McSweeney’s Quarterly. Not only is he one of the most widely read comics auteurs among general audiences, but he is also one of the most widely celebrated among academics. In the very young field of comics studies, only a very select group of auteurs have entire single-author academic studies devoted to analyzing their work; two such texts have been published on Chris Ware alone.10 On the one hand, one could argue, as some critics rightly have, that Ware occupies this position precisely because of his self-conscious negotiation of the history of comics as mass culture and the aesthetic difficulty associated with works of Modernism.11 And, this negotiation between the material and the aesthetic is often integral to the themes he addresses, even when the work is not, as a reviewer called Building Stories, “deliberately material” (Huston).12 On the other hand, one could also say that, while his work is not representative of comics art, it stands as a benchmark by which those pushing the creative envelope of the form are measured. A Deleuzian approach to reading Ware’s comics introduces one possible alternative to formal analyses that approach reading comics as a process of meaning-making. Instead, this approach will ask how the primacy of affect opens up or changes how readers co-create the narrative art.

Two sets of sequences from a single unit of Building Stories, the hardcover bound 8″ × 12″ book, contrast how both the protagonist and the reader relate to what they see as settled in the past and through what avenues they might see new possibilities in the future. In this particular unit, the protagonist, attempting to find happiness, instead longingly looks backwards at the lost moments that she should have employed more fruitfully. She struggles to establish meaningful relationships or “discover love” in any of the places she is looking. The main analogs for her backwards feelings are the old crotchety landlady and the apartment building itself. In an early set of recto pages, the building is viewed as a constant presence over two juxtaposed “time frames,” although at a closer look there are several established times and memories that become refracted through the building. On the first recto page, a diagram captures the romantic memories of the old landlady. The next recto page is braided with this image through an almost identical image (coloring, shading, structure) of the apartment building. Because this second page more immediately contributes to the primary narrative of this unit, the story of the protagonist, I would suggest that the pull to “make meaning” privileges this page over the previous one. But, a fuller analysis shows that this is not so straightforward.

Figure 2

On this second recto page (Fig. 2), the reader’s primary contemplation is focused on the top-central image: a hook in a spherical frame. However, its nature as a hook is only informed by subsequent reading. The hook’s initial capture is predicated by its graphical centricity, yet its actual character is fairly indecipherable because it is made up of only a few graphic lines. The reader’s eyes dart left and right: to the left the reader is informed by a cursive text image—”The same morning many decades later: A young woman her mind gone idle over the overwhelming reality of her loneliness, muses as to the original use of a hook, worming its way out of the ceiling, directly above her head”— and to the right she is informed by an image of the protagonist. The thought cloud that is retraced to the spherical frame of a hook completes an entire graphic organizer. The protagonist is represented as being affected by the hook, imagining it as the support for a dividing curtain, a hanging plant, a child’s rocket ship figurine, and drying clothes. She is sent into the zone by the hook, “her mind gone idle.” There is, however, a braiding effect between these panels. The reader, perhaps vaguely recalling the possibility this hook was seen just before, is inclined to traverse backwards in time and to return to the first recto page of this brief sequence. Here, a page that had little to do with the main narrative of this sub-system of Building Stories commands new attention. The reader sees a similarly depressed young boy from decades earlier occupying the same room, but with an analogous figurine hanging from the hook, now a 1920s-era airplane—an object, like the rocket ship, imbued with fantasies of flight, escape, exploration, and imagination. And, in fact, re-reading this sequence reveals that it is precisely this hook and the specific object of the toy plane that provides the map for the boy to “dream of the future, and how he might win the heart and the body of the girl downstairs.” In this way, the protagonist’s sense of temporality is put out of joint by what Deleuze would call a “non-human becoming,” a becoming-hook: “A becoming is always in the middle; …it constitutes a zone of proximity and indiscernibility, a no-man’s land, a nonlocalizable relation sweeping up the two distant or contiguous points, carrying one into the proximity of the other” (A Thousand Plateaus 293). The hook maintains a capacity to animate the protagonist with multiple temporal registers. She is no longer a stable subject with a firm position; rather, with “her mind gone idle,” she becomes one with the hook to access a different historical point with the aim of re-directing her towards a different future. In this way, for the young boy, the protagonist, and even the reader, the hook has an affective capacity.

For Deleuze, affect is a pre-personal force, or intensity, not tied to subjectivity. As stated earlier, this intensity is “wrested” by the auteur from the materials of the art as well as their imagination and made available as a “bloc of sensations.” In contradistinction, emotions are, according to Deleuzian scholar Brian Massumi, what we comprehend affect to mean (27-28). In other words, when readers identify a story as making them feel disgusted or shameful, they are registering a somatic reaction that has already happened. Massumi terms the site at which emotion and affect touch one another as the “seeping edge,” or the moment when affect becomes actual because its pre-subjective intensity is given a subjective value through the “stable” currency of language (43). But it is also at this site that affect can induce change, unsettling our subjective notions of emotion and meaning. Rachel Greenwald-Smith points out that, for these reasons, literature is a significant site at which we might understand this seeping edge: “Affectively exciting insofar as aesthetics stimulate sensory responses, but linguistically based and therefore inevitably codifying, literature stimulates and codes relentlessly. It works both sides at once, engineering forms of emergence through the production of aesthetic pleasure” (431).

In his influential book, The Visual Language of Comics, Neil Cohn builds an original and compelling grammar for what he calls a “visual language of sequential images” (2). When Neil Cohn makes this statement, he is quite simply making the case that, as a visual language, comics use a structure motivated by modality, meaning, and grammar in a similar or adjacent way that verbal language does. His work, as well as that of Barbara Postema and Thierry Groensteen, significantly helps define the “codifying” function of this visual language. However, that comics deploy a visual language of sequential images does not preclude non-semiotic modes of analysis—in fact, they necessitate it. In other words, as some affect theorists have hypothesized about prose fiction, affect reveals breakdowns in the structures of language and therefore in subjectivity itself. Understanding the grammatical structure of how visual language means or signifies, as Cohn’s text offers, could be considered a precursor to this important question: “How do disruptions of the grammar of visual language stimulate new percepts of what is possible?”

Thought of in this way, affect is not synonymous with how a comic series or, in the case of this image, an inorganic object like a hook “make us feel.” Instead, what we would note about this graphic organizer around the hook, as well as the ways it braids with the previous page, is how it disorients one’s relationship to the past and then re-orients one differently towards the future. In other words, affect is both spatially and temporally dynamic, making comics a crucially fertile medium to consider its function. Thierry Groensteen observes that narration in comics is fundamentally imbued with the sense that the entire narrative is “already there“; comics, in other words, are uniquely and primarily narrated from the perspective of the past (87). Working through Deleuze, Groensteen concludes, “[t]he idea that successive presents can coexist is paradoxical: unlike the past, the present cannot be cumulative” (86). I would argue that, as in the braided images explored, Building Stories complicates this claim. For Deleuze, the present is polytemporal; it is constituted of dimensions or syntheses of time. The first synthesis of time for Deleuze is habit, “the pre-conscious contractions of elements within the organism” (Bogue 34). The nuanced differences between these preconscious contractions are what begin to constitute “subjectivity,” or the recognition of the self as a subject. Habits, in other words, though often automatic, are the basis of how a subject recalls the past, adapts his or her expectations in the present, and makes predictions of the future (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition 70). However, they are changeable given an encounter with affect. The second synthesis can be thought of as “memory,” meaning that we interpret the past in terms of signs or signals that send us from the present into the past and all of the “successive presents” in between (ibid 77). By this, Deleuze means that when a subject perceives a signal that triggers a memory, he or she simultaneously exists, just as the signal does, in multiple temporal registers, making our conception of the “present” as a singular entity more complex. The past has, for Deleuze, a virtual component: “The present passes within the virtual past, and with each successive present there is the presupposition of that virtual medium as already existing” (Bogue 39). To consider the representation of these panels as in the past, as already-memories, is to actually suggest that these memories are plucked from a virtual plane of other memories, the very juxtaposition of which illustrates the flexibility or openness of this “virtual” past and how it might inform a “virtual” future. In other words, the past, like the future, could always be otherwise. This seems like an odd claim about one single comic book; it is in our hands, we see the first and last pages, and thus it certainly seems like a settled matter. But Building Stories as a whole shows that this need not be a fixed quality we attribute to the medium of comics. A simple reminder of how Building Stories plays with temporality illustrates this point: as one is reading a single unit, there are always alternate possibilities of what the past was and what the future may hold.

The task of fabulation is to cause these passive syntheses (habits and memories) to vibrate and change. In other words, the task is to make time “out of joint.” Constructing new or dis-orienting connections between the past and the present “[detaches] signs from their customary referents and reconnect them in new configurations” (Bogue 45). By mixing and matching different possible signs from their customary referents, fabulation seeks out the virtual pasts from their actual representations in order to discover unexplored pathways and the multiplicity of life itself. These unexplored pathways are what Deleuze calls “lines of flight”: “But to flee is not to renounce action: nothing is more active than flight. It is the opposite of the imaginary. It is also to put to flight—not necessarily others, but to put something to flight, to put a system to flight as one bursts a tube…to flee is to trace a line, lines, and a whole cartography” (Dialogues II 36). In short, fabulation is meant to undo the ways in which habit and memory impinge on the protagonist from moving forward and, concomitantly, to offer her routes to escape through the very splitting of time. The protagonist only traces these lines of flight through a process of becoming-hook, of encountering a virtual memory of the hook, one that is populated with movement and life. The hook is literally the site from which these abstract lines to alternate pasts are drawn, both as image and as narrative. Without these abstract lines, her path is blocked, and so is the reader’s. The artist’s graphic lines are what open these pasts up to be actualized, for the protagonist’s new future to be drawn. While this moment is not a particularly intense aesthetic encounter for the reader, it functions as both an affective and cognitive itinerary, a habit of reading that will later facilitate the non-human becoming of the reader. These lines of flight, by moving between the actual and the virtual, intensity and codification, are fundamental to how a subject situates and understands themselves in relation to their environment.

Fabulation, instantiated in this way, operates on a reader in a similar manner as it does the protagonist. Later in this same volume, the reader’s experience of time is complicated by a series of three consecutive juxtapositions of the past as a manifestation in present consciousness. The verso pages represent the “living present,” the recto pages, memory. Each recto page strips the protagonist more and more: on the first page, she is fully clothed in her work outfit; on the second, she is physically naked; and on the final page (fig. 3), she is shown as a combination of her muscular and skeletal system. Each time the reader turns a page, the verso and recto pages enter his or her field of vision almost simultaneously. While the prior two pages allow the reader to form an expectation of what is coming, the image of the skeletal protagonist, nonetheless, produces movement and intensity.

Figure 3

Looking more closely, trained reading habits to move from the upper left to lower right and verso before recto lead the reader to read the verso page while being pulled by the more visually complex and compelling recto page. The reader’s gaze can devour these panels representing the “passing present” fairly quickly. These rapid moment-to-moment sequences lack text (with the exception of three onomatopoeic words) and require little imaginative closure on the part of the reader. There is symmetry to the panels: the top and bottom rows have the same paneling format, as do the second and fourth rows. The center row is merely an inversion of the second and fourth row. One could say that these panels’ first effect on the reader is boredom, a mode to move them out of the living present and into a different dimension of time. Following this path, one can bracket the effect of this “silent” paneled page and look where the reader’s eyes locate the force of the image: the chaotic recto page.

On this page, the panels have no uniformity in space or size. The text images similarly have no logic (five different typographic layouts are presented on the page). Yet, the reader has seen this graphic organizer before as envisioned by the protagonist with the “becoming-hook” image. The reader’s gaze is drawn to the complexity of the protagonist’s skeleton and the redness of her face and heart. Its scale, location, and chaos all contribute to a becoming-other. The overlaying complexity of arrows, vertical and horizontal, left to right and right to left, demand an intensification of focus, an intensification that was not possible on the verso page. The reader looks to the large surface text that states “the obvious first choice.” Thicker lines protrude from it to the redness of both the face and the heart, the locus of her gaze, facilitating this shift. And yet, the text below is so small that as the reader’s eyes focus in to read their vision is tunneled so profoundly that they only just lose sight of the entire image. However, the words are quickly revealed to be misleading, or insufficient in the goal of making sense of the page. The “correct” choice in this case is the upper left, yet the violence of this image unsettles the normality or natural-ness of the reader’s culturally-constructed habits of reading. Frustrated by the mis-direction of the words, the reader might become equally frustrated by the apparent clarity offered by the graphic arrows: in addition to the conventional reading direction from the upper-left to the upper-right, lines also guide the reader from the upper-left to the lower-left. As the reader’s eyes search to read, the reader’s frustration cannot but help to always extend the duration of his or her gaze on the skeleton in the center. As the first text image states, both the reader and the protagonist are “searching for where her I is,” but, in so doing, both begin to see themselves more as a material body rather than a rational mind. This stripping away to the protagonist’s “bare bones,” to her very material, color, and lines literalizes the sort of “violence” that Samuel Johnson warned was always an unpredictable effect of building stories: reading can “take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will.”

In this page’s violence, the reader might turn to their habits as instructed by the early recto sequence with the hook. The reader may move backwards in the system and look differently at the habits depicted in the structured panels of the verso page, picking out new differences among the images that the reader previously viewed as secondary—the slight movements of the protagonist’s hand, her quiet frustration, the quotidian yet utterly invaluable chore of feeding one’s pet. Significantly, the reader encounters the image in a way that was not available to the reader in his or her initial encounter of the image. The reader is taken in the zone—his or her own “mind gone idle”—and taken out of that zone with shudders or ruptures that allow him or her to see the story world differently than possible before. Within the literary-visual totality of the verso and recto pages, the reader’s experience of time intensifies, as in the instance of the protagonist and the hook. The dynamism, this moving back and forth, affectively marks these habits and memories on the reader’s body. Considering the aesthetic project as a total system, one might conceive of two options: Option 1.) The reader does not yet know neglect of the cat is urgent or real. After all, the images of the protagonist’s habits quietly show her being fed. The “lick, lick” on the lower right hand of the skeletal image is responded to with a dismissal: “Oh, Miss Kitty, I’m not…ignoring you…I’m just tired…that’s all…snf…I’m just tired.” In this scenario, the ambivalence of this image makes the panel itself compelling; the habits themselves are riveting and the difference to be extracted is crucial. Option 2.) The reader does know and sees this moment as one among a series that “actualizes” one of a multiplicity of alternate pasts. If the protagonist could trace alternate lines in this moment, the future could be different. In both instances, there is an explicit “non-closure” of the signs available. In fact, Building Stories produces signs and allows for this free traversal between different dimensions of time.

One of the central sites of meaning-making for semiotic-based comics studies is, of course, “the gutter.” As Groensteen points out, “The gutter, insignificant in itself, is invested with an arthologic function that can only be deciphered in light of the singular images that it separates and unites” (114). In other words, it is the constant moving back and forth between elements of a sequence that allows comics to “signify” (Postema 66). This process is imbued with imagination, yet this approach implies that each panel in a sequence (or in this case a series) only has within it a lack, which is why readers move backwards and forwards to fill in the gaps. Furthermore, the movement between different levels of what Thierry Groensteen calls the tressage, or those panels that are “bridged” by a particular visual or thematic logic, leads Barbara Postema to claim that “the creation of action in a comic is an intricate and continuous negotiation and (re)consideration of various panels at the same time, based on visual information that panels, as signifying syntagms, provide” (66). When these processes become particularly complex, as in the case of Building Stories, Postema would assert that this movement back and forth “keeps one very aware that one is reading, and consequently creates awareness of the normal process of reading that usually goes unnoticed” (66).

However, as one reads Building Stories, one can see that individual panels need not be defined by a lack of content, but perhaps by a surplus of possibility or potentiality. Each panel becomes a site of extraction of the new, of what was always present in the virtual but not yet actualized. Just as the story itself approaches the protagonist’s stuttering through life with astounding ambivalence, the narrative retains the elliptical nature of that “life…” Clear meaning-making is deferred. Instead, the reader is able to see and feel the intensities that guide the protagonist’s movements through time and space and, more importantly, actualize alternate pasts and prod into alternate futures that would otherwise remain only virtual. This is true as the reader moves beyond the panels, sequences, or series within a unit and considers the system at large. These “fragments” are understood not by their fixed position in time but by their defiance of time, the ways in which they unsettle habits and memories and they prod and explore a future that is not settled. The cartography of lines in, for example, the image of the skeleton moves the reader both in multiple directions within that image and also vertically and horizontally off of the page— into other panels, into other units and dimensions—to seek out the multiplicities of information, the affective and semiotic tenor of information. If the reader desired to look ahead to “see what happens,” he or she would not know where to look, let alone what it might mean for “the present.” The reader is dependent on the dimensions of the present in the object they are holding, and the promise of new novelties in the other objects in the box of texts. Put differently, in precisely the same manner that the abstract lines traced out from the skeletal image exacerbate and vibrate the habits and memories of the protagonist, and by extension the reader him or herself, these abstract lines are traced off the page and to the other dimensions of the narrative. New lines of flight are drawn, but so much of this cartography is virtual, always just on the verge of being actual.

It is in attempt to trace out new lines of flight that the materiality of the form and fictionality again intersect. According to Phillip Thurtle and Robert Mitchell, packaging often serves as the insulation that protects us from the magnitude and “scales of force and energy demanded by industrialization” (282). However, Thurtle and Mitchell continue, when a subject encounters an anomaly in their experience, or we might say a rupture in their habits, this packaging is removed (282). Considering these ruptures as “new modes of intensity,” or affective encounters, Thurtle and Mitchell argue that superhero comics offer a wide range of “novelties” that “allow one to glimpse unseen aspects of the world; it allows one to discern a consistency to the world that had previously escaped understanding” (283). The novelty itself does not break the narrative or start a new narrative. Instead, it is added into a series, like what Gilles Deleuze calls a rhizome: “Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature…It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle from which it grows and which it overspills. It constitutes multiplicities” (A Thousand Plateaus 21). What are mistakenly called fragments in Building Stories function as a dimension of an eternal middle, both in the protagonist’s life and in the reader’s aesthetic encounter with the unit. These dimensions are constantly in movement between habits, memories, and an un-tethered, virtual future. Each dimension in Building Stories functions, similarly to those of a continuous serial narrative like superhero comics, as novelty. The reader anticipates that new, valuable information will be added to the puzzle of the protagonist’s life. However, unlike superhero comics, this novelty is not explicit, as in the cover images advertising a particularly exciting battle. The novelty is implicit in the print object as distinct from other print objects. I do not mean to say that each print object corresponds to or foreshadows the novelty inside. In fact, that is not true. For example, the children’s book is not indicative that the reader will learn some crucial meaning about the protagonist’s childhood. Rather, the novelty is implicit in the embodied act of touching and unwrapping a new package. The novelty is, in other words, reinforced by the multiplicity of print media as such and of the habits that we routinized with these packages. These encounters with affect allow for a subject to “unwrap” these packages and trace new lines of flight.

In this way, the reading experience of Building Stories similarly resembles what Jonathan Flatley calls affective mapping, a conceptual metaphoric about how we experience our environment and how moods make possible—or more likely—certain feelings and block others. According to Flatley, because we “always bring with us a range of intentions, beliefs, desires, moods, and affective attachments to [different environments]…, our spatial environments are inevitably imbued with the feelings we have about the places we are going, the things that happen to us along the way, and the people we meet, and these emotional valences, of course, affect how we create itineraries” (77-78). However, these maps are “neither fixed nor stable.” Like Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome,

such maps must be able to incorporate new information as one has new experiences in new environments; but this does not mean they are entirely self-invented. Rather the maps are cobbled together in processes of accretion and palimpsetic rewriting from other persons’ maps, first of all those defined in infancy by one’s parents, and later the maps that come to one by way of one’s historical context and the social formations one lives in (78).

Of course, stories are an integral component of how these affective maps are constructed, often completely altering the processes by which a subject conceives of itself as stable and situated in time and space. In other words, the tension between past and present is constantly enfolded into our navigation and of the networks of panels. Similar to the ways in which subjects bring different intentions, attitudes, and moods to different spatial environments, cued by certain relationships with different buildings and architectural spaces, readers bring different intentions, attitudes, and moods to the different sites of Building Stories. However, the aesthetic practice estranges the user’s navigation of panels, of past and present, of habit and memory, creating space for a vitalized imagination of what is possible in the future. Through these moments of “self-estrangement,” aesthetic practices allow readers make otherwise untouchable connections with their past, to see and recognize the historicity of their affects, and, most importantly, draw new lines of flight.

As these readings have shown, the cartography of lines traced by Ware transport the reader to encounters with intensity. The graphic line is both that which affects and codifies affect into emotion. This moving back and forth between affect and emotion does not simply indicate a process of what Postema calls “retroactive signification,” or attributing additional meaning to images as new information comes along (66). Instead, this movement is open-ended, making the reader an active participant in the creation of the (also open-ended) narrative journey. Moreover, the ways these abstract lines vibrate between dimensions of the poly-temporal present depend on the unwrapping of the packages of storytelling, the estrangement of the objects that readers have used throughout their lives as constitutive elements of their affective map. The aesthetic force of Building Stories, the force that “sends us into the zone,” estranges our relationship with each object in hand. Jared Gardner rightly argues, “Graphic narrative…does not offer the possibility of ever forgetting the medium, losing sight of the material text or the physical labor of its production” (“Storylines” 65). The physical labor, in this case, is not solely attributable to Chris Ware but also to the interrelationship between imagination and materiality that Samuel Johnson noted as ever-present in reading. Recalling Postema’s argument that “retroactive signification” in some cases de-familiarizes reading, one could argue that the affective component of Building Stories allows one to become self-estranged from the objects of storytelling themselves, unwrapping the packaging and exposing the intensity at its center. By constructing an encounter with the very moods and intentions readers attach to these printed objects, Ware complicates the outcomes that this exposure might produce. These printed objects (children’s books, posters, magazines, flip books) are imbued with such rich affective traces that our habits of reading, expecting, adapting, and sharing books become a way in which readers conceive of happiness itself. But, in order “to flee,” these sites need to be opened up as multiplicities, an actualization of alternate pasts, rather than closed off as nostalgic memories.

The very materials of the story, understandably, become palpably significant in the reader responses to this story. For some critics and reviewers of Building Stories, among the chief achievements of the work is its disavowal of digital reading platforms. Novelist Rick Moody calls the work a “big f#%& you to the e-book,” joining the chorus of reviews that rightly commented on what Shaun Huston called the “conscious materiality” of Building Stories. However, characterizations like these presume that Building Stories primarily assumes a position of loss or mourning for print. Even more, reviewers and readers seem attuned to associate the depression that the protagonist suffers throughout the narrative, not least as a search for intimacy, as an echo of the reader’s own sadness that print is dying, or dead. Fittingly, reviewer Mark O’Connell subtitles the work, “Infographics of Despair.” However, this framing of despair, as in the process of losing hope or entering a state of hopelessness, undercuts the vital efforts on the part of the protagonist to continue on and trace out new, better pathways for her life.

And, in a related way, the aesthetic experimentations of the graphic narrative seem not to despair, but provide a similar opportunity to trace out new pathways for storytelling and fictionality in the present. Exemplifying this commitment, Ware published one final unit exclusively through McSweeney’s iPad app. This prompted a new review to humorously exclaim: “Chris Ware goes digital? Judas!” (Collins “Touch Sensitive”). These feelings of betrayal are bound up with a reading of Building Stories as fundamentally melancholic. In fact, that same reviewer, “betrayed” by Ware, goes on to suggest, “Held in two hands and horizontally aligned (the comic insists upon this before it allows itself to be read), ‘Touch Sensitive’ is, after all, a Chris Ware comic, and thus a melancholy delight almost by definition. This is true even though the content doesn’t share the container’s nominal innovation.” This review illustrates the layers of this complex relationship: the story is both “melancholic” and a “delight.” And yet, there is something about the material that does not exhaustively define the intimate embrace of the work, as the dedication to print becomes, tellingly, only a “nominal innovation.” The ways in which Building Stories complicates the reader’s relationship to the past, even those elements of the past he or she is fond of, are not entirely comprehensible. And this is precisely the affective capacity of stories: stories, and the visual language used to tell them, put us on the verge between intensity and codification.

It is the way in which the material comes to be animated by the reader’s imagination that, recalling James Turner’s observation about early reader responses to Pamela, this graphic novel “operates on the [reader’s] body as immediately as a hand.” The reader touches the material book, animates the material, and gives life to it. The question becomes, how will the reader comprehend this affect? How will they register this encounter as meaning or as emotion? One potential outcome of an encounter with Building Stories is to ultimately conflate the status of print, “something to hold on to,” and fictionality, “the wild strain of imagination.” Because many readers perceive the avenues of communication in the digital era to be constrained, the proximate feelings and moods that they bring to the different units of Building Stories depend on the sensual variations of each object and the fantasies they have invested in it. And yet the work’s eternal middle draws attention to its material body to expand the imagination of storytelling, not constrict it. Building Stories is not a melancholic swan song to print, nor however does it disavow print. Building Stories unsettles the image of the book as a purveyor of a private, pure intimacy, illustrating that this need not be the only signal we follow into the history of the book, via our habits and memories. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the fact that Building Stories is packaged in a large game board box, making it utterly unsuitable to interact with and animate in the bedroom, like the protagonist in fig. 1. Instead, the packaging prompts the reader to take the text out of the private space and into a social one. Building Stories becomes a shared, collective act of creativity. To put it plainly, Building Stories is meant for the living room, not the bedroom.

There is, no doubt, an intense connection between storytelling and materiality. Reading comics affectively offers one avenue to theorize that connection. Building Stories preserves affect in the materials of its storytelling, the graphic lines, the colors, the printed pulp; and, this intensity “unwraps” the packaging of the book that readers all too often rely on to navigate the “seeping edge” between language and intensity. Building Stories experiments on the grammar of the visual language of comics, and its unique capacity to represent multiple dimensions of space and time simultaneously, to tell a story that turns into an ellipsis, a way to, in the words of Deleuze, “[traverse] both the livable and the lived” (Essays Critical and Clinical, 1).


[1] Building Stories does not use page numbers. Throughout this article I will detail as fully as possible where the excerpts appear in the text.

[2]  For more on this history, see Jared Gardner, “Archives, Collectors, and the Mew Media Work of Comics,” Modern Fiction Studies 52 (2006): 787-806.

[3] For more on the Comics Code Authority and Frederic Wertham’s critique, see also Bart Beaty, Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture (UP of Mississippi, 2005).

[4]  For more, see William B Warner, “The Pamela Media Event,” Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684–1750 (Univ. of California Press, 1998), 176-230.

[5]  See, for example, the softcover edition of Jimmy Corrigan added an “unpublished epilogue” not included in the hardcover edition. Though this may rankle some textual purists, adding content to different editions of a graphic text is, as collectors know, constitutive of the material and cultural history of the form. What is sometimes less noted is that, since its earliest iterations, the novel industry has had a similarly haphazard relationship to the “purity” of a text.

[6] See Johanna Drucker, “Graphic Devices: Narration and Navigation.” Narrative 16.2 (2008): 121-139.

[7] See Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994); Thierry Groensteen, The System of Comics (UP of Mississippi, 2007) and Comics and Narration (UP of Mississippi, 2013); Barbara Postema, Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments (Rochester: RIT, 2013).

[8] Though I provide an explanation for my use of the term “affect,” it is important to note for those unfamiliar that the affective turn in literary and cultural studies has resulted in a diverse, and often competing, set of approaches and theories. Summarizing these diverse approaches is a task beyond the space warranted. For a comprehensive overview of these diverse approaches to affect, see Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” The Affect Theory Reader (Duke University Press, 2010), 1-27.

[9] His artwork dons the cover of Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey’s comprehensive The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2015) as well as the cover of Thierry Groensteen’s widely influential monograph Comics and Narration (UP of Mississippi, 2013).

[10] For edited collections or academic monographs about single cartoonists/authors, see, Deborah R. Geis, ed. Considering Maus: Approaches to Art Spiegelman’s “Survivor’s Tale” of the Holocaust, (University of Alabama Press, 2003); Andrew Hoberek, Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics (Rutgers University Press, 2014); Daniel Worden, ed. The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World (UP of Mississippi, 2015). On Chris Ware, see Daniel Raeburn, Chris Ware, (Yale University Press, 2004); David M. Ball and Martha B. Kuhlman eds., The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking, (UP of Mississippi, 2010).

[11] See Martha B. Kulhman and David M. Ball, “Introduction: Chris Ware and the Cult of Difficulty,” The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking (UP of Mississippi, 2010), ix-xxiii; See Katherine Roeder, “Chris Ware and the Burden of Art History,” The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking (UP of Mississippi, 2010), 65-77.

[12] See Jacob Brogan, “Masked Fathers: Jimmy Corrigan and the Superheroic Legacy,” The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking (UP of Mississippi, 2010), 14-27.

Works Cited

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Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. U of Minnesota Press, 1987.

— “Percept, Affect, and Concept,” What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. Columbia UP, 1994. 163-200.

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— “Storylines.” SubStance, vol. 40, no. 1, 2011, pp. 53-69.

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Moody, Rick. “Fugue for Centrifuges: On Chris Ware’s “Building Stories,” LA Review of Books. Oct. 25, 2012.

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