Braithwaite, Jean. Chris Ware: Conversations. University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
Chris Ware: Conversations is an installment in the Conversations with Comic Artists series, edited by M. Thomas Inge for the University Press of Mississippi. This volume was compiled by Jean Braithwaite and consists of a set of fifteen interviews with Ware himself, one brief article about him, a group conversation during a comics gathering on a cruise, and an interview with Ware’s wife, Marnie. All of these took place over the course of more than twenty years—from 1993, a few years after Quimby the Mouse was produced, through the early days of Jimmy Corrigan (2000), to 2015 following the success of Building Stories (2012). The final three interviews were conducted by Braithwaite herself, who credits Chris and Marnie Ware’s cooperation for the success and completion of the project. The cover features a sample of Ware’s unassuming yet distinctive style, dynamic but welcoming, and appears to mark a shift in the cover art of the series. The covers previously consisted of basic monochromatic themes and a panel containing a sample of the artist’s work, or a picture of the artist with a thought bubble containing the title. For this edition, the cover becomes the panel, and is illustrated in and incorporates Ware’s style. Perhaps this shift is meant to reflect Ware’s place in the comics community. His inclusion in the Conversations series suggests that he is seen as one of the primary contributors to the comics field (though, it should be pointed out that none of the artists interviewed have been women). Simultaneously, he occupies the role of an artist who strives to play with and produce atypical comics.
The book does for Ware what the artist seems hesitant to do for himself, and sings the praises of the man Braithwaite calls “the second most famous cartoonist in the country” (vii). Staying true to Ware himself, however, it does so in a relatively unassuming manner, opening with an introduction that provides insight into Ware’s artistic range and the plethora of awards and attention his work has garnered over the years. Moreover, she admires Ware’s involvement in various social concerns and his engagement with different groups, from his work to keep Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on air in Chicago, to the defense of a Florida park under threat of demolition for the construction of commercial businesses (xiii).
Braithwaite also points out Ware’s desire for readers to focus more on the work itself than on the artist, but as she writes in response to this stance, there is an interest in “how art comes to be created” (viii). It is here that the strength of Braithwaite’s choice of interviews shines. As we work through the interviews, we get a peek into which kinds of questions have the capacity to bypass Ware’s timid shell and provoke engaging discussions, and which do not. A good example of this comes early in the interview with Dan Kelly, when it is revealed that Ware can play ragtime on the piano. When prompted about Scott Joplin, one of Kelly’s favorite ragtime musicians, Ware opens up, saying, “A lot of it’s really cheesy, but there were a few people that were really good. I like Joplin, Joseph Lam… James Scott was another one” (5). When Kelly follows this up by asking if Ware can play, he receives a simple “No” in response (5).
To further demonstrate this, Braithwaite includes a brief article by Dan Raeburn that, at first, may seem out of place in a collection of interviews. What it does, however, is reflect the complexity of Ware’s character that Braithwaite seems to want to bring to the forefront. Raeburn’s description of the city surrounding Ware’s home mirrors Ware’s public attitudes about himself and his work—if you remain on the outside and make no effort to go further, you would be left only with an “appalling panorama” (79). If, however, you go further and are welcomed into a space where Ware is comfortable, his home or his head, a “dense, elaborate amalgamation” (80) reveals itself and provides a glimpse of the genius that Braithwaite and others seek to show readers, and perhaps Ware himself.
The layout of the book itself facilitates a more complex, evolutionary vision of Chris Ware, something that any one of the interviews alone would struggle to do. The text begins with a chronology that traces Ware’s life, from his childhood, to the origins of his interest in art, to the success of his works. What the chronology does not do, however, is delve into the details of Ware’s personal life, touching only briefly on his relationship (or lack thereof) with his estranged father. The collection leaves it to Ware himself to reveal those details if he so chooses, and even then only in the context of the interview and his work themselves. For example, in 2010, during an interview with Mathias Wivel at the international Copenhagen comics festival (Komiks.dk, now Copenhagen Comics Fest), Ware provides some information about his relationship with his father, and how that affected him growing up. This point only comes up, however, in discussing the first time Jimmy Corrigan (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth) meets his father. Ware reveals that his father’s absence had “lodged in [his] brain like this weakness” (157), and that the project sprang from him asking the question “What would it be like if I had my real father?” (158). He does not linger on this, though, and quickly returns to the question of themes for the book.
Simultaneously, the selected interviews show how appreciative and admiring Ware is of his colleagues and inspirations. In an interview with Dylan Williams of the Puppy Toss Comics Collective, Ware speaks to his fellow comics artist about his formative years as a cartoonist at the University of Texas in Austin. They also spend time tossing around names of other cartoonists and comics artists, some well-known and recognizable (Daniel Clowes and Robert Crumb), and others like John Keen, who Ware argues does not get the attention he deserves, but has done “more than anyone else since” (16) their years in Austin. In the second half of the Williams interview, the discussion opens up into Ware’s non-comics work. On page 34, we find a photo of Sparky the Singing Cat (1990), a kinetic sculpture that Ware completed in honor of his grandmother who had recently passed away. Shortly after, on page 37, we are presented with another kinetic sculpture entitled Quimbies the Mouse (1993). These works serve to remind the reader of one of the central underlying themes of this collection of interviews: Chris Ware, and by extension his work, cannot be described in an oversimplified, one-dimensional manner.
Indeed, even his comics style works to move beyond traditional forms of the medium. Approximately two-thirds of the way through the book, Braithwaite samples a range of Ware’s comics works, some of which fall within the typical paneled structure of comics function, while others work in fascinating ways. In the “Big Tex,” sampled from ACME Report to Shareholders (2005), time flows backwards in relation to the typical reading pattern (for Western, Anglophone readers), with the past at the bottom right, and the present at the top left. The contents of the panels themselves also make up a larger, singular image, meaning Ware is manipulating the comics form in multiple ways all at once. Another example of this can be seen in his work from Jimmy Corrigan, which experiments with rotated panels, as well as the inclusion of instruction manuals, floral prints, and pages from a supposed novelized form of Jimmy Corrigan. Other samples include ACME Novelty Library, Quimby the Mouse (2003), and Building Stories (2012).
Including this sample of works, particularly those that are some of Ware’s most dynamic, is a brilliant move on Braithwaite’s part. Not only does it put on display the sheer genius of Ware’s work—a genius that the interviews have been attempting to convey to this point—but it lets the work speak for itself in a way that only it can, echoing Ware’s sentiments in the introduction about focusing on the work rather than the artist. And yet, focus on the artist is inescapable. This becomes clear in Braithwaite’s inclusion of an interview entitled “Placing Ware in the Literary Canon.” While the goal here is to understand more deeply the literary influences of a comics artist like Ware, it risks reducing comics to a by-product of the traditional literary canon. This is of particular interest when considering the traps of canon-building (the reduction of an author/artist to one or two works, the exclusion of authors/artists), and the implicit canon-building that seems to be occurring in the Conversations series itself, as previously noted, by the lack of female artists.
Aside from the obvious names that have been instrumental in the proliferation and evolution of the comics medium (Alison Bechdel and Lynda Barry, to name just two), female comics writers and artists are key to the future of the form: Emily Carroll, whose web comics give new, visual life to classic fairy tales (Through the Woods), Lucy Knisley, who blends the graphic form with personal narrative and travel stories (French Milk, Relish), and Kate Beaton, whose art style, brand of humor, and reimagining of historical figures have become immediately recognizable (Hark! A Vagrant). These women are award winning comics artists who continue to push the boundaries and possibilities of comics and their cultural relevance. Their absence from the Conversations series, and by extension the lack of any discussion of their works, is rather noticeable.
If there is one thing that these interviews, and Chris Ware through them, shows us, it is that we have as good a chance, or better, of understanding the artist through their works. He seems like the type of artist, and indeed human being, who would not want to be put on a pedestal or enshrined as the epitome of what good comics art is; or even worse, to be reduced to one or two of the myriad works he has produced over the years. To be canonized is, in a sense, to be done. Ware, in the words of his wife Marnie, may be tortured, irreverent, funny, anxious, principled, honest, generous, polite, observant, insightful, judgmental, nostalgic, and melancholic (231-233), but in his own final-but-not-last words, he reminds us that he is “not dead yet” (244).