Building Stories: The Missing Manual

If there is a comics geek in your life (or if you happened recently to mention to family or friends a passing interest in “graphic novels”), this holiday season you are likely to find yourself the ...

If there is a comics geek in your life (or if you happened recently to mention to family or friends a passing interest in “graphic novels”), this holiday season you are likely to find yourself the recipient of a beautiful but mystifying object: Building Stories. But don’t worry, we here at Public Books can help: just follow these simple steps!

Your first question is likely to be: what the hell am I looking at? The title, Building Stories, suggests a book, but the rattling box in your hands suggests something closer to a game or a jigsaw puzzle. The truth lies somewhere in between. Inside the box are fourteen objects. Two of them are clearly books of the species codex. If you have been listening whenever your benefactor natters on about geeky trivia, you might recognize the size and binding of the larger of these two books as being similar to the latter entries in The Acme Novelty Library, Chris Ware’s ongoing periodical series, which first appeared in 1993 but has been self-published since 2005 in hardbound volumes. The first self-published volume, #16, also featured the series’ first installment of the story collected in the box before you. This large unmarked volume reprints in its entirety #18, from 2007. None of this information is necessary to operate Building Stories, but such trivia might well impress your benefactor. What is important is that this book serves as our first introduction to the woman who will serve as our central (human) protagonist. Here she narrates her experiences after graduating from college, which involved serving briefly as a nanny for an upper-middle-class suburban family before being sent packing, leading to a new life in a building that will serve as our other protagonist, the three-story, turn-of-the-century Chicago brownstone in whose top story she resides.

Of course, even if you have thus far remained at a safe distance from your benefactor’s obsessive relationship to comic books (excuse me, “graphic novels”) and to the work of Chris Ware in particular, you are nonetheless likely to arrive at the contents of this box with at least one point of familiarity yourself. Open the second of the two books, the one with the colorful cover, and allow yourself to be briefly carried back to your childhood by the clever “Golden Books” design of the volume.


On your return to the present day linger on a more recent memory, of when The New York Times briefly experimented with the comics form they had spent a century ignoring by opening up the pages of their Sunday magazine to a new feature, ironically titled “The Funny Pages.” This second book collects the weekly installments from 2005–6 that constituted Ware’s inaugural turn at this now-extinct feature. It was perhaps here that you first encountered Ware’s work, sucked in by the startling sight of dialog balloons and colorful panels in the Grey Lady’s pages.


Is it now coming back to you?—the story of the old three-story Chicago house and its residents, including the elderly landlady who has lived her long, lonely life within its crumbling walls. On the second floor resides a couple whose relationship soured some time ago, while on the third floor you find the same young woman from the larger of the two books, now placed in a specific moment in time, identified on the title page of the smaller volume as “September 23rd, 2000.”

In the larger book her story, her voice, is at the center; in the Golden Book, however, she shares her story with the landlady, the sour couple, and especially with the house. At the end of the Golden Book, we see her driving by the house one last time, in 2005. The neighborhood has been gentrified (“A Starbucks now? Gross!”), and the house is for sale following what she (and we) can only guess was the landlady’s demise. Next door to the old building, a sign advertises the modern condos to be built in the vacant lot next door, and as our protagonist drives off to “pick up Daddy” she casts a nostalgic, almost guilty look back at the old house where she lived her years between college and marriage. At least, we are assured, she did not, like the landlady, live and die alone in that house. At least she has something that looks like a “happy ending.”

Of course, if this is your idea of a “happy ending,” you might want to stop here, with a dozen texts remaining unopened in the box. Then again, it is probably clear that if you are looking for an “ending” at all, you are not going to find it here. In fact, somewhat exhausted by the work of the two longer books, the next objects you will remove from the box are likely to be the two smallest pamphlets, each of which unfolds into something like a scroll, printed on both sides.


You will by this point not be surprised that the unfolded ribbons of panels provide no clues as to which panel might serve as a beginning. But worry not: you now have enough of a framework to be able to identify one of the ribbons as describing our protagonist’s single life in the old Chicago walk-up while the other gives us our first significant glimpse of her suburban life to follow. One describes her soul-crushing loneliness and brief flirtation with the possibility of suicide. The other describes her attempts to find compensation in her daughter for all the abandoned dreams and ambitions of her younger self (to draw, to write, to create).

There is one other small pamphlet, but of a different make and model. Saddle-stapled through the fold, like a traditional comic book of yore, and completely devoid of text, this mini-comic is similar to a silent time-lapse movie, following our protagonist asleep and pregnant, insomniac and alone in the maternity ward, cradling her newborn daughter, making formula, walking the baby to sleep, putting her on the bus for school, and so on. The “silence” of the panels simultaneously conveys the passage of time and the seemingly endless routines of parenthood, routines that become obsolete once mastered.


Just—in this particular itinerary, at least—when you think you are settling into a story about the disappointments of the American Dream, however, a comic-book-sized pamphlet pulls you back to the Chicago walk-up and that time we now recognize as roughly synchronous with the episodes collected in “September 23rd, 2000.” Here we spot our protagonist leaving the building on her way to her job at the flower shop, but we are left behind with the sour couple from the second floor; we see the story of their early “romance” and the decline of both their relationship and their bodies.

The other, similarly sized comic book is devoted entirely to the landlady, whom we see living perpetually in memories of her youth, memories that are summoned back by every brick and flake of plaster that surrounds her. Through her eyes we see the transformations of the house over the preceding decades: the copper cornice (“that dangerous metal”) removed and the original brownstone balustrades destroyed in favor of “a proper handrail.” Like the sour couple in their own particular circle of hell, this comic suggests that the landlady occupies her own infernal niche for her crimes against the building itself. Ware is a devoted historian of Chicago architecture, and contempt for modernizations and “improvements” in the name of “safety” is a recurring theme throughout his work.


Alone or together, life is often hell. Is that the story we are building? Alone our protagonist imagines rescue lies in another person—a lover, a child, a knight in shining armor. In her Craftsman house in Oak Park, years later, our protagonist finds herself increasingly nostalgic for her single life. The comic books starring the sour couple and the lonely landlady remind us that the solution to the misery of life does not lie in the condition of being either “alone” or “together.” Nor does it lie in “safety,” which increasingly consumes our protagonist in the years following the Great Recession of 2008. Safety is in fact the primary focus of what could be the next comic-book pamphlet—this time in the larger format of a European comic album. We will call this comic book “Disconnect,” after the text that serves as the banner to the first page.

Here we find ourselves in an entirely contemporary world illuminated by iPads and laptops, tools employed in our protagonist’s frantic attempt to understand how and why her American Dream is collapsing before her very eyes. Parts of this particular comic might also be familiar to you, having appeared originally on the cover of the 2010 “Money Issue” of The New Yorker. Now, increasingly estranged from the husband with whom she still lives (though clearly the expiration date on their union is fast approaching), our protagonist finds herself spending more and more time before screens, searching for answers, for distraction, for assurances that it will all turn out all right. A nostalgic impulse leads her to seek out a nuclear-disaster TV movie from her youth, The Day After (1983), an impulse that soon leads her (with helpful suggestions from Netflix’s recommendation engine) down a rabbit-hole of more contemporary post-apocalyptic visions, beginning with A Crude Awakening (2006). Suddenly money worries and even the homeless are at her suburban front door. In the thick Sunday-comics-section tabloid you have been avoiding thus far, you will find the fullest portrait of our protagonist in her “adult” life, now increasingly drifting into survivalist post-apocalyptic fantasies. In her paranoid daydreams, her obsession with “safety” (portable generator, food and water in the basement) is rewarded by the gratitude of her husband and the restored dependence of her hitherto increasingly independent daughter.

By this point it might well seem that our protagonist is embodying many of the same qualities that marked out the sour couple and the old landlady for contempt. However, Disconnect ends on a very different note, its final page offering a brief glimpse into our protagonist’s future. The daughter is now fully grown, and our protagonist is now seemingly “alone” and running her own florist business (a choice of careers that involves a return to her past as a place to start again). Here she recounts a dream to her adult daughter, of a visit to “one of those big chain bookstores that don’t exist anymore” where she discovered, to her amazement, that “someone had published my book.” As the dream continues, the “book” transforms from a self-contained red volume to a big, sprawling album, and finally to a box on the floor from which she pulls out “my diaries, the stories from my writing classes, even stuff I didn’t know I’d written … everything I’d forgotten, abandoned or thrown out was there.”


Alongside the pieces of discarded writing that have been magically collected in this dream book-box are illustrations “so precise and clean it was like an architect had drawn them.” As she vainly tries to explain the dream to her daughter—“it wasn’t really a book … it was in … pieces, like books falling out of a cartoon”—all her daughter can offer is one “obvious” interpretation of the dream: it is all about the now-absent architect-husband. But, along with our protagonist, you know the daughter’s explanation is inadequate. And so you are summoned to help build the stories of her life from the beautiful and heartbreaking pieces you have seemingly been bequeathed from her dream. Now, you are almost ready to begin reading Building Stories in earnest.

But if you’ve followed this path thus far there remain a couple of items to pause over before you begin (again). No doubt you have been holding off on reading the colorful pamphlet titled “Branford: The Best Bee in the World.” After all, this is a strange fable about a bee, one that seems to offer no recognizable characters from the other pieces of the story (save for the Chicago house that provides the backdrop to Branford’s apian adventures). Looking again, you now see that Branford’s existential meditations on faith, duty, and desire are in fact some of those pieces that our protagonist has left for us along the way, like the pollen Branford himself carries back to the hive. Branford’s adventures were created by our protagonist and her daughter as bedtime tales and kitchen table drawings—infinitely more beautiful and true than the properly published children’s books we see our protagonist read her child, stories that invariably conclude “and they lived happily ever after.”

And, if we pick up a magnifying glass, as all of Ware’s best work asks us to do, we will find Branford elsewhere in this box as well—most obviously in the pages of The Daily Bee, a short newspaper included in the box, but also in quiet corners of the pages we have already read. In an oversized fold-out game board that rests at the bottom of the box, we see Branford exploring the flowers outside the basement windows, flowers we learn from that game board that our landlady added to the grounds (perhaps she wasn’t so bad after all?). And once you start attending to those flowers, and to that bee, you will likely find yourself picking up the pieces you’ve left behind and starting again, looking for other flowers, cross-pollinations, small moments of beauty in an otherwise bleak and bitter tale. After all, “they all lived miserably ever after” is no more true an ending than “they all lived happily ever after.” Of course, the truth, and the beauty, is not to be found in endings but somewhere in between.

Congratulations, you are ready to start all over again, reading in a different order, looking for completely different things, and building a completely different story. Go share your insights with the lovely person who bestowed this magical box on you in the first place. I suspect you will find this individual squirreled away in some forgotten corner, waiting for your insights while he or she focuses on a related gift purchased for personal use: the limited-edition Multi-Story Building Model that he or she is busily constructing into a 11” x 16” x 18” reference model of the multi-unit apartment building you have spent the weekend building using very different tools and (unlike your benefactor) no instructions. Welcome to the maddening, compulsive, and beautiful world of Chris Ware. If you’ve made it this far, we think you’ll be very much at home here.