Graphic novelist Chris Ware is known for his dense, satirical, and self-deprecating stories. Often unconventionally designed, his books require close physical proximity to make out his miniature figures and text, twisting the book around to read the panels; some even take the form of boxes full of other books, as with Building Stories. His latest book, Monograph, measures 18 by 13 inches and weighs over seven pounds. The size is nostalgic of large-format newsprint comics. But unlike those fragile pages, this book is sturdy, hardcover-bound, and meant to last.
Monograph is neither an autobiography nor a memoir; it is a visual history based on ephemera and remembrances, with a narrative loosely built around these objects. Ware, whose work has been published by Fantagraphics and Pantheon, and has graced the cover of the New Yorker and Paris Review, explains that the title references the lonely state of cartoonists, “the somewhat self-referential title of this book: ‘mono’ for alone, ‘graph’ for drawing.” Upon reading this, I picture Ware working alone in his studio, pouring over family albums and boxes of sketches, laying them out and annotating them in solitude as he built this book.
There is a preface by Ira Glass (who has collaborated with Ware on storytelling projects for the New Yorker and This American Life), and two introductions by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman. But the book keeps words to a minimum, always in service to the visuals. Grainy images of Ware as a child in a superhero costume, young Ware leaning over a drafting table, and New Yorker covers twice the size of the actual magazine fill the pages alongside his detailed comics. “As distasteful as I find it to include personal photos in a ridiculously heavy book already awash with words and pictures about me,” writes Ware, “I admit I’d be interested in such photos if the book was about anyone else.” If you squint, in the margins along the edges of these pictures is the meat of the book: Ware’s typed annotations and insights upon revisiting his expansive body of work.
He begins his origin story with his grandfather, who was editor of the Omaha World-Herald where one of his duties was managing the comics page of the paper. From there, Ware progresses chronologically through his college years, weekly newspaper strips, graduate school, and published novels and collections, all the while telling his story through a fitting combination of large pictures and tiny words.
One spread shows Ware’s comic drawings from 1987 and ’88 featuring a potato man as the protagonist. Ware explains the idea came to him after abandoning a failing character he had been working on for a local paper. Ware deemed the character, named “Brick Brady,” too self-referential, and emphasizes his early struggles to find a fresh way to write about his own life without becoming trite. “The character [potato man] became part of his own story about a mean co-dependent relationship — which was really what ‘Brick Brady’ had been about, anyway,” Ware writes in the margins. As Ware annotates, he revises with the eye of hindsight, explaining influences and offering behind-the-scene anecdotes as context.
Excerpts of his more well-known work also appear in the book, including spreads at various color stages from his Fantagraphics series ACME Novelty Library, which included runs of “Jimmy Corrigan” and “Quimby the Mouse,” with notes on his working process with publisher Kim Thompson and Fantagraphics colorists. Another spread includes photographs of dollhouses Ware built in 1989 with looped film projections of a “ghostlike animated character” inside the home. “This was an early attempt to get at the ephemeral, sculptural shape of human activity and how buildings and homes take on life and memory once inhabited,” he annotates.
Home and place are themes throughout Ware’s oeuvre, which he addresses directly in his notes. “I know that it’s horribly unfashionable, especially in the past fifty or so years, to make art about homes,” Ware states, “but as an artist, I can think of few other genuinely direct-to-the-heart-of-it-all subjects.” This reframes Ware’s inclusion of so many images of his childhood home, his detailed building structures, and home plans; he treats home as both a physical and metaphorical space. “Shelter, whether simple or lavish, is a necessity, and it shapes our lives and our memories, just as we shape that same shelter to contain our memories and our lives,” Ware writes alongside the pictures of his wooden homes.
Images of model homes and other container structures, as well as toys and figurines, feature prominently in the book. While in art school Ware stumbled upon the woodshop and asked for tutorials. “What I’d thought would be a one-time visit ended up being the beginning of an education in woodworking,” he recalls, “I wanted to make things the viewer could touch, if not even play around with.” Ware’s books are often of odd shapes or are hefty tomes that require moving around as one reads. But Monograph reveals how many other objects Ware created in addition to his books.
When I learned that Ware also had an exhibition at Adam Baumgold Gallery in New York — up through the end of January — I expected to see some of the sculptures, toys, and boxes he made throughout his career, these unique things that are less common to other graphic authors who cross over into the fine arts. Ware himself proclaims that “at some point I more or less ‘gave up’ on the idea of being a gallery artist,” until the early 2000s when art institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, began to seek out his work to show. Adam Baumgold was among these.
I was, however, mostly disappointed to see that Ware’s current show focuses on his drawings and preparatory sketches. While there are some lunchboxes and limited-edition wooden Quimby the Mouse figures (made especially for the exhibition), I had hoped the show would provide what the book cannot: a three-dimensional engagement with Ware’s especially unique body of work. If anything, the walls should be floor-to-ceiling with drawings, plans, posters, and spreads. Ware should always be crowded and a little bit heavy and uncomfortable, (as I felt carrying Monograph home on the subway trying not to hit fellow riders with the sharp corners).
Monograph affords this deeper, tactile, and concentrated engagement with Ware. His willingness to confront his own memory and his past self is a treat to decipher, page after page, image after image. “Our memories are faulty, uncertain and fragmentary,” argues Ware, “regardless of whether we consider ourselves memoirists or storytellers, we are all always recomposing our lives from ever-decomposing pieces and stems. In short, we are all natural-born fiction writers.” Monograph lets us behind the curtain of that fiction to watch Ware gather the pieces, take them apart, and reassemble them.