Week Fifty Two

Encounters with Chris Ware: part two

Posted in 2007 Archives by sarahbakerhansen on 12 February 2007

Last week, I sent artist Chris Ware five questions. Here are his answers.

I will be writing two stories about Ware and his work: One for the Omaha Reader, another for Art Scene Iowa.

Learn more about Chris Ware and his work.


SB: You mention in your interview with Dan Siedell (which can be found here) something akin
to your “Midwestern work ethic.” Is that really part of the reason you stuck to comics through the time when they weren’t a stable, financially feasible undertaking?

CW: Well, maybe 25% of the reason. The older I get the more I’ve come to realize it’s also one quarter a strangely backwards way of pathetically protecting the memory of my child-self, since in America it’s become more or less acceptable to “grandfather in” one’s juvenile interests into one’s adulthood; I guess I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I think I can fairly reliably say that the other half is accounted for by the fact that I truly believe comics, with their mixture of writing, art, and a kind of visual music is a really powerful way of recreating human experience on paper, with all of its layers of meaning and contradiction. It also takes a really, really long time to learn how to do, though as a kid, being both an only child as well as something of a nerd, I got used to spending time by myself, so I was already broken in, as it were. As it’s turned out, while I essentially worked for little or no pay for many years, I’ve now found myself able to support myself with what I do, and consequently, I find myself one of the luckiest people in the world. Thus, I don’t want to take my life lightly; I know there are countless people who are smarter and more talented than I am and who could do much better work than me if they had the chance.

SB: I’ve heard before that you are always surprised to learn you have female readers and fans. As a female and a reader of your work, I’m interested in why this surprises you. What do you think it might be that does draw women to your work? (Or conversely, why don’t you think they’d like it all that much?)

CW: That’s really nice of you to say. I suppose it makes more sense lately because most of my “main characters” are now women; I went through art school in the late 1980s and early 1990s and I can remember on at least a couple of occasions being told (by my professors, no less) that it was “immoral” for me to draw women, let alone write stories about them, so it took me a few years to get those voices out of my head. As it’s turned out, I find myself much more identifying and caring about my women characters than about the
men, however. I still worry that I’m getting “something wrong” a great deal of the time, but that’s hardly a problem that’s exclusive to writing one’s opposite sex.

As for being surprised I have female readers, I suppose I’m still getting used to the idea that comics readers aren’t primarily men — in fact, I think, that the comic-reading “Y” chromosome has been usurped, actually, especially with the popularity of manga in America, which is great. Finally, as for what might draw or repel readers from my stuff, that’s anyone’s guess, and something I try to not think about, because the prospect is paralyzing and antithetical to working for me. I simply try to tell “the truth” as I understand it at that moment as honestly as I can and hope that I’m not lying to myself or working from completely false premises or experiences (which, as it turns out, I frequently am, but that’s what drives one to keep working to improve, I think.)


SB: Tell me about the special stuff you created for the Sheldon show, why you did it and how you think it enhances the pieces you’re hanging on the walls.

CW: Jeez, well, I’m afraid there isn’t really anything done especially for the exhibit; it’s pretty much all isolated and somewhat disconnected original pages done for reproduction in my comics and books, and as such, ends up being sort of a display of rather mechanical drawings rather than anything much too fun or colorful to look at. I was educated as a gallery artist but over the past few years of almost exclusively cartooning and writing I’ve basically just turned into an author who draws a lot, and so what’s on exhibit at the Sheldon is essentially that, aside from a couple of objects that I’ve made both in mass reproduction and in an “edition of one.” I honestly can’t imagine what would be of much interest there unless one was a cartoonist and wondered what sort of white-out I used.

I have, however, prepared a free sort of gallery guide for the show which tries to differentiate between the original drawings and the actual printed work, since the printed page is where the real art of it — if there’s any at all — resides; I guess it’s sort of like the difference between a manuscript of a musical composition, its published version, and then hearing a performance of the piece; in comics, the manuscript is the original drawing and the performance is the reader’s experience of reading the published book, despite how extremely pretentious this metaphor is.


SB: What do you think about the recent popularity of comics as art? For you, what is the connection between the two?

CW: Comics aren’t endemically art and cartoonists aren’t artists, but comics can be art and some cartoonists can be artists (just as a lot of painting isn’t art but something that made to be hung on a hotel wall.) I’m more than a little incredulous at what appears to be a genuine popularity of comics among more and more thoughtful readers, but I have to think that’s partly due to my generation having grown up reading them and partly due to more talented and serious cartoonists working and writing now than ever before. My stuff is
only one very small shard of the whole “iceberg,” and I think Houghton-Mifflin adding comics to their “Best American” series is evidence of that; I just guest-edited the most recent volume and I surprised even myself at the amount of really interesting and compassionate work that was done simply in the last year.

SB: One of the most intriguing elements in your work is the way it incorporates words and pictures, and sometimes says a lot more via images than via text. It leads the reader through the story but in a rather unconventional way. I guess I would just like you to talk a bit about your style, and maybe bring it back to your new work. Has it evolved? If so, how and why?

CW: Without devolving too much into my usual art-school nattering, I essentially write with pictures and I try to allow those pictures to not only organically suggest the flow of a story but also to suggest and draw out my own memories and experiences. Comics are essentially a language of abbreviated images that are intended to be read rather than seen (something like the difference between words being spoken versus being sung) though it’s also a language that allows for a very flexible approach, whether via more expressive or tentative drawings or much more internally-focused writing. I tend to work very flatly and banally, which is simply my choice; there’s no right way or wrong way to approach comics, just as there’s no right or wrong way to write. In terms of literature, what I’m most inspired by is what James Joyce accomplished with “Ulysses”; he was able to synaesthetically recreate with such perfect and poetic precision the layered, complicated experience of consciouness (i.e. simply what it feels like to “be alive”) that his writing can actually implant false memories or sensations in one’s own mind; on some level, I’d like my comics, however dumb they might be, to have some small sense of that
clarity, I guess.
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One Response

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  1. lindsey said, on 16 February 2007 at 9:24 pm

    damn girl. way to rock the interview.


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