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Chris Ware: "Any cartoonist has to constantly walk a tightrope between the ideal and the specific"


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From “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” by Chris Ware. Image via modes.io

Over at the Paris Review, Jeet Heer speaks with Chicago-based cartoonist Chris Ware about his latest books, cartoonist inspirations, and career highlights. Ware is a crossover cartoonist who has been shown in an art context, to include the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Read an excerpt here, or the full text on the Paris Review’s site:

INTERVIEWER
Is it true that your grandfather wanted to be a cartoonist?

WARE
He took a couple of art classes at the University of Nebraska in the 1910s with vague notions of becoming a cartoonist, but when he and a friend stole some of the dean’s stationery and sent out letters to all the fraternities requiring them to appear at the gymnasium for mandatory VD testing, his college career ended abruptly. He managed to land a job at a newspaper in Lincoln, though, eventually ending up at the Omaha World-Herald, where he worked his way up to sportswriter and editor in the twenties. As late as the 1970s he would still doodle thick-mustached, celluloid-collared cartoon characters for me, the remnants of his earliest ambitions.

Later, as managing editor of the paper, he was responsible for what comics appeared and so was on friendly speaking terms with syndicated cartoonists like Bill Holman and Walt Kelly. He was also one of the earlier editors to add Peanuts. A few of these cartoonists sent him hand-drawn Christmas cards, some of which he framed and hung in his basement office. A few of the guys would even call him up at home. My mom says she remembers talking to Milton Caniff on the phone as a little girl.

INTERVIEWER
She ended up in newspapers, too.

WARE
She did. When she and my father split shortly after I was born, she took a job at the World-Herald and worked very hard to prove herself there, not only as a woman in what was considered a man’s job, but also as the daughter of the managing editor. She quickly became a part of various lunch clubs and occasional afternoon bar hops with the older guys at the paper and held her own both intellectually and professionally. She was, and still is, an excellent writer, to say nothing of extremely smart. When Art Spiegelman met her at my home in Chicago, he called her a “firecracker.”

As a kid, I’d go downtown with her on weekends when she was ­writing or editing a story and sit upstairs at one of the empty desks and draw, or I’d wander around and look at the drafting tables in the art ­department. I was amazed at the careful work those guys did, and it especially fascinated me to see how a drawing could be transferred from one piece of paper to a plate of metal to thousands of copies printed out on the rumbling presses below.

But because she had to work to support me, I also spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house, and I became very close to them, especially to my grandmother. I’d sit with her at the kitchen table and listen for hours while she told me stories of her childhood and the early years of marriage to my grandfather, memories of the two of them going to bathtub-gin parties and getting so hammered they could hardly drive home, or simple memories of growing up at the turn of the century and the smells and sensations of, well, everything she could recall. She had a genuine talent for storytelling, a peculiar ear and eye for detail and for lively words, which made me feel like I was time traveling when I listened to her. I’m certain that it was this evocative warmth and her peculiar, almost songlike sense of syntax that made me want to become a writer. Or at least a version of one.

INTERVIEWER
What part did comics play in your life when you were growing up?

WARE
I misguidedly viewed superhero comics as a sort of preview of my upcoming adult life and spent more time tracing and copying the pictures than I did reading them. I’d replace the costumes with my own and stick a vision of my grown-up face on the muscular bodies, which I suppose indicated psychological problems of its own, but anyway . . . Maybe comics were a way for me to define myself against my more athletic peers as well as disappear among them, because I imagined I had secret powers I would someday use to prove my moral and physical superiority in a shining burst of revelation in the school lunchroom or gym class or wherever.

It was the Peanuts collections in my grandfather’s basement office that really stayed with me through childhood and into college. Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy, and Lucy all felt like real people to me. I even felt so sorry for Charlie Brown at one point that I wrote him a valentine and sent it to the newspaper, hoping he’d get it. I’ve said it many times before, but Charles Schulz is the only writer I’ve continually been reading since I was a kid. And I know I’m not alone. He touched millions of people and introduced empathy to comics, an important step in their transition from a mass medium to an artistic and literary one.

Mostly, though, I watched a lot of TV. A lot. I’m pretty sure half my conscious life was spent “waiting for something good to come on” and ­puzzling over the inner lives of Darrin and Samantha and the Brady Bunch. I was so anesthetized by it that one afternoon I almost electrocuted myself by mindlessly sucking on an extension cord while watching Star Trek. That moment was something of a wake-up call, actually.

INTERVIEWER
What effect did all that TV watching have on you?

WARE
Television was probably my first real drug. I have little doubt that it fired off the same dopamine receptors in my brain that marijuana later did. Specific hours of my childhood day would be tonally defined by what was on. Monday through Friday at three-thirty meant Gilligan’s Island, and so that particular half hour always took on a sense of bamboo and Mary Ann’s checkered shirt, later to be replaced by the tweed and loafers of My Three Sons. I was sensitive to the broadcast vibe of ABC versus CBS versus NBC versus PBS and to how their particular programs made me feel, even how the particular resolution of each channel was different.

INTERVIEWER
What do you mean?

WARE
Well, ABC always felt sharp and acidic, for some reason, and NBC softer, and I’d associate or think of real moments in my life as being more “ABC” or “NBC,” as if they were adjectives. For years I couldn’t figure out why soap operas felt so nauseating until I discovered it was the thirty frames per second of video versus the twenty-four of film—a very indescribable, felt sort of thing for a kid, like the visual buzz of incandescent versus LED light that’s changing our sense of the world now.

When I started trying to make comics in high school, it’s no surprise that I ended up imitating the feeling and rhythms of television, from the falseness of the characters and situations to the camera cropping of the ­imagery. By the time I got to college I realized that if I was ever going to do anything meaningful, I had to completely detox from TV, so I quit watching it altogether, and I also very self-consciously tried to eliminate any influence it had on my drawing. I came to deeply distrust the kind of storytelling that defined television and movies—the three-act structure with a protagonist that works commercially for twenty-two-minute passive entertainment but has no relation at all to the possibility for narrative self-revelation on paper.

The problem, of course, is that we humans have craved these constructs and clichés, and we’re now so steeped in them that they’ve restructured our unconscious, which any writer or artist trying to deal with re-creating actual consciousness can’t ignore. And which of course has been a concern of contemporary fiction for decades now.

INTERVIEWER
Did you study art in college?

WARE
I studied painting and printmaking at the University of Texas and took a few experimental film and video classes. I built mechanical sculptures in the woodshop and generally tried anything I could to make myself feel better about my own doubts and inadequacies as a person and potential artist. Thankfully, I received a very thorough liberal arts and literature background, of which I was in sore need, though I was also reading a lot of Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Hemingway on my own time. I took enough philosophy electives that I even considered minoring in it, but I abandoned that plan when I got a C in symbolic logic. While all this was going on, I also drew daily or weekly strips for the student paper. Sort of schizophrenic, I suppose.

When I look back on those years I’m very grateful to the University of Texas for the tolerant, encouraging atmosphere it provided. I’m especially grateful to one of my painting teachers, Richard Jordan, who encouraged us students to trust our most embarrassing ideas and to question the reasons we thought we were doing certain things.

INTERVIEWER
Then you entered the Art Institute’s MFA program in printmaking. What was your experience like there? And why Chicago?

WARE
The tone was a little different there—less “what are you going to do next?” and more “why are you doing that?”—though this may simply point to a contrasting teaching goal between undergraduate and graduate school. I moved there partly to get away from the horrible hot weather of Texas and partly because I knew Karl Wirsum and Jim Nutt taught at the Art Institute. They’d been defining members of the 1960s and ’70s art group the Hairy Who, which had used the language of comics as a means of expression rather than as a stand-in for the empty crassness of modern culture. I took Jim as an adviser for a year, and even though he told me early on he disliked comics, his acerbic and intelligent observations stuck with me. Years later, I met Karl more informally, when he invited me to visit his inspiring, overflowing home studio. I took life-drawing classes from one of the Art Institute’s few remaining figural artists, Richard Keane, who, coincidentally, had taught Richard Jordan decades before. I was lucky to know him and the art historian Robert Loescher, who were both willing to talk about my comics as stories meant to be read, not just as abstract shapes and colors on a page.

INTERVIEWER
Why might they only be read as abstract shapes and colors?

WARE
Well, I was in art school at a time when it was very, very difficult to make an image that said what it meant. My aim was to be as direct in my art as one would be telling a story to a friend. But whenever some sort of genuine humanity or feeling crept into the embryonic art some of us were trying to make, it was almost always labeled as sentimental, illustrative, or sexist—real brain-fascist stuff—and I found that frustrating. Sometimes it felt more like how I imagine the fashion world operates than what I thought the aim of art was supposed to be.

INTERVIEWER
How so?

WARE
Well, we were encouraged to find that “one new thing” that would define us as individual artists, whereas I simply was trying to figure out a way I could write and draw about everything. I wanted to make art that had its own internal life, in the way that Moby-Dick or Pale Fire or Maus or Peanuts or Philip Guston’s paintings are alive. I found it challenging to convince my teachers that an aspiring cartoonist might also have serious goals, and that I wasn’t drawing comics to follow in Lichtenstein’s footsteps or to say how stupid Americans were but to employ them as a visual language to write about what it feels like to be alive. My favorite criticism was that I was “selling out,” especially since any moderately successful painter could probably make more money selling one painting than any moderately successful cartoonist could make in an entire year of published work.

INTERVIEWER
What was the difficulty in convincing them of this?

WARE
The problem, as I was led to understand it, was that to make art actually “about” something—whether it was other people or plants or anything—was considered illustration and thus irrevocably aesthetically corrupt. The only way to do it, apparently, was to make fun of the image or couch it in quotes—à la Lichtenstein or David Salle or whoever—all direct hand-me-downs from the scientific seriousness of the Cubists and the ­social criticism of the Dadaists through the so-called heroism of the Abstract Expressionists. Though I guess Pop finally gave collectors permission to actually like pictures again, but with a major asterisk.

I can understand and even admire these aims, especially in the wake of two of the most horrible wars in history and the oppressive centuries of wealth and power and rarified culture that prefaced them, but jeez, the quote marks that fine art put around picture making in the mid to late twentieth century just seemed a dead end to me. Sarcasm can only go so far. I just figured there must still be various ways to make art “about” something without making it bad or sentimental. Comics basically seemed a way ­toward this goal for me, especially since they are a language meant to be read, not seen—which is a frighteningly interesting and very human way of perceiving the world, and one that’s generally given short shrift, especially in art schools. None of this is to disparage Roy Lichtenstein or David Salle, however, whose paintings I greatly admire.

INTERVIEWER
Unlike pretty much every other male cartoonist of your generation, you ­never seem to refer to the superhero comics of the sixties and seventies. How did you extirpate that influence from your work?

WARE
Pretty easily, actually. The rhythms and visual patterns in 1960s superhero comics are false and histrionic, especially when applied to what it really feels like to be alive, so I avoided using them. As far as that sort of adolescent, ­adventurey stuff goes, I came to prefer the earlier, more ideogrammatic cartooning of the thirties and forties, like Joe Shuster, Roy Crane, Ray Gotto, Dick Calkins. Their simplicity and awkwardness seemed more human and adaptable somehow. Not that I don’t really admire Jack Kirby’s powerful and almost transcendental slow-motion, heavier-than-a-neutron-star way of drawing the ­human figure—I think he was a genius—but it doesn’t sync up with the way I’ve actually experienced life, or with my own aims as a writer.

Incidentally, this brings up an aspect of comics someone should really try to figure out—that sensation of weight and movement that every cartoonist brings to the human form via a strange and indescribable connection between rhythm and gesture. Charlie Brown “feels” solid on the page compared, say, to the nearly weightless early Krazy Kat, despite the bold strokes and heavy shadows of Herriman’s pen. Frank King’s balloony figures almost lean into their futures, while Chester Gould’s immobile statues seem cast in some infinite past. Dan Clowes’s have a weird, balsa-wood quality that exacer­bates his Nabokovian disposition as the master clockmaker.

In short, I think cartooning gets at, and re-creates on the page, some sixth sense—of space and of being in a body—in a way no other medium can quite so easily, or at least so naturally.

INTERVIEWER
Nebraska is a strong presence in Rusty Brown, just as Chicago is in Jimmy Corrigan. How much time do you spend thinking about Nebraska as a place, and not just as a time in your life?

WARE
Really very little at all, unless it comes up in a news story in the New York Times. I’ve now lived away from Nebraska for much longer than I lived there, so I have little connection to it anymore. When I was a younger artist, Omaha served as a sort of magical lost place that I was trying somehow to regain, but not anymore. The hills, streets, and homes now have a lost-wax shape in my memory that I can turn around and look at from every angle and that makes up the landscape of my dreams even though the places and people are largely gone. This loss of childhood place is, of course, the experience of every single adult human being on the planet, and I don’t mean to whine about it.

Not that it hasn’t stopped me from occasionally looking on Zillow to see if the house I grew up in is for sale, with a mind to buy it and move back in.

INTERVIEWER
In your comics, there is a strong connection between memory and phys­ical spaces, buildings in particular. Does this have to do with your own way of ­remembering, or with comics as a medium, or some combination of the two?

WARE
I’m vaguely familiar with the idea of “the poetics of space,” and I guess it’s something I’ve been indirectly writing and drawing about for years now, but I’m woefully uninformed about any real theories around it. Whenever I come across some article about recent neurological research, like how our brain connections are apparently not just a mass of spaghetti but are organized around X, Y, and Z axes, I feel sort of reassured that maybe I’m on the right track, like maybe we build squared-off spaces to contain our lives partly because our memories need the same sort of filing system, and maybe that’s why the most effective means of remembering something is to place it in an image of a house, or a “memory palace.” Or maybe not.

INTERVIEWER
Is that why you don’t generally use perspective when you draw space in comics?

WARE
I avoid the use of perspective because I don’t think it effectively translates the way we remember physical space into the two-dimensional form of ­comics. Isometric projection, which keeps coordinating axes at the same degree, seems to key in to my felt memory better than any mass of as-seen conflicting angles does. Japanese narrative art embraced this approach thousands of years ago. Plus, perspective simply makes the page a mess, and in comics, composition is paramount.

Art Spiegelman has defined comics as the art of turning time back into space, which is the best explanation of the medium I think anyone’s yet come up with. The cartoonist has to remain aware of the page as a composition while focusing on the story created by the strings of individual panels. I think this mirrors the way we experience life—being perceptually aware of our momentary present with some murky recollections of our past and vague anticipations of where we’re headed, and all of it contributing to the shape of what we like to think of as our life. I try to flatten out experience and memory on the page so the reader can see, feel, and sense as much of all of this as possible, but it’s really not much different from composing music or planning a building.

INTERVIEWER
How is creating comics similar to composing music?

WARE
Early on, I noticed that I heard a sort of soundless music in my mind when I read comics—especially comics without words—which was created by the rhythm of the gestures and facial expressions of characters as they appeared to move around on the page. This music seemed to reflect the same sensations in conversation when, say, one punctuates one’s words with a gesture or a lift of an eyebrow, all of which seemed to key in to the skills we use to decide whether someone is lying to us or not—like “listening” to the way someone moves—and thus very tied in with the language of comics. Once I realized this engine, for lack of a better word, was running in the background of comics, I tried to pay more attention to it, and then to structure my stories not only around it but on and within it. Rhythm is one of the most important aspects of comics, and not just a rhythm of words, but of words in concert with images and colors, all within the composition of a page and, ultimately, a book.

INTERVIEWER
Someone once remarked that you have a repertory company, which you ­reuse in various works. You introduce new characters using short, disconnected strips, as if to get used to them, then you launch into larger narratives that explore their lives and world. What’s the advantage of getting to know characters that way?

WARE
I think the remark you’re referring to is a complaint I made about my limited ability, early on, to draw more than three or four different people. My wife called it my “Carol Burnett complex,” meaning I really only had a handful of basic facial types I was capable of drawing. For example, if I needed an old lady, I’d just have to put Tim Conway or Harvey Korman into a wig and hope that no one would notice. I think I’ve gotten beyond that somewhat now.

INTERVIEWER
Was this a matter of technical limitation?

WARE
It certainly started out that way, but eventually it became a more considered part of my approach, since any cartoonist has to constantly walk a tightrope between the ideal and the specific.

INTERVIEWER
What do you mean?

WARE
The question is just how much information you can put into a face and still have it work as that inverted mask, the link to a reader’s empathy that Charles Schulz discovered with Charlie Brown. It’s alchemical, completely immeasurable, but something one has to balance, and very carefully. Occasionally I’ll deliberately put the reader on the outside of a character, because there are moments in life when one feels that way either toward others or toward oneself, but it’s something I rarely do.

INTERVIEWER
You, or rather some alternate-universe version of you, are a character in Rusty Brown. Why did you feel that was necessary or useful?

WARE
Well, I needed a reprehensible character and made it me. I guess I was also expressing a certain discomfort with the general idea of autobiography in comics. Sometimes I wonder whether drawing oneself is necessarily an honest or revealing thing to do. The truth is, I identify more closely with the female protagonist of Building Stories than with any character who looks like me—and I draw myself a lot in my stories, or at least people who look like me. Rusty Brown, taken as a whole story, is more of a self-portrait than the Mr. Ware character who inhabits it. Really, the ideas and theories we form about others and their motivations are just as much portraits of ourselves as they are descriptions of other people. It’s impossible for them to be anything else, when you think about it.

INTERVIEWER
What role have Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly played in your life?

WARE
They’ve almost been like a second set of parents to me. I met Art in 1989 when he was in the middle of the second volume of Maus and I was in the middle of art school. Meeting him in person and seeing those pages of Maus in progress was a deeply galvanizing experience.

INTERVIEWER
In what way?

WARE
At that point I was still only doing single-page or short-form comics, and really, no one had done anything as lengthy or serious as Maus. Seeing it all happening right there on a drawing table was like visiting that newspaper art department with my mom—I immediately had a sense of how it was all coming together, that it was actually humanly possible to make serious, long comics.

I don’t think it’s news that Art is also one of the smartest people on this planet. The sentences he utters in regular conversation are more multilayered than most cartoonists’ finished work, and talking to him about comics was very unlike talking to my painting teachers, because he intuitively understood what I was going for and there was no having to explain anything to him. He knew about rhythm and patterning and the positioning of speech bubbles screwing up a page’s color composition, for example.

I often worry our friendship is profoundly unbalanced, as I feel very inadequate offering Art any opinion or advice, especially if he’s bummed out about something he’s working on. There have been times I’ve wished I could help him, but generally anything I say to him sounds platitudinous and silly, ­especially since it’s more than likely I’m throwing his own words back at him, given that I’ve internalized so much of his thinking and ideas.

INTERVIEWER
And for the past fifteen years, Françoise has been your editor at The New Yorker.

WARE
That’s true when it comes to the covers, and every so often the strips as well. She is also a good friend. There are periods, like when I’m working on a cover or a strip for the magazine, when I talk to her more than I talk to Art. She’s the only human being on the planet, other than Art, who knows how to edit a comic strip. She understands how composition, pattern, and rhythm all add up on a page to something larger than its parts, that taking something out of a comic page can make it collapse, and that you can’t “make the words larger” on a page the way one can with typeset text. That’s like asking to make the bricks in a building bigger once it’s been built. I think it probably has something to do with her training as an architect.

INTERVIEWER
You’ve mentioned that your sense of the possibilities of comics were ­enriched by both Weirdo and Raw—two magazines that are sometimes seen as being in diametric opposition.

WARE
When I was about twenty, I wrote something pretentious in my sketchbook about how Robert Crumb’s Weirdo and Art and Françoise’s Raw ­represented the two branches of possibility for comics as an expressive medium. I tried to pay as much attention to both of them as my brain could handle, but I guess it was Raw from which I stole the most, with Art Spiegelman being the prime exemplar and creator of the graphic novel, with Charles Burns and Gary Panter and Mark Beyer providing the X, Y, and Z axes of expression to build on, and, of course, with Richard McGuire’s comics cosmically opening the whole language up four-dimensionally with his strip Here.

At the same time, I don’t think there’s an artist alive who draws better than Robert Crumb, and without his example as a cartoonist, none of us, ­including the aforementioned, would exist. His rigorous self-questioning urge to see the world and to understand it from the inside out was and still is the measure by which I and my cartoonist pals judge ourselves—especially his sketchbooks, which inspired me early on to try to see better and use my own in a similar, somewhat derivative fashion. His line is his inner animus alive on the page. Genius is an overused word, but it applies one hundred percent to Crumb.

INTERVIEWER
When I first saw your work in Raw I was immediately struck by your color palette—the restrained way you use color to suggest mood. That’s carried through to Jimmy Corrigan and Rusty Brown, where colors play a role comparable to a leitmotif in music. Where did this sense of color come from and how has it evolved over time?

WARE
I guess it’s something of a blend between Hergé’s technique and Edward Hopper’s compositional approach. I intend my generally naturalistic colors to suggest the way one sees the world, and my black line drawings to suggest the way one remembers it. Sandwiched together, they more or less stand in for the way we experience it.

INTERVIEWER
You associate color with direct experience and outlines with memory?

WARE
Sure. In a way, it’s really the difference between painting and drawing, if one wanted to be art historical about it. It’s also what the core of comics is—a combination of memory and experience into a simplified visual language. What one thinks of as pictures in comics are really the equivalent of drawn words—words meant to be read, not looked at—which is analogous to the way humans perceive the world. Looking is a part of it, but not all of it. It’s ultimately the limiting effect of language on experience, a ratcheting down of perception by the human mind that begins the moment we learn how to communicate with words and to name things. Sometimes I think it’s why time seems to speed up for adults as we age—because we spend so much of our conscious time remembering rather than simply looking. To say nothing of the distractions of cell phones and Facebook nowadays to help us along.

Beyond that, by modulating repeated bits of color and by playing warm and cool moments and objects against each other, I try to link various parts of a story together, sort of like the way our memories rewrite our experiences to suit the person we’d like to imagine we are, cleaning things up to suit our tastes. We’ve all had the experience of telling someone about an interesting experience when that person stops us to remind us that they’d been right there with us when it happened.

INTERVIEWER
Your palette doesn’t always reflect the protagonist’s memory or outlook, though, does it?

WARE
No. In the case of Jimmy Corrigan, I especially wanted to have beautiful, ­musical colors and patterns contradict a rather morose and hopeless character’s vision of the world, because I do believe the world can in fact be beautiful to those who open their eyes. I sometimes worry I carry this approach a little too far and get caught up in the sensuousness of a page, but again, I believe it’s the way our minds work. The simple act of remembering means creating an edited, “colored” memory of something that was initially probably flabbergasting, messy, and confusing.

INTERVIEWER
It seems like many of your favorite writers—I’m thinking of Joyce, Nabokov, and Updike—specialize in synesthesia, in finding words that have the flavor, sound, or smell of experience. Why are writers of this sort so important to you?

WARE
Somehow, sensations woven into the fabric of the prose seem to arrive with something like the immediacy of real life. They can even get back to an ­almost prelinguistic moment, when all impressions felt “fresh.” Maybe ­because of my grounding in visual art, I’m drawn to synesthetic vividness, especially to Joyce. His ability to implant images in the reader’s mind with what are essentially page-surface incomprehensibilities astonishes me—­poetic sensations in Ulysses that suggest certain shuffling sounds and grainy, hot ­impressions, and only by the end of the page does one realize Leopold Bloom has been walking on a beach.

Comics, in some ways, are already structurally more synesthetic than “text-only” writing, with their combination of pictures and words inducing a flowing sense of movement and sound and sometimes even smell. The hard part is getting it all to work together on the page and in the reader’s mind, which sometimes involves all sorts of unpredictable seat-of-the-pants decisions, like adding in a panel or an image or a color so that something feels right, where before it felt suddenly false. There’s no predicting any of it, especially for someone as racked by self-doubt as me.