The experience of reading Chris Ware’s Monograph is inextricably tied to what it’s about. Its inordinate size transforms a grownup into a child. One can set the book down on a table or on one’s lap, but it will take up all available space and make it impossible to do anything else but turn its pages, often having to stick one’s face within inches to catch some of the infinitesimal detail or tiny text. It’s a rare accomplishment these days to make a work of art which demands complete physical and mental attention to be appreciated but Ware has done that with this volume. There’s no casually flipping through while checking Twitter and watching a TV show; one reads this book or sets it down and does something else.
Going all the way to back his college days at the University of Texas and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ware was always wrestling with the language of comics. One of his first widely-circulated strips, “I Guess” was published in Art Spiegelman’s Raw in 1991 while he was still in school. In it, the panels show a superhero’s adventures while the word balloons and captions tell a childhood story about a boy’s fraught relationship with his stepfather. His experimentation would evolve and grow as he moved on to longer narratives about Quimby Mouse, Jimmy Corrigan, Rusty Brown, and scores of other recurring characters.
Ware’s book-length essay serves several functions. It is an introduction to the finished strips, sketches, process drawings, cardboard models, wooden sculptures, and family photographs which fill the lion’s share of page space. It is also a revealing rumination on his childhood, artistic development, and aesthetic philosophy. It is also, at times, a witheringly funny critique of secondary arts education, the art world, and American society as a whole.
One of the more fascinating insights Ware shares into his process is that he works improvisationally, allowing what he draws to suggest the developing narrative rather than planning out the story, then illustrating it. For someone who, as Ira Glass hilariously puts it in his introduction, is a “control enthusiast”, this intuitive method may seem surprising. But since so many of Ware’s stories concern the perils of memory this approach makes sense the more one thinks about it. Scripting the leaps in time and space traversed from panel to gutter, along dotted lines, riding shooting arrows all over any given page of a Ware comic might be too tall an order even for the master himself.
In another revealing passage he talks about comics being a linguistic rather than illustrative art; that rather than just enhancing accompanying words, the drawings themselves must be read to be understood. This is why he works so hard to make them as clean and clear as he possibly can. He doesn’t want the reader to linger over how this or that detail is rendered but rather to register both words and images as parts of the flowing narrative.
Monograph is a rare joy for Ware fans, as it revisits so many of his career highlights while also sharing lesser known work and personal anecdotes. The large reproductions of the automatons, toys, and model houses he builds as a respite from the long hours at the drawing table are a delight to peruse as well.
In all it’s a fitting testament to one of the best artist/writers we have. Read my interview with Ware here.