Chris Ware is a novelist’s graphic novelist. Beloved by the likes of Zadie Smith (“There’s no writer alive whose work I love more than Chris Ware’s”), he is compared more often to Joyce than cartoonists before him. His books are Ulyssean in size and complexity, pages filled with tiny, intricate drawings, which is probably how he manages to fit so much of life into them.
His latest book is his biggest, in dimensions and concept. Monograph is a solid, 18-inch tall memoir, but also an exploration of a life spent in pursuit of art, and a frank breakdown of the nature and function of comics. “Does the world really need another printed tome about an artist, let alone one about an admittedly marginal and rather questionable graphic novelist/artist/writer who has already littered the recycling centres and used bookstores of his home country with dog-eared examples of his own self-regard?” Ware writes.
Yes is the answer, for all the fans he has gathered over a 30-year career, which includes 18 years as a regular at the New Yorker. But Ware isn’t even the most significant presence in his own memoir. Instead, it is his first inspiration, and “the person who made me feel most like myself” – Clara Louise Ware, his grandmother.
“The strongest relationships in life create almost a third person: a particular, ineffable sense of something that only exists when two people are around each other … After she died, I suddenly had to learn how to be myself, but on my own,” he says, via email (he dislikes phone interviews). “I think the very best novels and art do the same thing: they make us feel more like ourselves, creating a unique relationship that ceases to exist when one half disappears.”
Like him, Clara was a storyteller, one so “unaffected and natural” that when she told him stories about her own life, “she’d make me feel almost as if I was time travelling”, Ware says. “I would really lose all sense of the kitchen table we were sitting at and I’d feel as if I was back in 1920 or 1910, re-experiencing her life right alongside her. It’s taken me years and years to try and get that same sense of concrete reality into my own stuff.”
Ware’s “own stuff” may appear intricately plotted, but he says his creative process is essentially just sifting through a mess of plans and ideas, some recorded “while I was driving or brushing my teeth or whatever”.
“But once I sit down to draw and am looking at the images as they start to coalesce on the page, all sorts of new ideas start to occur to me,” he says. “And these are almost always much more alive, real and tied unconsciously into whatever the story is actually about than whatever I’ve thought might be interesting, compelling, witty, whatever.”
Ware is a passionate partisan of his vocation; he loves Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (“Peanuts’ was the lifelong psychological novel of Charles Schulz, spanning a half century of his and America’s life”) and has worked hard to preserve historical comics by campaigning for reprints of titles such as Krazy Kat and Gasoline Alley (both now back in print because of him). Making comics, he says, gives him “the strange advantage of actually seeing the inside of one’s brain as one works, rather than simply imagining it”. And with all their intricate nooks and crannies, Ware’s books feel like models of his brain. Building Stories, from 2012, came in a box filled with treasures: comic strips, a board-game panel, a ribbon. The dust jacket of his first and most famous book, 2000’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, unfolded to become the lead character’s family tree. Monograph comes with perfect, miniature reproductions of various of his unpublished comics, glued into pages. All of Ware’s books, as Maus creator and close friend Art Spiegelman writes in Monograph’s introduction, are “beautiful reliquaries or memory palaces that bring the past back to life”.
Memory, both collective and individual, is hugely important to Ware and at times, Monograph feels like a rebuke to how his grandmother lost hers, before she died in 1990. “Witnessing the slow erosion of my grandmother’s memory, and for her to tell me of her dreams bleeding into reality, terrified me, because for her whole life she’d relied on her wits and sharp grasp of the world to get through any situation,” he writes.
It is a remarkably personal book, and Ware finds himself torn between the desire to see his thoughts realised in art and a deep need for privacy. At one point, he realises that, having published his sketchbooks, nothing has been left private – so he includes pages from his genuine diary – but reprinted at a tiny, unreadable size (the diary, he says, will see legible print only after he is dead). But there are other personal details: a ramshackle two-storey house that he built for his daughter’s Playmobil figures, presents he made for his wife, and a diorama that he made for his grandmother when, in the throes of her final illness, she confessed to him she’d never had a dolls’ house. Inside the latter – a model of the run-down apartment where Ware worked in the late 1980s – is a birthday card, left unfinished on the drafting table. That too is for Clara, to go with the gift it is built into.
Monograph is not Ware’s only life-spanning work: his long-awaited graphic novel Rusty Brown is a sprawling, deeply felt story of a nerdy kid growing up in Nebraska, the place of Ware’s own childhood. After being serialised in tantalising fits and starts, the first part will finally be published in 2018, after 17 years of work – and it is still not finished. “Hopefully, working on a visual novel that will take much of my time on Earth to complete is maybe an interesting idea, leaving behind a strange, comprehensive and slightly unquantifiable work,” Ware says. His only promise? “At least it will be strange.”