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Chris Ware’s Building Stories was one of the best books of 2012. And that’s not just me talking. That’s also a gazillion critics, from the New York Times Book Review and Publisher’s Weekly to Boing Boing and Entertainment Weekly. And it’s not even “a book.” It’s a box, chockablock with hardcovers, comic books, newspapers, foldouts and other objects in different formats and various textures. It’s a mixed-media artwork that drew comparisons to Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp. It’s a masterful design, a “bauhaus”: house of building. It’s 21st-century communication, but unplugged. It insists upon—demands—recognition of its physical, dimensional, printed presence. It was a decade in the making. And it permanently blew apart entrenched meanings of “book” and “graphic novel.” So how does he top that? Well, now there’s Monograph.
Ware’s latest is—and will most likely remain for some time—the Smartest Monograph on Earth, thanks to its rich, dynamic fusion of text, image and design. And of course it is. After all, who else could originate and execute such a magnificently imaginative compilation of their own work? The sad truth is, American independent comics artists don’t even give a damn about their amateur drawing abilities, much less how their graphic novels are graphically designed. There’s just Ware himself, Spiegelman, Kuper, and a smattering of other truly talented professionals. Dominion, the compact, exquisitely realized hardcover compendium from Ware’s fellow cartoonist/designer Seth, is certainly a noteworthy, ambitious predecessor to Monograph. Indeed, here at Print I awarded it 2016’s “Best Hybrid-Media Cartoonist Profile” book for its breadth of content, its clever construction—two front covers and all—and its DVD of animation and documentary footage. It even shares Ware’s ongoing obsession with memories.
Beyond simply being a spectacularly presented anthology of a lifetime of Ware’s art, Monograph is, among many other things …
• at nearly 14 x 20 inches, a large picture window that provides an extended, revealing peek inside the intersection of his personal life, his creative mind and compassionate soul
• a scrapbook of old and recent photos of his personal and extended families
• remembrances and reflections with a wealth of insights
• a deluxe Artist Edition of original page reproductions paired with their printed versions
• with its numerous development sketches and technique descriptions, a “how-to” … okay, a “how-I”
• and yet another example of how his cold, mechanical rendering and tight line techniques are not only the perfect contrast to the warmth his stories show for his characters, but are also visual manifestations of the sad humanity within his stories, one that feels so emotionally trapped and fearful that it’s compelled to present itself with the utmost visible reserve and control. It’s practically impossible to imagine these geometric beings actually dancing.
Unlike Building Stories, where you’d randomly read its box and 14 pieces in practically infinite combinations, Monograph is bound for—and to—linear convention. And as an unapologetic Ware-aholic, you—okay, I—wouldn’t want to miss out on one meticulous bit of minutiae. However, any attempt to fully absorb its nearly 300 mammoth, jam-packed pages with just one straight sequential pass would be way too overwhelming, and perhaps just a bit laborious. Therefore—in the spirit of Ware’s instructions for his cut-out assemblies—here’s my step-by-step guide for a relatively loose yet efficient—and delightfully time-consuming—perusal.
• First, after the mandatory quick flip-through, simply peruse the images, page-by-page, front to back, rotating sideways and upside-down as necessary. If you’re a graphic designer you’d just naturally do this anyway. Revel in the details and enjoy discovering several little tipped-in surprises strategically paced and pasted along the way.
• Then repeat, only this time read the captions. Here your rest stops will be the Acme Novelty advertisements. With loupe in hand for the sub-agate text, you’ll peruse Ware’s homages to those Johnson Smith & Co. ads for x-ray glasses, rubber masks and whoopee cushions—which J.J. Sedelmaier has entertainingly explored here—as well as to Harvey Kurtzman’s 1955 Mad parody, which Ware has captioned, “the greatest comic book cover of all time,” a declaration with which I personally and wholeheartedly agree.
• Now you’re about ready to settle down into Ware’s three-column narrative that runs throughout. Here you’ll get to enjoy the shrewd juxtapositions of content and art.
But, hey: enough art—and copy—direction. This book will consume enough of your time, with many rewarding payoffs. If you haven’t yet finished Building Stories, be forewarned: This one has even more content. To see what I’m talking about, here are just a few sample spreads, which you can click to enlarge.
So, okay: Now how will Chris Ware follow up?