The World According to Chris Ware

On the eve of a major exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Oak Park cartoonist (along with some of his contemporaries) offers an introduction to a genre that is successfully blurring the line between literature and art.

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A Glimpse Into Ware’s Work

Illustration: Provided by the Artist

“I do have a self-portrait, which you’re welcome to use, as long as you don’t blow it up; please also make sure it appears completely; i.e. without cutting or “selecting” part of it or anything.”

“The rather disorienting structure is what I think of as an “exploded” mode of visual storytelling, rather than the more conventional grid of consecutive images through which comics are traditionally threaded. (For this compositional idea I have to credit the amazing artist Richard McGuire, whose strips in Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw magazine changed my life as a young student cartoonist.) I’ve found that the pages I approach in this relational manner (i.e. with no real start or end) practically create themselves in a very strange sort of way.”

“I draw with non–photo blue Col-Erase pencils, Loew-Cornell synthetic sable brushes, and Dr. Martin’s “Tech” ink on four-ply vellum surfaced Strathmore Bristol board.”
Chris Ware

Last year, when The New York Times Magazine decided to run its first serial cartoon, editor Gerald Marzorati selected Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware. It was a smart bet: Ware’s eerily juxtaposed panels-vivid in color yet gloomy in subject matter-had already graced The New Yorker and other publications, won the 2001 Guardian First Book Award, and appeared in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. It seemed that Ware, a native of Omaha and a fixture in Chicago’s comics community since the early 1990s, was poised to permeate the membrane that divides alternative culture from the mainstream.

This month, Ware’s trajectory veers in a slightly different direction, toward high art, with a four-month exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. To gain insight into Ware’s world, Chicago asked the 38-year-old to take a break from his duties as the father of a one-year-old, Clara-and from his work in the uninsulated attic of his Oak Park home finishing two novels-and explain the intricacies of two panels to be exhibited. Chicago also asked other cartoonists and curators to weigh in on what makes Ware’s cartoons so special, and on what a show like this means for their genre.

Daniel Clowes
Creator of Ghost World and Twentieth Century Eightball (Fantagraphics); South Side native, now a resident of Oakland, California
[About 1991] there were a bunch of cartoonists hanging around Wicker Park. We used to go to Earwax and do little drawings for their menu in exchange for free food. . . . I don’t see the entirety of [Ware] in his work. He seems to fixate on a certain segment of himself. He certainly focuses on the tragic. But I find him surprisingly well adjusted for how one would interpret his work.

Ivan Brunetti
Creator of Schizo (Fantagraphics), Chicagoan, university instructor
The first time I saw his work, I kind of assumed that he was ten years older than I was [in actuality, Ware, 38, is a couple of months younger than Brunetti]. There was such a level of ability with this craft that I assumed he was somebody who had been at it a long time. Over time, it has gotten even more sophisticated. He is dealing more and more directly with core emotional issues. He has gotten more and more in control of the craft, and he continues to experiment with it, but it is always at the service of human storytelling.

Jessica Abel
Creator of La Perdida (Pantheon, April), former Chicagoan, now lives in Brooklyn
It’s important to remember that [Chris’s] work is literature-it’s not purely visual. Readers should read it and engage with it as a work of literature and not just get knocked out by the cool cover design. That’s the problem with an art show. Cartooning clearly is art in the way that a novel is art, or that film is art, or that another medium is art, but it is a medium that is essentially literary.

Gerald Marzorati
Editor, The New York Times Magazine
To me, Chris Ware was an easy call. He is sort of the Picasso and Proust of this graphic novel movement. He has a way of sweeping up everything that came before him and gently referencing it. The way you toggle back and forth between the graphic element and the literary, he has taken that to such a deeper and more experimental level. I really do think he is one of the most interesting artists in any visual medium working in America today.

Eric Kirsammer
Owner of Quimby’s and Chicago Comics
When we moved Quimby’s over to North Avenue [in 1998], I was like, “Hey, Chris, can you come up with an idea for a sign?” He comes by a month later, and he had built a scale model of the front of the store. It was incredible. I couldn’t believe it. The main sign that’s perpenidicular to the building now-that’s his design, the font and everything. The other stuff I couldn’t afford to do.