Chris Ware’s new book weighs more than my daughter did the day she was born. It’s 18 inches tall by 15 inches wide, bigger than the cafeteria trays at Chicago Public Schools. Titled Monograph after the Greek for “writing on a single subject,” Ware’s latest is difficult to define. Part memoir, part scrapbook, part commentary, part “Bonus Features” DVD (or at least the cartoonist equivalent thereof), it’s a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at Chris Ware’s life and career.
And what a career it’s been! Outside of Chicago, Ware is probably best known for his breakout graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, and his work in The New Yorker (including 23 covers). Here in town, you might remember seeing his early cartoons in NewCity and the Chicago Reader, or reading his Marcel Duchamp-inspired Building Stories, about a woman who lives in a 98-year-old Chicago brownstone.
Today, Ware lives one block west of city limits in Oak Park. In Monograph, he reflects on his childhood in Omaha, his early sketches, illustrations, and cartoons, as well as the projects that made him a household name. We caught up with Ware to talk about the project and why the architectural history of Chicago has played such a role in his creative life.
On average, how many hours a day do you spend drawing?
I first have to work my way through everything I can think of to avoid sitting down to draw (like doing laundry, answering emails, wandering around and looking out of every window in the house) and once I manage to get through all that I have to overcome the self-doubts and anxieties of actually sitting there and drawing. Once I get past that, I‘ll work for anywhere between five to 10 hours, depending on urgency, interest, and deadline, and whether or not I can actually continue to avoid the ever-present distractions of a 24-hour electronic through-line to the secrets, desires, and diversions of humanity (aka the Internet). Consequently, I usually turn off my computer.
Looking back on your early, unpublished work, what do you wish you could tell young Chris?
I would tell him to not worry so much about his curly, girlish hair. I would also gently advise him not to expect to acquire super powers and to cultivate his mind, not his art, since to paraphrase Louis Sullivan, a cultivated intelligence produces a cultivated art just as a plant begets a flower—or, more simply, one should focus on being a better person, not a better artist. I would also tell him not to worry about whether his drawings were any good or not and to try the strangest, weirdest things he can think of and to not feel terrible and self-doubting. Which is, actually what I do anyway, and about which I still feel really terrible and self-doubting. So I’m afraid such thought experiments maybe don’t really help so much.
Can you talk about the different ways that Omaha and Chicago impacted you, as a person and as a cartoonist? What is your relationship with both places like now?
Chicago is my immediate reality, and Omaha is my imaginary one. Nearly all of the landmarks, houses, and places I associate with my youth are now gone. So, just like everything else we store away in our memories and believe is true but is actually a hash of misremembrance, wish-fulfillment, and regular readjustment, Omaha is a completely fictional city for me now.
For people who haven’t read it, how large of a role does Chicago play in Monograph?
I moved to Chicago in 1991 from Texas to see snow again. I moved to Oak Park in 2001 from Chicago so my wife and I could afford a house. I remain in Chicago (or the “Chicagoland area“) partly because of my affection and admiration for its architecture—in which the origins of modern American architecture began with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright—to say nothing of the ugly truths of the American experiment it continually lays bare, which sort of keeps you unpretentious. It’s also where most of my close friends live. I couldn't move from here unless I could get them all to move with me.
Have you found working in the suburbs makes you more productive and/or inspired than living in the city?
I think this is something of an imprecise dichotomy, and sadly, something of a very Chicago one. I live on Humphrey Avenue in Oak Park, one block from Austin, and in the summer months with the windows open it is not unusual to hear gunshots and police cars speeding up our street. My wife teaches in a Chicago public school five miles away in Belmont-Cragin and in the winter I drive her to work on Central Avenue past boarded-up houses and some of the most shameful and inexcusable poverty, the enduring legacy of slavery, that our nation knows. Many of her students live there and suffer difficulties such as inconsistent housing, violent family deaths, and unmapped futures, to say nothing of the dilapidation of their surrounding neighborhoods.
The current version of Oak Park was formed in the 1960s as a different approach to the white flight plaguing other parts of the city; the town invited the development of, or even helped to define, the ideal of a dense racially mixed urban area. While it is a work in progress, highly taxed as well as strictly regulated, I think by and large the experiment works better than some of the segregated and divided neighborhoods of the city which it abuts. Though, who knows? There is such a profound guilt associated with the idea of “the suburbs“ in Chicago but in Oak Park’s case at least the schools are trying to be integrated and offer a good education to a populace that more accurately reflects our larger America.
Does the world really need another printed tome about an artist? Why write and draw a graphic memoir?
One, definitely not, and two, this is not graphic memoir, but the result of a kind invitation from Rizzoli to somehow do an “art book” about my questionable stuff. Rather than take the standard approach to a monograph (photos of one-of-a-kind objects and paintings in museum collections or the hands of collectors supported by critical essays by respected experts) I decided, along with images of original drawings, sculptures, and paintings, to include personal remembrances, recollections, and feelings that I was going through at the time they were made, since ideally, that’s what an “art book“ can be—one that communicates directly between the artist and the reader or viewer.
As a cartoonist who’s made my life’s work making stuff that as many people as possible can afford and not feel bad about throwing away the next time they move, I was faced with the conundrum of not just making a visual catalog of things that a viewer or reader might already have. As always, the last thing I want is for the reader to feel cheated or ripped off, and due to the generosity of the publishers, I was able to include miniature tipped-in booklets which point towards the medium (books) in which I have more or less fallen as a working artist.