Thursday, 4 October 2012

Swoon Now! Building Stories

A new publication from Chris Ware is always a publishing highlight but the release of Building Stories (Jonathan Cape) has been receiving more press than usual (see here for TheTelegraph and here for TheGuardian amongst others). Part of the reason for this is its unprecedented format.

Challenging the the notion of the much-maligned term 'graphic novel', Building Stories comes as a box containing fourteen items that make up 260 pages of comics in the form of pamphlets, concertinas, books, newspaper format and booklets. It even includes a four-panel board resembling a game board. There is no particular order in which it needs to be read - no beginning, middle or end - just observations of events that build a mosaic-like representation of the characters lives.

The setting is a residential building. The narratives split between four characters (although the building has feelings too!) that have all lived in the same building including an elderly spinster and a couple in a failing relationship. The main focus though, is on the female amputee introduced in Ware's previous work. The themes explored in her life - child-raising, loneliness, fragile connections between people - are re-enforced in the other characters. The final featured character marks a change of style and calls to mind the simple illustrations of Quimby the Mouse. Branford, the Best Bee in the World is literally about a bee and his family but don't expect to find a dramatic change of tone as the same sense of longing pulls at the archetypes. 

This isn't just a publishing gimmick - the format allows to discover the characters at our own pace rather than at the whim of the author. The mosaic is never complete of course but with no discernible ending or beginning comes a feeling everlasting. In the same way we revisit memories in a non-linear way, there is no one "story", only the moments that build stories. 

Will it bring a lasting change in comics? It would certainly stem the tide of competition from reading comics on your phone. Not only is Building Stories a desirable object but the invitation to explore has to be a three dimensional experience, plus the different formats often add to the content - scenes of loneliness in bed seem all the more tender in a small landscape booklet. The content has to suit the form of course, and I'm sure it wouldn't be financially viable to produce such an eclectic mix of formats for one title, but I do hope that it inspires publishers and authors alike to explore the full potential within the medium of comics so that they are better represented as works of art in themselves.

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