Building Stories: Chris Ware's Antidote to Our Distracted Times

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Did you hear that, according to a disappeared tribe who knew a thing or two about a solid cliffhanger, the world is totally going to end in a few weeks? As cinematic as all of us waiting to be incinerated by a gas giant on a collision course with Earth sounds (you could call it Kirsten Dunst-ing), perhaps the apocalypse the Mayans had in mind was more about the death of our culture’s collective attention span.

You probably had to start that paragraph over because you got distracted by checking whether your crush liked your latest photo on Instagram or not. It’s an illness that we multi-tasking monsters all suffer from: compulsive texting on top of neurotic emoji assemblage on top of listening to some album that just leaked while playing Words with Friends and walking at the same time. What happened to enjoying a double rainbow (omg, it was so crazy!), a kitten in a sweater, or just a good hair day without immortalizing it on the internets?

Well, something cataclysmic definitely happened to the simpler times of liking something purely in your brain and that’s not entirely a terrible thing. Social media does allow for a village-type mentality that fosters a sense of community (however warped it might seem to our ancestors), but it’s important to take a breather every now and then from being connected to everything everyone else is doing and zero in on what’s right in front of you. And with the release of Building Stories, Chris Ware (a.k.a. the dude to thank for the lovely 826 Valencia mural) has created a graphic novel that is the perfect antidote to our distracted times, a work of art that forces you to consider it, not while elbow-warring on the bus or during other transitory in-between moments, but while keeping things stationary in a quiet place where you feel comfortable having your world rocked.


In 2010, classicist poet Anne Carson released Nox, an elegy for her lost brother packaged in a box with pages connected in one long cumbersome accordion. By creating something treasurable and impractical, Carson defied the increasingly immaterial text conduits like the Kindle and resurrected the book as an object. Building Stories aims at the same target with an unwieldy box of its own, containing 14 components: zines, newspapers, pamphlets, books that resemble the Little Golden Books from childhood, etc. There are no rules to how you interact with the separate parts that make the whole, no right order, just an individual experience, something we have all been sorely missing, whether we realize it or not.

Ware’s style, a love child of early 20th century American design and ragtime paraphernalia, commands the gaze with vibrant colors, meticulous details, intricate lettering, and perfectly geometrical layouts. And the way he handles the narrative is just as remarkable. Four isolated events on one small fold-out to a newspaper describing life in a beehive to a book detailing a 24-hour period in the life of a 100+ year old residential building. Ware takes a non-linear approach to unspooling the destinies of his characters. Everything that has happened, is happening, or will happen shares a common space, no era more relevant than another.

The graphic novel's cast of misfits all suffer from a common ailment: a bad case of dashed dreams, the blues, and an unshakeable sense of isolation. At times, treading through this precise and hyper-stylized wasteland feels like gazing into a reflection of our own world, one full of virtual interconnectedness, yet lacking in actual contact. Building Stories is a warning against where we could end up and a reminder of where we ought to. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.