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Chris Ware: "Violence is always the cheapest shortcut to emotional involvement"

The Books Interview.

Your new book, Building Stories, ships as a box with 14 interconnected tales told through books, pamphlets, broadsheets and panoramas. Is experimenting with format something you've always enjoyed doing?

Absolutely; I never liked the traditional American comic book format and tried early on to do something that both felt different and was more attuned to the material it presented – which was exactly what was happening 100 years ago in comic strips, but a trend which went into the remission of newsprint booklets by the time I was born. I wanted to open up the possibilities for other cartoonists just as Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's RAW magazine had opened up the possibilities for us. Kim Thompson at Fantagraphics was really willing to experiment; I remember how much he and I sweated the idea of putting out a comic book that was just 1/2" shorter than the standard format in 1993. It seems ridiculous now, but I was and still am grateful to him for letting me do it.

Although Building Stories is an intensely physical object, one of the stories first came out as a digital comic for McSweeney's, which itself pushed the form forward. How do you see the two co-existing into the future?

That strip was originally written and designed for the second iPad issue of Wired magazine, kindly commissioned by editor Scott Dadich. I was really excited by the idea of being able to make drawings into tactile things, and to take advantage of this new technical possibility I wrote about how physical contact in a relationship can devolve from affection to aggression. At the same time, I was (and am) extremely dubious about the idea of putting comics into a medium for which motion pictures play just as easily as still ones. Despite Wired's best efforts, the strip became too complicated and memory-hungry to be a part of their periodical, so it lay fallow for a while until McSweeney's offered to do it up as a separate application, and a digital artist named Russell Quinn took the pieces and animations that my good friend John Kuramoto and I did and brilliantly put them altogether as I'd originally envisioned. At the same time, I found the final thing essentially unsatisfying; I just don't feel comfortable charging money for something incorporeal, and though I wrote the strip to be touched and manipulated like the characters in the story it tells, fundamentally I prefer the solid, paper, un-pluggable version, which will at least still be readable in five years and which I sadly doubt the ePublication will be.

Much of your work is serialised first in your periodical Acme Novelty Library, and Building Stories was spread over the New Yorker, Kramer's Ergot and the New York Times Magazine, as well as McSweeney's. Is it important to you to be able to effectively release early drafts to the public?

Not at all, but it's naggingly important to buy food and pay my rent, and serializing work thankfully allows me (and thousands of other writers) to do that. Building Stories actually has more unpublished pages and stories than anything I've ever released (longer than some of my contemporaries' graphic novels, I cattishly add) but that's unusual for me. I always feel very guilty about releasing books that contain pages I've published before, though at the same time, it's also helpful to hear occasionally that a strip I published somewhere made sense or was (or wasn't) as loony as I feared it was -- which is a luxury one doesn't enjoy working in the silence I did while finishing this book.


It's been over a decade since your last full-length work, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, was released. Was all that time spent working on Building Stories?

I've concurrently been working on another long book, "Rusty Brown," which at the moment is at 250 pages, along with a few other things.

You've frequently been stereotyped as someone who writes tales which are, to be blunt, depressing. Do you think that's a fair appraisal?

Sure, if someone feels that way after reading them, but it's certainly not my aim. I'm simply trying to present life as I've experienced it, though admittedly in my own very shielded, first-world way. My characters suffer very little compared to someone who might've seen their parents killed in a genocide, or endured starvation or disaster. I don't know why some readers or viewers don't find it more depressing that most popular books and movies and television programs can't seem to not be about murderers or rapists or psychopaths -- as if a story simply isn't interesting unless someone is brutally threatened or killed. Violence is always the cheapest shortcut to emotional involvement. I find this trend all all fairly depressing.

Your work certainly does focus on the harsh reality of life. Jimmy Corrigan was often assumed to be autobiographical in elements; does Building Stories draw from your own life at all?

Definitely; it would be a little too complicated to elucidate, but the main character looks not unlike my wife and we do have a daughter, but my wife is a highly accomplished and hard working high school teacher, not someone who feels as if she's wasted her life (which, incidentally, I don't think my protagonist has.) The apartment building in which the protagonist lives in the earlier chronology of the book somewhat resembles a blend of two Chicago apartments I lived in before moving to Oak Park, though the inhabitants are completely fictional. I chose Oak Park as a setting not only because I live here and for its conveniently tight and familiar geography (it's a little over four and a half square miles yet home to 50,000 people) but also its claim to Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright as its most famous inhabitants -- both of whom lightly key into the book's theme, along with being two of America's best-known jerks. 

Were comics a big part of your life growing up? Jimmy Corrigan features a knowing wink to Superman, but your work seems to be far more connected to the American literary canon than even the alt-comix world.

Yes, I grew up reading Peanuts, but carefully copying the pictures in Superman and Batman comics because I honestly believed they presented a more realistic idea of what the adult world was going to be like. However, Peanuts has stayed with me while Superman and Batman have astonishingly moved on to the mass culture. I still can't get over the idea that respectable adults now go to see superhero movies and that such films get reviewed in the New Yorker. Clearly, I am seriously out of step with the times.

You've been called, by Dave Eggers and many others, the greatest working cartoonist. Is that something that sits comfortably with you?

No, because it's not true. There are lots of us. I do try really hard, but I wouldn't ever consider myself the greatest. I've edited two comics anthologies to both pay tribute to and collect work by those artists who've inspired me and from whom I've shamelessly ripped off for years.

The comics world is in a strange place. Authors like you, Daniel Clowes, and Charles Burns are featured in the mainstream press, are read by audiences who would never normally pick up graphic novels, and sell in numbers comparable to straight prose; yet you are still thought of as "alternative" in comparison to the far more niche genre fiction of superheroes and sci-fi. Is that a position you can see lasting?

I have no idea. Tantamount to my comment above, if the New Yorker starts publishing serious superhero fiction, then I'll know something's really up. I simply try to write believable, engaging, funny, moving and hopefully good stories for readers who like and seek out that sort of thing, and I assume we all share more or less the same taste in writers: Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Joyce, Melville, Tolstoy, Chekhov, etc.

Which up-and-coming cartoonists should we be keeping an eye on?

Dash Shaw, David Heatley, Kevin Huizenga, Gabrielle Bell, Ben Jones, Jon McNaught, Laurent Cilluffo. And my good friend and seemingly permanent-up-and-coming cartoonist Richard McGuire – who's nonetheless had more of an effect on comics than most artists of his generation – tells me that Olivier Schrawuen's new book is fantastic, and Richard's never steered me wrong before. I love Blexbolex's books, as well. Is he up-and-coming, though? I'm not even sure what that means in cartooning. As cartoonists, we're all always up-and-coming until we're dead.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide