Published Apr 01, 2001Last October, CNN.com ran an interview with cartoonist Chris Ware. "[He] is so soft-spoken," the reporter noted, "that a tape recorder inches away cannot pick up his words." It's just the sort of trait you'd expect to find in an artist like Ware, who startled crusty book critics everywhere last fall with his gorgeous, elegiac graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Those meticulous drawings and wisps of mannered prose, which packed the power and depth of the best fiction, couldn't have been the work of some brash egotist. The odd, and oddly moving, tale of four generations of Corrigan men seemed to come from someone careful and reserved, a quiet perfectionist. The kind of person who now avoids spoken interviews altogether for fear of seeing his "inarticulate drool transcribed and set in typographic stone."
"If I do say something really stupid," he writes in the course of our email exchange, "I'd at least like to have the chance to craft it carefully."
It's Ware's craftsmanship that amazes the reader of Jimmy Corrigan: the fanatical recreations of 19th century architecture and typography, the intricate diagrams of cut-out toys the cartoonist urges his readers to construct (a trademark that distinguished his earlier work and has reportedly spawned a cult of Ware toysmiths), and of course the lyrical prose. ("Thus, with the morning in pieces before him, the night's approach goes unnoticed.") It's a rich and familiar world down to the "klingk" of keys in a door or a tacky poster on a diner wall, even the mundane insecurities of its protagonist. "I'm simply trying to make something that feels as real' as possible," Ware explains. "To sympathise with the reader and to provide an empathetic place' where the reader won't be made fun of, criticised or put down."
The 34-year-old says he always wanted to be a cartoonist, enticed by the medium's "unlimited graphic possibilities" and its "potential for expression and variety." As a sophomore at the University of Texas, Ware ran a strip in the student paper that caught the eye of Art Spiegelman editor of RAW magazine (the independent cartoonist's bible) and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his own graphic novel Maus. Speigelman offered Ware four pages in the next issue of RAW, giving the young artist national exposure. By the early '90s, Ware had a regular strip in a local alternative weekly in his hometown of Chicago. The gig paid a paltry $25 a week, or just enough to cover his art supplies. "I never entered into [comics] to make money," he says, "Anyone doing so would have to be nuts. But somehow, through good fortune, I've managed to make it an entirely self-sufficient pursuit."
The story of Jimmy Corrigan evolved over seven years in the panels of Ware's weekly strips. The full tale was compiled in a single volume and released last September. Reaction to it was ecstatic. "This haunting and unshakable book will change the way you look at your world," wrote Time. "Epic" and "exquisitely melancholic," said Spin. It was one of only a handful of comics (including Maus and Daniel Clowes' Ghost World) to slip into the scope of the mainstream press and win the same treatment as conventional literature. "We cartoonists are professional writers," Ware insists, "we just happen to write with pictures."
Despite the success, Ware remains sceptical about his skills, embracing a renowned self-loathing that might be amusing if it weren't so insistent. "Frequently, all I see when I'm done is the pretence and affectation of it all, which is always terribly depressing." He admits to keeping a sketchbook of "self-indulgent doodles of how much I hate myself." Even the widely praised Jimmy Corrigan ends with a hand-written "Apology" by the author for his "weak fiction."
Thankfully, self-doubt hasn't stopped him from plying his trade. Ware is currently working on a new serial: a love story, set in the '70s, about a boy named Rusty Brown. Like his previous work, the strip runs in Chicago's weekly NewCity, as well as The Stranger in Seattle. It will be widely published later this year in issue 16 of The ACME Novelty Library, a biannual compilation of Ware's various strips.
And if some call his bittersweet work depressing, Ware says he's just being honest. "Too much of popular culture seems to be about lying pursuing a happiness and an unsightly self-confidence that is patently false. I want to do exactly the opposite thing."