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features /  interview
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chris ware - self portrait
chris ware interview transcript
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The Jimmy Corrigan author answers our questions.

Collective: Your comics often require a lot of physical involvement to read (in as much as you have to turn them around; the text's small and intricate but sometimes the books are huge and people really stare at you when you take them on the London tube). Do you set out to challenge your readers as much as you can?

Chris Ware: No, I just don’t want anyone to be disappointed or feel they’re not getting their money’s worth. It probably sounds pretentious, but my goal most of the time is to make pages that have the same or similar degree of density and texture that the natural world seems to have, with an overall composition that has an identity of its own, and an intricacy and patterning that’s something like one might find by picking up a leaf or a stone and looking at it intently. I realize that this level of detail might be also interpreted as a sort of abuse of the reader, though that’s certainly not my intention. Mostly, I dislike art and writing that seems tossed off or rushed, and so I end up making stuff where I try to use every bit of surface I have available to me.

Collective: What is it about comics that draws you to them? What pros and/or cons does the way that they marry text and pictures (as opposed to prose, film, art or poetry etc.) have for you?

Chris Ware: If you can allow me to be pompous, comics are essentially a visual language that provides a sort of synaesthetic simulation of life and consciousness, the best examples allowing the reader to “feel” the odd quake and disposition of the artist’s personality through the rhythmic pattern of tiny, personal hand-drawn pictures. Cartoon pictures affect memory and sight simultaneously, sort of blurring the line between the two, and if carefully balanced, I think, can provide an experience which is both internal as well as “theatrical”; i.e. because one is reading the pictures to simulate movement yet is also looking at them, the reader’s imagination still plays a large part in completing the experience. Plus comics still hold a low level on the “cultural ladder”, so no one blames him or herself if a cartoon makes no sense, one simply blames the cartoonist; I feel as if this aspect of it helps, at least, to keep me honest.

Collective: Do you see yourself as a comic creator rather than an artist, writer or poet?

Chris Ware: Yes, I see myself as a cartoonist first and foremost, mostly because I’m a fairly mediocre artist and writer, and certainly not a poet at all.

Collective: Your artistic styles are really varied but your books are often quite traditionally comic in style (rather than being gestural or “arty” in look). What is it about the more traditional style of the look of comics that you like?

Chris Ware: Since I consider comics to be a visual language I’ve simply found over the years that my cartoons “read” more easily if they’re treated more as personal picture-symbols rather than as portraits illustrating words. Obvious examples of this difference might be Charles Schulz’s Peanuts on one end of the spectrum and Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant on the other.

Collective: I believe that you've recently started to self-publish The Acme Novelty Library series - could you tell me why that is?

Chris Ware: Well, it’s for a complicated variety of reasons, but mostly it was because I realized a year or two ago that I simply wasn’t really inspired to do it any more, and when I imagined taking over every aspect of it myself, I was suddenly inspired, almost anxious, to work on it again. In short, it just feels a little more like “art” to me now, since I’m responsible for everything that goes into it, and there’s no one to blame but myself if it’s awful (which it may very well be).

Collective: Your books are as much beautiful objects as they are stories. Do you find those aspects easy to juggle?

Chris Ware: In a way, they’re really aspects of the same thing. A book should either be the most perfect reflection of the comic story or the most perfect “body” for it. For this particular book, The Acme Novelty Library, the cover is sort of an anchor to the strips in a way that’s ridiculously pretentious and is probably best left mostly unilluminated, though it’s probably clear from the way that it’s all composed that I tried to orient part of it around the clichéd idea of literature’s “birth”, when the heavens were first imagined as pictures (with toy collectors, typography, and God thrown in to keep it all contemporary). I figured with this book I’d allow myself to indulge in the most ostentatious ideas I’ve been keeping on a slow drip in my mind since college, because it’s otherwise mostly a collection of gags, jokes and piffle.

Collective: There are various qualities to your comics that create a sense of being out-of-time - the formal and instructional text, the old-fashioned aesthetics, even your notion of space in the future seems retro. Is this something that you strive to create?

Chris Ware: Sometimes, but sometimes not. I mostly just prefer the degree of care and thought that went into the design and writing of earlier periods, and the more warm and inviting scraps of life they left behind. Most of the modern world seems a bit too cold and sexy to me. In this book, it’s partly an attempt to create exactly what you mention, though: that of being dislocated out of one’s “own” time.

Collective: Your characters often seem to live a tragic struggle against their worlds because of who they are. Even “nice” ones display unpleasant actions or characteristics. Are you pessimistic about human nature?

Chris Ware: Not at all; I just try to be realistic, and optimism eventually seems to lead to one’s heart being trounced, at least in my experience. I find it a very strangely solipsistic idea to believe that simply by being in jolly spirits all the time that “everything’s going to turn out okay”. I do think we spend a great deal of time trying to find our mental ways around actions and impulses that are inevitable and predetermined, however, but I certainly don’t want to rule out the idea of will contradicting it all, or at least being able to entertain the idea of will, whether it exists or not, since that’s what makes life largely tolerable. I don’t think any of this should permit anyone to be a jerk, though.

Collective: What is it about space and superheroes that traditionally attracts creators of comics?

Chris Ware: Well, it was just the “saleable content” that comics got saddled with when the “demographic” of comics was squarely aimed at cheating pre-adolescent boys out of their allowances, and I grew up with it, so I suppose there’s a large helping of nostalgia when I retread those tropes for other purposes, such as in this book, with its larger “themes”.

15 September 05
The Acme Novelty Library, out now published by Jonathan Cape.
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