CHRIS WARE comes across, in person, as a habitually humble man, as well as a well-measured one. That certainly explains why, in describing his visually and emotionally moving multimedia cover this week for The New Yorker, the understated cartoonist wrote that he and art partner John Kuramoto hoped to visually “complement” the sensory experience of writer Hanna Rosin’s thoughtful audio tale. Yet Ware, in truth, is no mere support player here. Instead, consider him rather like a found-object artist who opens a Cornell curio cabinet and, in hunting by penlight for treasures in its recessed corners, fully illuminates the beauty of the entire beguiling piece — from the distinct feeling of coppery warmth to the leaded glass that fittingly provides, and inspires, self-reflection.
This stunner of an animated magazine cover is aptly titled, “Mirror,” a creation that includes past Ware collaborator Ira Glass of “This American Life.” (And yes, in a perfect fit of nomenclature, “Mirror” is partly a Rosin-Glass-Ware production.) Yet while Ware reached out to Glass for this two-minute snippet of Rosin’s spoken anecdote involving her teenage daughter, the resulting cover feels organically like a Chris Ware construction.
Ware famously authored the comic “Building Stories,” which ultimately was released in 2012 as a 14-piece boxed set of a graphic novel, from broadsheet to board to book to accordion foldouts within. And much like that awe-inspiring, decade-long work worthy of Duchamp, there is much to unpack here — both psychologically and technologically.
But even after only a single viewing/listening — and this artwork merits multiple — it is easy to arrive at a foremost question: In our tablet age, has Chris Ware just delivered the very future of the magazine cover?
Let’s unpack that, indeed.
TO BEGIN TO understand Ware’s approach is to acknowledge that you are witnessing the mental game of a 3-D chess master — except that sometimes, the playing board in view is the cutaway of a tri-level flat, or a virtual triptych of floors within one residential building. Wherever he leads us, Ware is forever a narrative architect working on multiple dimensions at once.
It’s also worth noting that Ware is a “cartoonist” in the broadest sense of the term, in that a true cartoonist finds rich inspiration by cultivating many interests, and if Ware had a fairly representative business card, it might be a 14-tiled accordion tableaux that represents him as artist and architect and designer, journalist and novelist, musicologist and sociologist, parent and story-form pioneer — and ultimately, a one-man mirror reflecting our daily plight.
In the spirit of his style, imagine we were to glimpse a comic-cutaway diagram of Ware’s own creative brain. We might find (amid the Herriman and Hemingway, Schulz and Skeezix curios) a space that relies on learned weight-bearing beams yet that pushes against the very nature of formal walls. For what are architecture and jazz and relationships and truthful comics about if not the beautifully balanced interplay between space and tension? And what creative impulse feeds off space and tension quite like finding the truest line?
If there is one truest verbal line in “Mirror” — one passage that could serve Ware as both cornerstone and skylight — it is when Rosin is characterizing her daughter’s kind, shame-sparing reply to the piece’s central “parenting error” over appearance. Rosin says that her daughter artfully, and empathetically, framed her response to Mom’s potentially scarring remark, and by doing so “placed it in the box of half-ironic … and thus not tragic.”
Now there, like a found cabinet heirloom, is one brilliant gem of a relevant and resonant line. That phrase also relates to Ware’s own acclaimed comics to a profound degree — all that half-distanced emotional depth within sequential boxes — and achieves full contact like some perfect nickel strike plate.
For to understand something that an artist consciously labels “Mirror” is to know that Ware’s art is a prism for appreciating the full colors of Rosin’s parental recollection. Yet in considering this multimedia as the potential future of digital magazine covers, we might comprehend it best by holding this two-way “Mirror” up to Ware himself, and his creative aims. The draftsman is also the craftsman, and he has annexed one incredibly elucidating structure.
WARE HAILS from Omaha, from several generations of journalists, and so from his earliest, that town’s World-Herald home was literally a place where reporters and editors and artists and “Makeup” production pros were, both narratively and quite physically, “building stories.” This was an era and environment in which, when Ware was still a boy, the setting of type and typeface could feel palpably alive. The newspaper as professional home included Ware’s mother and grandfather, as well as a great-uncle who nearly a century ago won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about a race riot. (Trying to convey and weigh in on such intense social unrest within the tight column-inch space of an editorial? Right there is a lesson in the dance between space and tension.)
Ware’s sense of Nebraska exerts a mighty hold. As an artist, no matter where the setting, Ware has an eye for the quotidian. He also, as a visual storyteller, bears certain similarities to his fellow Omaha native, filmmaker Alexander Payne. Ware might share Wes Anderson’s fascination with fonts and walled-off human assemblages in a cut-away “dollhouse” effect. But much more like Payne, Ware marries a sense of place with feeling — the potential optimism of open spaces, the claustrophobic weight of inescapable, boxed-in memories — until people and their need for not only structure, but also structures, becomes a psychodrama made physical. Just compare the real and open hope of a 19th-century Oklahoma land grab with a 21st-century life unfolding in carved-up urban and suburban boxes. And ultimately, whether in the condo-developed Hawaii of Payne’s “The Descendants” or Ware’s Chicago neighborhood in “Building Stories,” the stickiest inheritance across the generations is being terminally human.
There is, however, the type of decades-long shared history that uplifts, and nurtures, and provides. Ware has enjoyed this canvas to execute his cover experiments before thanks to New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly, whom Ware has known since the ’80s. Ware first felt the profound effect of Mouly and her husband, Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman, from afar when the couple edited the influential comics magazine RAW. Ware encountered the publication in 1983, he has said, and it rocked his Midwestern world. Just several years later, Spiegelman would coincidentally notice the student cartoonist’s comic strip next to a review of his “Maus,” and offered Ware cherished real estate in RAW.
To this day, clearly, that artistic admiration society is paying great dividends to the viewer. And his most recent New Yorker covers for Mouly have all been rooted in Ware’s evolution now as a parent, to a preteen daughter. Which takes us fully back to “Mirror.”
Several years ago, I was interviewing Ware by phone, and the talk easily moved from his disappointment in some of the Library of Congress’s architectural aesthetics to the disappointment in how humans, fairly upon adolescence, become so conditioned by teaching and social coding that they begin to forget how to really “see.” Experience becomes more linear, and false walls go up, and the sense of the wonder of it all evaporates like lost memories. Somewhere, Picasso — that champion of “childlike” artistic vision — mourns.
Ware’s own daughter, Clara, is 10 now — fairly soon on the cusp, by Ware’s theory, of learning how to wear society’s accepted blinders. By comparison, in “Mirror,” Rosin’s daughter is 13, and even closer to that inevitable threshold.
Perhaps parents who are artists feel this transition a bit more acutely, in part because up until that threshold, having children has gratefully given us painters and illustrators and designers a new set of windows upon the world. Most cartoonists condition ourselves to curate that mental playground we need to create, as it is, but having a small person around can help the artist reimagine uses for all the inspiring equipment on that playground.
And perhaps that’s why Ware adapts his style, and storytelling aesthetics, to animation so naturally. He remains trained at detecting all those false walls that allegedly segregate the visual and verbal sensory experiences. Ware may relish fin-de-siècle ragtime music and Jazz Age “Krazy Kat,” even as he descends from print newspaper stock. But he also likes that the strip “Gasoline Alley” was fueled by the passage of real time, and he notes that he, sans nostalgia, reads his news online. So the transition between print and moving pixel, which he has done before with Glass, represents no high wall or true barrier.
That said, Ware has characterized comics as an active medium for the viewer, and animation as a passive one, and so is aware of the crucial differences as experience. Yet with “Mirror,” Ware cleverly employs many tools and tricks from cartooning — including deploying a large and simplistic representational face to heighten the sense of universality, and guiding the eye movement through the “page,” so that the canvas feels both confined and infinitely dynamic. Plus, because Ware’s buildings can embody the passage of time, we are transported to the full structural cutaway once Rosin moves from recounting an event in the moment to imagining how that event might affect her “future” daughter. To Ware, our memories become an altered construct, self-edited and not beholden to the full truth — traits that he believes are shared by memoir comics themselves. So when we shift to a 12-panel sequential page, form and content fuse fluidly. Rosin, through her words, is already editing both past and future, and so Ware rolls out boxes like selectively elliptical snapshots. Memory is active mediation, and our future stories are still to be rendered real.
IF THERE is one sure common bridge between the static and moving cartoon, as sensory experience, it is their ability to convey feeling in a highly direct way. And if there was one formative cartoon that effectively planted that seed for Ware, it surely is “Peanuts.”
Back when Ware and I spoke by phone, he said that the only comic he read as a kid that he still reads today as literature is Charles Schulz’s beloved strip. And when Ware was small, he was so moved by the feeling of “Peanuts” animation that he used to walk up and kiss the TV.
Because Ware does not work in warm wobbly lines as Schulz did, but rather in more coolly “mechanical” lines, some critics don’t connect with the feeling embedded in his comics. But his stories positively ripple with deep emotions, and “Mirror,” while playful, likewise mines some sharply felt depths.
What Ware has delivered, in fact — working with his fellow animator and two musicians — is a magazine cover that raises the bar of realized vision. It took years for this “Jimmy Corrigan” cartoonist to see his ’90s experiments in form and story influence the next generation. In this mobile-driven era, though, and given Ware’s star-cartoonist status, “Mirror” will likely be held up as a creative beacon to be inspired by, far from some one-time ACME novelty.
When I served on the Eisner Awards jury in 2013, one colleague hoisted the massive “Building Stories” boxed set and half-joked: “Can’t we just give it all the awards?” Well, now the same, in certain contests, can be asked of “Mirror.”
And lastly, as Ware continually plays with ways to tell stories, it is worth following one last line of his — that of genealogy. Moved by a sense of journalism history, I searched for Ware’s great-uncle, Harvey Newbranch, and found an Omaha Press Club website that noted his Pulitzer-winning coverage. There, in vintage photos, the history is diagrammed with precise, Ware-like clarity. And there, to the right of a person, is an exterior of several floors of a city structure.
It looks, in other words, rather like something from “Building Stories.”