Ware, Chris

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Chris Ware

Born December 28, 1967 (Omaha, Nebraska)
American author, illustrator

Comic book artist Chris Ware is sometimes compared to literary giants Raymond Carver, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, and James Joyce. Poet J. D. McClatchey has called him the "Emily Dickinson of comics," referring to the nineteenth-century poet known for her sometimes obscure poems. Ware himself shies away from such comparisons, telling interviewers that he is a poor writer and generally playing down his talent and achievements. He told Beth Nissen of CNN Book News, for example, that "The pictures are ideograms—drawn words, if that makes any sense … the pictures tell the story—I'm a terrible writer." He is famous for his meticulously drawn images, tiny details, and careful colorings. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Ware's first full-length graphic novel, took seven years to write, but it won him the prestigious Guardian First Book Award in 2001. A reviewer for Book magazine wrote that "Ware's are some of the most beautiful pictures ever seen in comic books."

"Drawing was the only way I had of distinguishing myself, of trying to impress people … with my one pathetic ability."

Raised in Nebraska

Franklin Christenson Ware was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on December 28, 1967, the only son of Doris Ann Ware, a single mother who was a reporter on the same newspaper as her father, the Omaha World-Herald. Ware did not know his father and grew up living with his mother and maternal grandparents. He often spent hours copying cartoons from back issues of the newspaper while his mother worked on the other side of the desk. For a while he studied art at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, but he learned about comics primarily by studying and copying them. Known in school as "Albino" because of his pale complexion, Ware has said that he used drawing as a way to avoid being bullied. He told Nissen, "Drawing was the only way I had of distinguishing myself, of trying to impress people—impress people with my one pathetic ability," he said, with a rueful laugh. "There's nothing less impressive than a scrawny kid with poofy hair, drawing superheroes."

Much of Ware's work depicts characters who are marginal figures, unable to join in with "normal" social life, and several interviewers have linked this with Ware's own childhood experience. He told Nissen, for example, that "Kids were threatening to kill me all the time. I ate lunch by myself. I had some friends I talked to on the weekends—but they wouldn't talk to me at school. And I wasn't good at games—I was about as physical as an inert gas." Besides his interest in comics, as a child Ware also developed an interest in music. In particular he became a fan of ragtime piano music and was so accomplished as a piano player that for a time he considered becoming a professional musician. Alongside his career as a comic book creator, Ware is also a collector of ragtime memorabilia and publishes The Ragtime Ephemeralist, a magazine devoted to the subject.

Best-Known Works

Graphic Novels

Floyd Farland, Citizen of the Future 1987.

The ACME Novelty Library. 16 vols. (1993–2005); single volume collection, 2005.

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000).

Quimby the Mouse (2003).

(Editor) McSweeney's Quarterly Concern Issue 13 (2004).

Also the creator of many comic strips, including "I Guess," "Quimby the Mouse," "Big Tex," "Rocket Sam," "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth," "Blab!," and "Rusty Brown," published in periodicals such as Raw, New York Times, and New City.

Discovered by Art Spiegelman

Ware's mother remarried and the family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where Ware attended the University of Texas, Austin, and studied fine art, specializing in painting. He graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1990. Although his art school teachers disapproved, Ware published his first comic strips in The Daily Texan in 1987, his sophomore year. Some of these were seen by Art Spiegelman (1948–; see entry), author and illustrator of the Maus comic books and publisher of RAW, one of the most popular magazines among fans of alternative comics, or comics that are more adult in content and style than typical superhero comic books. Spiegelman was so impressed with Ware's wit, style, and attention to detail that he contacted him directly. Ware told Chip Kidd in an interview for Print magazine, republished on the Pantheon Books Web site, that he almost choked when he realized who it was. Commenting on what he saw in Ware's work, Spiegelman said "It's uncanny that someone so young would have such an apparent recollection of the history of comics, and the talent to expand upon it."

What Spiegelman was referring to is the contrast between Ware's drawing style, which is reminiscent of comics and magazine advertisements from the 1940s or earlier, and the written content of the comics. Kidd explains his own "discovery" of Ware in similar terms, pointing out the contrast in "Thrilling Adventure Stories" (an early Ware strip) between the superhero comic bookstyle characters and the personal, intimate subject matter. Ware's images evoke memories of comic strips such as "Krazy Kat" and "Gasoline Alley," popular favorites of the early twentieth century. But while at first glance the images and headlines seem to mimic the relentless cheerfulness of those older comics, Ware's text, which is often printed in tiny letters, is all about alienation, loss, petty cruelty, and moral emptiness. For example, one "advertisement" in The ACME Novelty Library offers "The Odor of Childhood … Just spray on sweaters, inside of arm, or just spritz into air for a fleeting remembrance of what's now long, long gone. Great for parties, feeling horrible and sad."

Moves to Chicago

Ware lived in Austin, Texas, for three years after graduating, experimenting with his visual style and with the layout of panels on the page. Characters and ideas that emerged from this period were included in his comic strips "Rocket Sam," "Quimby the Mouse," and "Big Tex," published in a variety of magazines, but he also began work on ideas that would become Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000). He moved to Chicago in 1993 and began creating comic strips for the underground journal New City. He produced a volume of The ACME Novelty Library roughly each year in the 1990s, and it became his main source of income. But he was also working on Jimmy Corrigan, the book that would break him out of the "underground" world of comics and into the mainstream.

Jimmy Corrigan tells the story of an underachieving office worker whose life is filled with disappointment and rejection. Jimmy Corrigan's first meeting, at the age of thirty-six, with his father, is at the center of the multiple stories in the book. Much of Ware's work could be described as confessional or at least personal, and this episode in Jimmy Corrigan seems to be a retelling of a similar episode in his own life. While writing the book, Ware was contacted by his own father and met him briefly, for the first time, just before he died. In the hands of another artist, that kind of personal involvement could slip easily into sentimentality, but Ware's meticulous illustrations and ruthless attitude toward his characters and their troubles will not allow it. Writing in the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl said of the book: "Ware's visual style recalls the clean-lined perfectionism of 'Tintin,' the classic adventure strip by the Belgian Hergé…but it is far more varied in design, with densely rhythmic layouts of small and large panels and of close-up and long views, and it is subtler in color, with moody, volatile pastels."

Entering the Mainstream

Jimmy Corrigan is one of the most celebrated graphic novels of all time. It picked up many of the most prestigious awards for comic books in 2000 and 2001. More importantly, though, much of the admiration for Jimmy Corrigan has come from mainstream literary and art reviewers. Besides picking up several Harvey Awards from the comic book industry, Jimmy Corrigan also won the prestigious Guardian First Book Award in 2001. At the time, only Art Spiegelman, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his Maus comic book, had been honored in this way by a major literary award.

Ware has been surprised at the critical attention and often professes real doubts about the quality and value of his work. He has also described how his art teachers looked down on comic book drawing and discouraged him from pursuing it. In fact, many of his comic strips and commentaries poke fun at art teachers and the mainstream art world, which he thinks undervalues drawing skills and "honesty" in art. It is all the more remarkable then that in 2002 Ware was featured in the Whitney Biennial of American Art, a showplace for high art, and in 2005 was among a handful of comic book artists featured in "Masters of American Comics," an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the University of California's Hammer Museum.

After Jimmy Corrigan

In the jacket blurb for the sixteenth volume of The ACME Novelty Library, Ware describes his activities following the success of JimmyCorrigan: "four years of almost exclusively repackaging his sophomoric early work for the book trade." Ware was also busy working on a comic strip called Building Stories for the New York Times funny pages and developing new ideas for the ACME Novelty Library series. Building Stories features an apartment block inhabited by ordinary people doing mundane and ordinary things. As is the case with much of his work, what makes the subject matter appealing is Ware's simple yet intricate drawings and the heart-wrenching stories of the characters who live there (for example, a woman who lies awake worrying about her husband's abuse and neglect, or a night shift janitor whose life centers on a vending machine and a pinup calendar). Like his mentor, Art Spiegelman, Ware also contributes, as he puts it "quite semi-irregularly," to The New Yorker.

Although he has been successful at making a living as a cartoonist, Ware's output is relatively small, especially compared to those working for major comic book publishers such as Marvel or DC. Because of the detailed drawings and carefully crafted text, his work is time-consuming to produce; Jimmy Corrigan, for example, took seven years to create. Yet Ware's record as an award winner is formidable. He has won numerous comics industry awards and has been singled out in particular for the quality of his coloring, presentation, and storytelling. A reviewer on the Artbomb Web site explains: "From 1995 to the present, Ware has utterly dominated the comic medium's major awards, winning dozens of Harvey, Eisner and Ignatz Awards, the comic book industry's most prestigious awards, as well as a prestigious Reuben Award for Excellence." The same reviewer suggests that Ware may be the only comic book writer in history to have won more awards than he has produced comics.

Ware's work is often puzzling, shocking, and sad. His stories of loss, disappointment, and failure deal with the inner thoughts of characters who seem on the outside to be happy and settled in their lives. Because of this, and because of the sensitivity with which he addresses his characters' troubles, Ware has been compared to the major American writers William Faulkner and Raymond Carver. Like them, he creates stories of significant weight from minor, everyday incidents and makes otherwise insignificant people and events the focus of his work. Ware prefers not to present his books as stories to be read from beginning to end, spreading the strips out over every available surface and forcing the reader to construct the storylines from collected snippets of information. His success in breaking into mainstream newspapers, magazines, and review pages has been part of a wider growth of interest in graphic novels and comic strips as an art form with important things to say and elegant ways of saying them. Ware lives in Chicago with his wife, Marnie, and their daughter, Clara.

For More Information

Periodicals

Book (January 2001): p. 66.

Booklist (February 15, 1998); (November 15, 2000); (September 1, 2003): p. 76.

Bookseller (December 7, 2001): p. 7.

Comics Journal (December, 1997): pp. 15–16, 119–171.

Creative Review (July, 2001): p. 66.

Entertainment Weekly (February 23, 2001): p. 156.

Guardian (London, England) (December 7, 2001); (July 21, 2001); (October 31, 2005).

Library Journal (November 15, 2000): p. 64.

New York Times (January 21, 2001): p. 2; (April 4, 2001): p. E1; (February 8, 2002).

New York Times Book Review (November 26, 2000): p. 7.

New Yorker (October 17, 2005).

Observer (London, England) (October 16, 2005).

Publishers Weekly (September 4, 2000): p. 87; (July 19, 2004): p. 146.

Time (September 11, 2000): p. 116.

Web Sites

"Chris Ware." Fantagraphics Books.http://www.fantagraphics.com/artist/ware/ware.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Chris Ware Profile." Artbomb. http://www.artbomb.net/profile.jsp?idx=6&cid=142(accessed on May 3, 2006).

"The Inimitable Chris Ware." Salon.com. http://www.salon.com/books/review/2005/09/02/ware/index1.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Interview with Beth Nissen." CNN Book News.http://archives.cnn.com/2000/books/news/10/03/chris.ware/index.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Interview with Chris Ware." Random House.http://www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/warekiddprint.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).

The Ragtime Ephemeralist.http://home.earthlink.net/~ephemeralist/index.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Ware, Chris." I Like Comics.http://www.yakv.net/comics/artists/ware-chris/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).