Ware, Chris 1967-

views updated

WARE, Chris 1967-

PERSONAL: Born December 28, 1967, in Omaha, NE; son of M. B. Haberman and Doris Ann Ware (a newspaper reporter); married, 1997; wife's name, Marina. Education: Attended Skanregan School of Painting and Sculpture, 1989; University of Texas—Austin, B.F.A. (painting), 1990.

ADDRESSES: Home—Chicago, IL. Agent—c/o Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way, Seattle, WA 98115.

CAREER: Author and illustrator of comic strips. The Ragtime Ephemeralist, publisher.

AWARDS, HONORS: Harvey Award for Best New Series and Special Award for Excellence in Presentation, 1995, Harvey Award for Best Letterer and Special Award for Excellence in Presentation, 1996, Harvey Awards for Best Colorist, Best Single Issue or Story, and Special Award for Excellence in Presentation, 1997, Harvey Award for Best Colorist and Special Award for Excellence in Presentation, and Ignatz Awards for Outstanding Series and Outstanding Comic, all 1998, Harvey Award for Excellence in Presentation, 1999, Harvey Awards for Best Letterer, Best Colorist, and Special Award for Excellence in Presentation, and Ignatz Awards for Outstanding Comic and Outstanding Story, all 2000, and Harvey Award for Best Continuing or Limited Series, 2001, all for "Acme Novelty Library"; Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album of Previously Published Work and Special Award for Excellence in Presentation, and First Book Award, Guardian, all 2001, all for Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.


Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2000.

Author of comic strips "I Guess," in Raw, Volume 2, number 3; "Quimby the Mouse"; "Big Tex"; "Rocket Sam"; "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth"; "Blab!"; and "Rusty Brown." Editor and publisher of The Ragtime Ephemeralist, 1998—. Author of "Acme Novelty Library" comic book series, Fantagraphics, 1993—. Ware's work has appeared in the New York Times and New City.

WORK IN PROGRESS: A serialized story, set in the 1970s, about a boy named Rusty Brown who grows up to be a toy collector.

SIDELIGHTS: Dubbed the Emily Dickinson of comics by one fan, cartoonist Chris Ware is the creative force behind several comic strips, including "Quimby the Mouse," "Big Tex," "Rocket Sam," and "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth," all of which have been collected from their original publication in various newspapers and subsequently published in self-designed periodicals. The Corrigan strips were also collected for the 2000 book Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, the first graphic novel ever to win a major British literary award when it earned the Guardian First Book Award in 2001. Ware's precisely detailed, warmly colored artwork has been compared to Islamic miniatures, Maya glyphs, and Egyptian hieroglyphs. "The pictures are ideograms," Ware told Beth Nissen writing forCNN.com, "drawn words, if that makes any sense. The pictures tell the story—I'm a terrible writer." A meticulous draftsman, Ware has commented that creating just two pages of story takes about twenty hours to write and draw, another ten hours to ink, and then a further four to color. But these pages take only about twelve seconds to read.

Gary Groth of Comics Journal divided Ware's work into three "untidy and overlapping" categories: "the doggedly visual gamesmanship, . . . ; the bigfoot humor, laced with irony, black humor and pastiche ...; the tragi-comic world of 'Jimmy Corrigan.' It's the last that seems to me the most substantial and it's here that Ware's investigation into how formal visual properties impart meaning comes into play most successfully." Other critics have offered similar assessments. Jonathan Goldstein, for example, writing in the New York Times, called Jimmy Corrigan a "great work of art, deep and moving, pretty much unlike anything that's come before it." "Ware's book is arguably the greatest achievement of the form [of the graphic novel], ever," declared author Dave Eggers, writing in the New York Times Book Review. And Time's Andrew Arnold called Jimmy Corrigan a "haunting and unshakable book [that] will change the way you look at your world." High praise for a self-confessed loner who started cartooning to win friends. "Drawing was the only way I had of distinguishing myself," Ware told Nissen, "of trying to impress people—impress people with my one pathetic ability. There's nothing less impressive than a scrawny kid with poofy hair, drawing superheroes."

Ware was raised in Omaha, Nebraska, by his mother, a newspaper reporter, and his maternal grandparents, and did not know his father, who abandoned the family when Ware was a baby. His grandmother was an important person in Ware's life. "She and I spent whole days together every week, as I preferred being indoors to being out," Ware told Groth. "I liked going on errands with her, and drawing at the desk that she had set up in the basement of their house. She had it divided right down the middle so I would have half of it to work at and she had the other half." Ware's grandfather and mother were both journalists, and thus he was introduced to the world of printing at an early age. Comics were also an early passion for young Ware, who got his first taste for the medium through a stack of back copies kept in his grandmother's basement. For a few years, Ware took art lessons at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, and he also learned rudimentary drawing techniques from watching a PBS television program. Soon he was trying to copy the pictures he admired in the comics. "I would just find panels I liked and try to figure out how they were making all those thick and thin lines," Ware recalled to Groth. "I'd try to do it with a pencil, because I had no idea they were using a brush or a pen."

Like many teenagers of his generation, Ware enjoyed popular music and television shows. He developed an interest in ragtime piano music, and he took up the piano, though he eventually decided against pursuing a career in music. When he moved from a private high school to a public one, he began to hang out with kids who were reading so-called "underground" comics. When a friend started drawing his own "alternative" comics for fun, Ware did the same.

Largely, however, Ware "grew up bullied," as he told Nissen. "As a kid, I was, shall we say, not the favored one. Kids were threatening me all the time. I ate lunch by myself. I had some friends I talked to on the week-ends—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." Ware's nickname at the time was "Albino" because of his pasty complexion. Drawing became a refuge for him. "Ware came through it all," Nissen commented, "with an enduring empathy for the ridiculed, the awkward, the maladept."

While studying painting at the University of Texas—Austin, Ware drew comic strips for the student newspaper, the Daily Texan. A friend on the paper introduced Ware to older comic strips, and soon the fledgling cartoonist was immersing himself in the history of the medium. "Comics haven't really developed much since about 1920," Ware told Chip Kidd in an interview for Print magazine, reprinted on the Random House Web site. "If one wants to tell stories that have the richness of life, their vocabulary is extremely limited. It's like trying to use limericks to make literature." Ware took note of the early masters, including Winsor McCay and his "Little Nemo," Frank King and the "Gasoline Alley" strips, George Herriman's "Krazy Kat," and, of course, "Superman."

The omnivorous Ware also took inspiration from the mundane: the Sears catalogue, advertising from the first half of the twentieth century, and old newspaper comic strips. Each of these sources and traditions later came to play in Ware's own artwork. McCay had "Impeccable craftsmanship," Ware told Kidd, adding that the early twentieth-century cartoonist was "firmly rooted in the principles of realism and Renaissance perspective, invariably to stunning effect." From King he saw the power of a "real-time chronicle of American domesticity," and Herriman's "Krazy Kat" simply awed him. "A masterpiece. A world unto itself, eluding strict explanation." Such a world unto itself would present itself to Ware, as well.

In 1987, when he was a sophomore, Ware received a call from Art Spiegelman, publisher of the avant-garde comic book RAW; this call was a boost to Ware, as Spiegelman gave him four pages in the next issue of RAW, and then another assignment after that. One early strip in RAW became emblematic of the Ware style: "I Guess" draws on his childhood memories growing up with his journalist mom and his grandparents. In the story, the protagonist is a somewhat odd-looking superhero who had to deal with the slings and arrows of domestic life rather than super-villains. With his alternate takes on growing up in America, Ware was soon on his way to a certain degree of underground notoriety.

He was not gaining any points with his art teachers, though. The cartoonist has spoken at times of "art school damage" he and others like him have suffered, and he explained this concept to Travis Fristoe and Chris Waldronn in an interview for Indy Magazine. By this Ware means "the sort of mental 'self-policing' that was encouraged in college when I attended, from 1985-1993. The sort of 'thinking' which included notions that 'talent' interferes with 'expression,' and that reading about art was better than looking at the world, and that anything which made sense wasn't really art. I encountered a number of 'instructors' who considered my cartooning a 'gig,' some kind of 'side thing' I was doing to make cash. (Needless to say, this was from people who were having to teach to pay the bills.) Of course I wasn't making any money at it, but the simple fact that I was doing artwork for reproduction was more than some could swallow.... They reduced artmaking to the level of the essay....Ifyouweren't trying to 'expose' racism, or sexism, or tainted beef packing then you weren't an artist." Ware happily went his own way, despite such advice from instructors.

However, as Neil Strauss noted in the New York Times, Ware "might never have hit his stride in illustrating but for an event that took place a couple of years later. He was working on what he describes as a pretentious, conceptual comic when his girlfriend dumped him." Depressed by the event, Ware trashed everything he was working on and started improvising with some stories he had in his sketchbooks. These "mostly wordless and action-free tales of a potato-shaped character" bear a "remarkable resemblance to Mr. Ware," Strauss commented. In these stories and sketches "one can see the beginnings of an immense vocabulary of loneliness, economical use of space, and dark humor," according to Strauss. Jimmy Corrigan was born.

Ware continued to improvise, however, playing with other artwork, experimenting with cartoons that are virtual flow charts, deeply intricate visual displays of plotting. Some of his comics "were crammed with as many as 300 panels on a single page," wrote Strauss, "an attempt . . . to create a comic that could be read like musical notes on a score." Other early cartoons from Ware include "Quimby the Mouse," "Big Tex," and "Rocket Sam."

In 1993, Ware moved from Austin to Chicago, and felt more isolated than ever. At this time he began to focus on the semi-autobiographical comic strip "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth," which he published in a local alternative weekly, New City. Corrigan appears to be the quintessential loser, although Ware told Groth, "It's not my goal to present a deliberately dark view of life." Instead, according to Ware, he is simply presenting life in a "realistic" manner, even if the result seems ironic or cruelly humorous. Ware, who thinks popular culture falsely misleads people into believing they should be happy all of the time, draws from events in his own life and the lives of others for material. Jimmy Corrigan, like his creator, grew up without a father. The story line follows Jimmy as he learns of the existence of this absent father, as he tries to become independent of his domineering mother, as he establishes a relationship with an African-American stepsister he never knew he had. One of the centerpieces of the strip is the story within a story of his grandfather, also named Jimmy Corrigan, who himself was abandoned at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Thirty-six now, Jimmy works long hours in a silent cubicle, calls his mother daily, and is terrified by women.

When Ware set out to draw his weekly comic strip, he did not plan the work in detail ahead of time. Instead he used a semi-improvisational method. He explained to Groth: "I'll have a vague idea and start working on the strip, and before I know it, by the time I'm to the bottom of the page, it's gone somewhere completely different from where I'd thought it might." As for technique, Ware has explored a number of different styles in his comics. "I could point to elements in my stuff that I've picked and chosen from hundreds of cartoonists," Ware told Groth. As an artist, he is constantly trying to push the boundaries of comic-strip language; through page layout, the rhythms of the panels, the framing of characters and their faces, and the amount and position of text, Ware tries to find new ways of visually communicating emotions and sensations not traditionally associated with this American art form.

The "Jimmy Corrigan" strip became so popular that Ware soon had two full pages weekly, and he also launched the "Acme Novelty Library" to publish the collected volumes of this venture. Fantagraphics in Seattle, Washington, picked up on these, and published the first number in 1993. Over the course of the series, Ware developed stories within stories for his hapless hero. "The compact imagery, the compacted plot and subplots, make 'Jimmy Corrigan' more akin to a novel by [William] Faulkner or [Charles] Dickens than to 'The Adventures of Spiderman,'" wrote Nissen. Ware spent hours not only drawing each strip, but also researching. For the story of the grandfather abandoned in 1893, Ware researched art and architecture books of the period during his long convalescence when he broke both his legs in 1995. "I guess my graphic style draws from the past," Ware told Nissen. "Turn-of-the-[twentieth]-century—I prefer things from that era. The style then seemed to have more respect for the viewer. What was presented was something hand-made, something crafted with care and skill."

A central part of the comic is a call Jimmy gets from his father and their poignant meeting during which they have little to say. Ware himself received such a call from his own father, halfway through the writing of "Jimmy Corrigan," and the resulting meeting was equally as poignant as the imagined one. Neither had much to say. "I was probably a little hostile," Ware told Nissen. "There were so many regrets." His father died a short time after that meeting.

After seven years of weekly strips and more than a dozen volumes in the "Acme Novelty Library" series, Ware—who initially thought he might have enough material for a few months of the strip—published the entire collection as the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. The book jacket itself attests to the care with which the project was mounted. The jacket folds out to a poster-size diagram of the multiple story lines of Jimmy Corrigan, and is a piece of artwork in itself. With an initial printing of 25,000, the book went back for subsequent printings as word-of-mouth and rave reviews boosted sales.

A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called the book "graphically inventive" and "wonderfully realized." It is a graphic novel that "follows the sad fortunes of four generations of phlegmatic, defeated men while touching on themes of abandonment, social isolation, and despair within the sweeping depiction of Chicago's urban transformation over the course of a century," according to this same reviewer. It is hardly the usual comic book fare. Arnold, writing in Time, also applauded the depth in Ware's book, calling it a "graphic version of the anomie found in a Raymond Carver short story, with a social-historical sweep and unexpected, if fleeting, grace notes. And that may be this melancholy book's uplifting message: even in the most emotionally barren settings, there is still something not to deaden us but to make us stronger."

Other reviewers added to the praise. "Clearly," wrote Stephen Weiner in Library Journal, "Ware is one of today's premier cartoonists." Booklist's Gordon Flagg noted Ware's antecedents in McCay and in turn-of-the-twentieth-century advertising images, and how the cartoonist transforms these into "something new, evocative, and affecting." Flagg further commented that Ware's "daunting skill transforms a simple tale into a pocket epic and makes Jimmy's melancholy story the stuff of cartoon tragedy." Laura J. Kloberg, writing in National Forum, concluded that Ware's "use of color, the rhythm of the panels, attention to details and details within details, and the repetition of themes—keep the reader interested in a story that on the surface is mundane. The many layers of history and images keep the mind engaged. It is ultimately a very complex tale, one that bears rereading. I loved the interconnectedness of it all." And Phil Daoust, reviewing the book in the Guardian, called Jimmy Corrigan "a rare and uplifting example of an artistic vision pushed to the limits."

The unpretentious, unaffected Ware is not only a maker of books, but also is a collector of ragtime ephemera, having played piano since he was a teenager. He publishesThe Ragtime Ephemeralist, "a fascinating, dryly amusing periodical . . . devoted to ragtime," according to David Wondrich, writing in the New York Times. Ware told Wondrich that with his publication he "aims to provide a dense sense of the whole era, not simply a dissected examination of the music apart from it." In his periodical, he publishes newly rediscovered sheet music and articles on ragtime composers, both known and obscure. He also includes pictures of performers, minstrels, banjo players, and pianists from the time. "You cannot read The Ephemeralist without beginning to understand just how intimately ragtime is bound up with the perennial issue in American music, race," wrote Wondrich.

Ware has also continued his comic book odyssey in other avenues since putting the final "The End" to Jimmy Corrigan's adventures. In 2001, he brought out the fifteenth number in his "Acme Novelty Library," titling it "The Big Book of Jokes," and its publication ensured, according to Arnold, writing inTime.com, that Ware's reputation will "remain intact." Arnold described the issue as large enough to reach the "proportions of menus at Italian 'family-style' restaurants," at ten inches wide and eighteen inches tall. Ware reprises some characters, such as Quimby the mouse, but also deals with new ones, such as Rusty Brown "a nasty collector of pop-cultural detritus," according to Arnold, who "lives in filth but owns the complete summer '87 Happy Meal toy series." Arnold concluded, "Those who have never picked up a copy of Chris Ware's 'Acme Novelty Library' owe it to themselves to do so. His dedication to the holistic experience of a single comic book issue has vastly increased the prestige of the medium."

This final sentiment is echoed by Strauss, writing in the New York Times: "Thanks in part to Mr. Ware's Acme Novelty Library, alternative comics have been slowly but steadily moving out of their underground niche over the last decade." Yet despite all the critical fuss, fan response, and even interest from Hollywood, Ware remains "profoundly unimpressed with himself," explained a contributor to the Guardian. "Beside the towering reputations of his comic-strip heroes—Art Spiegelman, Frank King, George Herriman—Ware says he feels 'like a real hayseed.'"



Book, January, 2001, James Sullivan, review of JimmyCorrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, p. 66.

Booklist, February 15, 1998; November 15, 2000, Gordon Flagg, review of Jimmy Corrigan, p. 598.

Bookseller, December 7, 2001, review of Jimmy Corrigan, p. 7.

Chicago, February, 1998, pp. 68-72.

Comics Journal, December, 1997, Gary Groth, pp. 15-16, 119-171.

Creative Review, July, 2001, review of Jimmy Corrigan, p. 66.

Entertainment Weekly, February 23, 2001, p. 156.

Graphis, May-June, 2000, review of Jimmy Corrigan, p. 13.

Guardian (London, England), July 21, 2001, Phil Daoust, "Daddy, I Hardly Knew You"; December 7, 2001; "I Still Have Overwhelming Doubt about My Ability," pp. G4-G5.

Library Journal, November 15, 2000, Stephen Weiner, review of Jimmy Corrigan, p. 64.

National Forum, summer, 2001, Laura J. Kloberg, review of Jimmy Corrigan, p. 44.

New York Times, January 21, 2001, David Wondrich, "Ragtime: No Longer a Novelty in Sepia," p. 2; April 4, 2001, Neil Strauss, "Graphic Tales Mine His Own Life and Heart," p. E1; February 8, 2002, Jonathan Goldstein, "Notes from Chicago."

New York Times Book Review, November 26, 2000, Dave Eggers, "After Wham! Pow! Shazam!," p. 7.

Print, July-August, 2002, Christopher Hawthorne, "Hard Ware," p. 24.

Publishers Weekly, September 4, 2000, review of Jimmy Corrigan, p. 87.

Time, September 11, 2000, Andrew Arnold, "Right Way, Corrigan," p. 116.

Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2000, Andrew Horton, "Beyond Archie and Spidey," p. W10.


CNN.com,http://europe.cnn.com/ (October 3, 2000), Beth Nissen, "A Not-so-Comic Comic Book."

Fantagraphics Books Web Site,http://www.fantagraphics.com/ (April 17, 2002), "Chris Ware."

Galerie Lambiek,http://www.lambiek.net/ (April 17, 2002).

Indy Magazine,http://www.indymagazine.com/ (April 17, 2002), Travis Fristoe and Chris Waldronn, "Chris Ware Interview."

Metroactive Books,http://www.metroactive.com/ (November 9-15, 2000), Richard von Busack, "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

Pantheon Graphic Novels and Comics,http://www.randomhouse.com/ (April 17, 2002), Chip Kidd, "Please Don't Hate Him" (originally printed in Print magazine).

This American Life,http://www.thislife.org/ (April 17, 2002), "Chris Ware."

Time.com,http://www.time.com/ (November 27, 2001), Andrew Arnold, "The Depressing Joy of Chris Ware."*