Chris Ware & Zadie Smith at the New York Public Library


wareI recently went with illustrator Kat Mills to hear Chris Ware and Zadie Smith in conversation[1] at the New York Public Library. There were some really salient points that came up during the conversation (particularly in the early parts): Ware discussed the four-dimensionality of comics–that is, the way that his work communicates and connects to the reader.

This amorphous immersion in the world of the comic allowed by the medium and how well Ware takes it on. Smith had a writer’s way of looking at it, explaining that she saw comics as a medium with two “different” elements: writing and rendering. She called one “secondary” (without specifying which out of the two were primary), which made me realize that writers will always see written elements in comics first the way that drum players instinctively pick out the drum line in a song.[2] She led me to explore the long-unanswered questions I’ve had about the integration of written and visual elements in comics, or at least made me rethink the primacy of each element for different people.[3]

Is it as easy as separating each element of comics into a different “dimension”? Without one of these elements, does the comic become flattened, no longer as engrossing as it was?

A lot of Smith and Ware’s comments were worth thinking about to that extent, and so here are some of the moments that I found most interesting:

Zadie Smith, with a photo put on screen of her at 13, on how she began to write: “When you look like this at 13 you have a lot of alone time. […] I was a proud loser[…] but there were worse losers [out there] because they didn’t understand me.” All hail the good losers.

Chris Ware mentioned that he preferred “Peanuts” strips to superhero comics as a child, but still drew “weird, almost homoerotic drawings of men in tights” back then. He really only started drawing stories at 18.

Ware said that it seemed to him “that art[…] was over,” and that he felt “unequipped to deal with contemporary art.” Let’s play ignore the irony (Ware had an exhibit in the Whitney, which, by all intents and purposes, makes him a contemporary artist) and focus instead on the modernist/supremacist idea of art being “over.” I don’t remember who exactly made the scale of representation in art—I think it was El Lissitzky, but I could be wrong—but part of the whole “death of art” obsession in the early 20th century had to do with the flatness of the canvas and playing around with extending the two-dimensional canvas space into a three-dimensional one (Robert Rauschenberg played around with this a lot on his flatbed paintings—1965’s Bed, for instance. The comments on dimensionality of comics mentioned above are worth considering with this in mind; is the density and specificity of the graphic novel genre a means of expanding the “dimension” of the work? What about the literal expansion into the three-dimensional space necessitated by Ware’s book Building Stories and the 3D model he released [see footnote 4])?

Smith and Ware agree that there’s “something crushing in art history” since “the armory show.” I believe that crushing feeling is called modernism.

Smith discussed reading and copying out stories of others to train (as did Hunter S. Thompson with Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and, I’m sure, scores of other writers). She mentioned that her students (she currently teaches at NYU) are “very concerned about being original,” a desire that Smith sees as detrimental to focusing on the craft of the work. She later said that adults need to stop being preoccupied with talent in order to do work, to move from “facility” to actually using those skills. She suggests that writers “stop worrying about macro issues” like theme and what the story is “about,” and just work on the details. Where was this woman when I was an undergraduate??

Ware discovered Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine when looking for porn in the back of a comic book store.

Both Smith and Ware admitted that they write without much planning. Ware showed us a page of outlines for a particular spread, but also explained that comics is “an awkward” medium to work in when it comes to planning and editing.

Ware mentioned that “illustrator” is a dirty word in art school (insert Kat Mills nodding here). I guess they get the shaft the way that comics does as a medium.

There was a short discussion about the rate of reading required by Smith and Ware’s work (see my post about Nemo). Ware saw Smith’s recent prose (presumably her book NW) as being “fragmentary” and causing the reader to slow down. “It bloomed in my mind,” Ware said. “Well,” Smith responded, “It’s your fault.” Ware explained that Smith has the ability to cut out the fat in her work while still making the passage of time feel real (and not rushed or stagnant).

Ware: “Can you write at the pace you think?”
Smith: “Sometimes.”
Ware: (admiringly) “Wow.”

That’s all for today, folks but, as always, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

Recommended reading via Chris Ware and Zadie Smith:

Work by comics creator Seth.[4]

Ware mentioned being inspired by Öyvind Fahlström, who made something akin to high art comics. Or at least played around with the iconography/form of comics. Also, Ware’s interest in three-dimensionality seems to have a lot to do with the playful sculptures of Joseph Cornell.

Here,” a short comic by Richard McGuire, has clearly had a ton of influence on Ware’s work.

[1] More like a biographical exploration of where Ware and Smith came from and tracing those origins to their work. For two hours. With slideshows. It was sort of like Smith and Ware were my great aunt and uncle and, after the seder, insisted on showing me what they were like when they were growing up.

[2] Okay, probably not always.

[3] What about you guys? Does anyone see one element before the other or see them simultaneously?

[4] Okay, I can’t help but mention similarities between a work of Seth’s and one of Ware’s. Ware recently released a large conglomeration (collection? It’s hard to explain this one) of comics written about imagined inhabitants of the building next door to his. The release of the piece, called Building Stories, was accompanied by a limited edition papercraft DIY model of the building. There’s relatively little mention of this model, as far as I can tell, relative to the attention the book has been getting, but it’s a fascinating element that I just can’t get over.  Publisher Drawn & Quarterly describes the model in true self-deprecating Chris Ware fashion (so much so that I can only think that he wrote the blurb himself): “presented as an absolutely unnecessary addendum to the already-unmanageable ‘Building Stories’ graphic novel, [the model is an] outrageously expensive signed limited edition print [that] will find few interested parties or adherents to its demanding, labor-intensive brand of rainy day leisure […] Sure to one day be a collector’s item when flammable tinder is at a premium, be prepared to start your post-apocalyptic campfire now with this 13 sheet collection of dry technical drawings, paper thin walls and cramped psychological spaces.”

I nervously brought up the model at the “stand-in-front-of-everyone-at-the-mic-and-talk-about-comics-while-your-voice-shakes” Q&A thing and Ware discussed it with essentially the same pseudo-disdain (or real disdain? Who knows) as the D&Q copy does. I could spend forever trying to unwrap the messily packaged box that is Ware’s brain–the incidence of self-deprecation in highly intelligent artists, the inability to process fame that results in more self-deprecation–but that’s really the pot calling the kettle neurotic.

To me, at least, the object is crucial to understanding Building Stories­–maybe not owning the model (I had to do the whole “honey here’s a present I got for myself I mean you I mean hahaha no really I want it let it go” thing to legitimize spending $80 on a paper model of a brownstone) as much as knowing of its existence. The New York Times, in its write-up of Building Stories, mentions the physicality of the object, the fact that the comic itself (which is in multiple pieces of different sizes that can be read in any order) cannot, by its nature, be read digitally. In a sense, then, can the setting also not be experienced without the physicality of seeing it? What difference does it make that even the setting needs to be peeled out of its comfortable exile onto paper and manipulated and folded until it becomes something you can touch and rearrange?

It seems to me to be very much about craftsmanship—the order you read Building Stories’ stories in lets you build the story, and you aren’t let off so easily that you will be able to escape having to build the building as well.[4a] Even though Ware wants to see the object as simply an accessory to the story (which is reasonable when it comes to an expensive limited edition object that you don’t want to guilt readers for not having purchased), the mere choice to create it says so much about the expectation Building Stories sets up for the reader to fulfill.

Where was I? Oh, right, similarities between this and Seth. Seth—as I just found out—created a set of models for his fictional city “Dominion.” Read this essay on Graphixia—it’s awesome and gets at a bunch of points that I just don’t have the space to address here.

[4a] Building building building okay I’m done now.


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