Perhaps best known for his critically acclaimed graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware and his works are the subject of doctoral dissertations and inspired the poet J.D. McClatchy to call him "the Emily Dickinson of comics." Ware's work is distinguished by its clarity of line, its prolific precision and his experiments in narrative structure and graphic design, which have included three-dimensional pullout inserts.
In 2005, The New York Times Magazine chose him as the first cartoonist to appear in its Funny Pages section. Such is the esteem in which he is held that UCLA's Hammer Museum included his work in its touring exhibition "Masters of American Comics," alongside the likes of George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Charles M. Schulz, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman. At the Wisconsin Book Festival, Ware is scheduled to appear at 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, at the Wisconsin Union Theater, in a conversation with graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi that will be recorded for broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio's "To the Best of Our Knowledge."
The Daily Page: In terms of professional gratification, how does having your work published in The New York Times Magazine compare to having a renowned poet call you "the Emily Dickinson of comics" and to being included in the exhibit "Masters of American Comics" alongside the likes of George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Charles M. Shulz and Art Spiegelman?
Ware: It's all really the same thing, I guess, though I'm pretty sure the "Emily Dickinson" comment came from Sandy McClatchy, who's the boyfriend of my good friend Chip Kidd, so that's more like a member of the family saying he's proud of you. Mostly, I suppose all of the recent exhibitions indicate a relative shift in the overall perception of cartoonists as potentially thoughtful, intelligent artists rather than commerical hacks illustrating someone else's ideas.
Needless to say, to be included in a show with Schulz and Herriman and Spiegelman is still quite disorienting to me, because I've grown up revering and flagrantly imitating these artists, and to be considered any sort of a "peer" to them, however curatorially, seems absurd. I think the lasting point of the "Masters of Comics" show, though, is that comics aren't art, but cartoonists can, if they put their minds to it, be artists.
What preconceptions do you have of Madison and of your Wisconsin Book Festival audience?
Um, well, very little, other than I drove through Madison one day many years ago and it was something like "Everybody Smoke Pot Day" and there were kiosks and booths with all sorts of tie-dyed paraphenalia for sale, so that seemed like quite a friendly and inviting scene. I'm presuming that the civic leaders don't encourage these two Festivals to overlap, however.
How does your interest in Ragtime relate to your graphic tendency toward precision and clarity of line?
My interest in ragtime has something to do with my admiration of late 19th century culture as well as the fact that ragtime is an art of composition and not of performance; i.e. the emotions and feelings in ragtime are encoded into the rhythms and melodies of the compositions themselves, not necessarily reliant on an expressive performance to be heard. I suppose this is a characteristic of Baroque music, too, as even under a highly mechanical performance technique it can still communicate deep feeling. (My good friend Ivan Brunetti came up with a "Stones versus Beatles" metaphor one day when we were discussing this, which sort of clarifies the relationship in more vernacular terms; it's essentially the old question of performance versus composition.)
As far as comics go, I try to "compose" them with the same care and clarity that the best ragtime or baroque music has, and I generally assume that the reader goes through them with the same sort of regular rhythm with which I read them, which I can't control, certainly.
This all sounds extremely pretentious, though I don't mean it to. Finally, since you mentioned ragtime, I guess I could add that I think Scott Joplin is one of America's very finest composers, and one of its very greatest artists.
What do you consider the best single panel you have crafted to date, and how did it serve your narrative?
I really don't think of my strips in terms of single panels; in comics, a panel is like a sentence or even just a word, and so taken out of context becomes about as interesting; it's what's before and what comes after that makes it all "work" and have some emotional power, hopefully. I also don't want any single image to have any special esthetic weight unless it's for a very specific reason; I find that attempting too much expressive visual eloquence on my part not only distracts from the reading of the story, but can encourage the reader to "linger" on an image and study my drawing technique (which also, of course, is an advantage, though I don't employ it as such much anymore.)
It's the difference between reading a powerful story in its original manuscript form (with all of its corrections and cross-outs and frenzied writing) and reading a carefully typeset version; the story iself might communicate something of great violence and confusion, but that confusion is imparted via the meaning of the words, not the messiness of the handwriting. (I guess this also relates to your previous question, if I can say that without devolving into pedantry.)
This all said, this expressiveness of line is the one aspect of comics that can potentially set it apart from all other media, and many other artists use it to great effect; at the moment, however, I'm still simply trying to learn how to tell a story.
Lastly, I've done stories that I think are more somewhat more successful than others, certainly, but I get superstitious about mentioning them; plus, it's just sort of unsightly to single such things out as "personal favorites"; cartoonists are already deluded about their own self-importance anyway, and there's no need to further that.
To what extent do characters such as Quimby, Jimmy and Rusty serve as proxies for yourself?
A great deal, though they're also aspects of other people I've know or would like to know. More recently I've tried not to choose one specific character through which to "feel" a narrative, however, and if I find myself liking or disliking one character or another too much, I'll try to illuminate aspects of his or her personality to reverse the flow, as it were. I think it's a more or less common goal as a writer to try and empathize with or at least understand every person in the imaginary stories that repeat themselves in one's mind all day long, over and over.