Q and A With Comicbook Master Chris Ware

TIME.com's Andrew Arnold sat down with the much-heralded author of "Jimmy Corrigan."

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If he didn't work in comicbooks, Chris Ware would be famous by now. And he may yet be — after being selected for the Smithsonian's design triennial, and having his work published in the New Yorker, his first general-trade book, "Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth," (Pantheon, $27.50) will appear in September.

"This is like welcoming James Joyce into the ranks of novel writers," says Art Spiegelman, another New Yorker artist and the author of "Maus." "This new book seems to be another milestone in the demonstration of what [comics] can be."

The story of Jimmy Corrigan, both sad and mordantly hilarious (e.g. he is neither smart nor a kid, except emotionally), involves his visit to the father who abandoned him as a child. Among airport bars, convenience stores and modular housing Jimmy becomes involved in the lives of his father, his black adopted sister, Amy, and his grandfather, also named Jimmy. About two thirds of the way through we are given a lengthy flashback of grandpa Jimmy's childhood where we discover a forgotten secret. By the end we have read a small-scale history of America's last one hundred years.

Q: What is the origin of Jimmy Corrigan?

A: Back in 1990 or so I was doing a bunch of [comic] strips with a mouse character, which were silent strips — no words at all, and I was getting pretty tired of it. Occasionally when I get tired of doing something I will interject a gag strip to alleviate the tension of doing something over and over again. And I did strip that was called "Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth," that was sort of a parody of a "smart kid" strip in the Depression era. Then when I ceased doing the dumb mouse stuff I was stuck for something to do and I wanted to do a strip that had actually a real human being in it. And since I had done [Jimmy Corrigan], it was something I was familiar with, so I started with that.

Q: How did the story for the book evolve?

A: Basically just week to week. I started it as a weekly strip in '93 [for 'NewCity,' a Chicago-area weekly] and really only expected it to last a few months. And, I don't know, it just kind of grew out of terrible writing and poor planning on my part. I don't know how to excuse it other than that.

Q: Is one page of the book equivalent to one week's strip?

A: Two pages actually. Two pages a week. It's pretty apparent from the first hundred pages or so, which are almost impossible to slog through, but once beyond that point it starts to take root. At least I hope so.

Q: At what point, if ever, did you come up with a master, overall plan?

A: I guess about a year into it. There was always sort of a master plan, but that master plan kept changing. It finally "concreted," for lack of a better word, after about one hundred pages or so.

Q: You've spent seven years on this. Why did it end up taking so much time?

A: Particular details and feelings and pacing of it that I wanted to get required that much space. And I had never attempted anything like that before so I didn't really know what I was getting into.

Q: Why that particular, slower, more thoughtful style pacing?

A: I wanted it to feel as real as possible — to have the pacing of a real experience. Most comics tend to rush by really fast. It's a very economical medium. I wanted it to have a much slower feel. There is a sort of staccato quality to a comic strip that doesn't lend itself necessarily to telling something that's a little more understated. So I had to slow that down and smooth it out a bit for this particular story.

Q: How do you see Jimmy? He's a sort of a combination of man and child.

A: Yeah, I suppose. He was really just a stand-in for me early on when I was living here in Chicago and feeling terribly sorry for myself. I guess he's sort of an adult who never quite grew up. He's paralyzed by his own inability to decide or act, and a fear of being disliked.

Q: Is he comical?

A: He's a slightly flat character. There are other characters who are little more real seeming. He's kind of comical and kind of sad, I guess. It's kind of peculiar to talk about a character like that. It kind of makes my toes curl.

Q: At a certain point you flash-back to Jimmy's Grandfather's story. What was the thinking behind that?

A: Just a personal fantasy, I guess. I sometimes find myself thinking about my own family and the connections of their lives to mine now. I cared a lot about my grandmother and loved listening to stories about her childhood, when she was alive. She had this amazing ability to make you feel like you were there. Listening to her I had a better sense of the time period than I did looking at pictures or even reading about it. I wanted to try to get a little bit of that in there. And also to contrast the differences between what I perceive as that world and the so-called modern world and the environments we act out our lives in.

Q: In the end-papers of the book you say you used the story to "work out stuff." What did you mean by that?

A: I had never met my own dad and I was resistant to meeting him, and I was sort of trying to figure why I was resistant to meeting him. But it's unsightly to foist this sort of thing on the reading public in the form of a comic strip. I've never been quite comfortable with autobiography because then I'd be tied to what was actually going on in my own life, and not have the freedom of a fictional story. I guess the irony of it is that in trying to do that [my father] up and dies and I hardly ever got to talk to him. Kind of ridiculous.

Q: While writing "Jimmy Corrigan" you finally heard from your father. What effect did that have on the story?

A: I was more than half way through it when I finally did hear from him, and I guess the character of the dad was so developed by then. It had some effect on how I viewed the story but I don't know if it had much effect on the plot, for lack of a better word, since I don't know if there is necessarily a plot. It wasn't like he said anything where I thought, "Oh great! I can use that."

Q: Did it work? Did you work it out?

A: No! That's the rotten part of it. Now I feel even more confused than ever.

Q: Did the very ending change at all? At the end there is some hope for the future of Jimmy. Was that planned from the beginning?

A: Not really. I guess that occurred to me as I was starting that last chapter. The story can be misinterpreted as being very pessimistic. I don't want it to seem pessimistic at all. I just try to be realistic. Since the whole story is about inactivity or inaction, it's up to him what he's going to do about it.

Q: It seems hard to believe that you work in an improvisatory way since you successfully introduce themes and motifs at the beginning that payoff five years down the road. How can it be?

A: It might not seem believable, but I'm kind of surprised sometimes how organized one's mind can be. Themes sort of organize themselves, particularly in comics. It's different than writing because when you draw something you are trying to visualize it and you are trying to put yourself in that space. And when you're drawing something, all sorts of associations come up in my mind that I never would have thought of otherwise. Even compositional connections start cropping up that I didn't necessarily plan. Or, on the other hand, sort of in between there might be something where I think, "Oh this seems to connect to this." It's really hard as far as comics go because this probably could have been written as a story in three months or so, but drawing this thing is so. It's almost nightmarish.

Q: So why comics?

A: [sigh] I don't know. If you'd asked me that question about two years ago I probably could have given you a really self-conscious, carefully — constructed answer. There is something about the medium that allows for a simulation of actual experience with the added benefit of actually reading. You're reading pictures, but you are also looking at them. It's a sort of combined activity that I can't really think of any other medium having, other than, say, a foreign film when you are reading and seeing. It allows for all sorts of associations that might not come up with just words or just pictures.

Q: And you would be lest satisfied with some other medium?

A: It's not a matter of satisfaction. It's just a matter of sheer ability. I am just a rotten writer when it comes right down to it. I just can't do it terribly well.

Q: Can you speak to the relationship between music and your comics?

A: That was the reason I was doing comics strips that didn't have words for a while, because I wanted to try and find the strength of comics as read pictures. I noticed that in reading comics that didn't have words the whole force of the story was propelled by the implied action of the characters. Like in a George Herriman [who wrote 'Krazy Kat' in the 1920s] Sunday page, where he didn't use many words, the characters literally seemed to be moving around on the page. And I noticed that in reading them there were these imaginary sounds that were created in your mind that were analogous to music. I realized that a comic strip is almost like music on a page that you performed in your mind. I know that sounds outrageously pretentious but it seems to me to be sort of an apt metaphor. I wanted to figure that out as much as I possibly could without getting too mired in my own self-consciousness. The pacing of a comic is one of the most important things about it. That's what creates its poetic sense in many ways. It's not just pictures. There's a particular rhythm and structure to it that is unlike anything else. It literally is like music. You hear it in your mind as you read it.

Q: Is this rhythm in the layout of particular page, or over the course of the entire book?

A: Everywhere. I tried very much with this book to structure it that way. There's a rhythm to the composition. There's a rhythm to the words combined with the pictures. Whenever I'm working on a comic strip I re-read it, probably hundreds of times through to pay attention to how all of those things work. Sometimes even changing the angle of a character's eyebrow can really, seriously alter the effect and overall interpretation of a scene. And the insertion of a pause or a cough or a sniff, and all these things that we do in conversation, can bring it to life in a strange way. All of these things are patently obvious to any film editor, because there are so many more people interested in working with film, and there have been for decades. They're sort of aware of these [techniques, but] in comics it's still undeveloped. The potential is there for these kinds of things to be little more thoroughly developed.

Q: Would it be wildly inappropriate to call it a symphony?

A: Well it wouldn't necessarily be inappropriate but it would sound really pompous. I'd hate to call it that. But it was sort of structured that way, consciously, especially the whole seventh part that is set in 1893. I set it that way on purpose; as carefully I could make it, I tried to pace that part of the story. It's told in terms of a memory, whereas every thing that is told in the present day is told in terms of a theatrical present-day experience with all the clunkiness. Whereas in a memory you edit things out and sort of restructure the things to seem a little bit more heroic, or to focus on particular aspects that magnify or reduce certain things.

Q: What is your relationship to nostalgia?

A: I don't know. It's a problem I have, I guess. I collect a bunch of junk from the turn of the century — sheet music and records and musical instruments. Essentially, I think I just prefer the craftsmanship and care and humility of design and artifacts from the earlier era. And I don't know if that's just the result of me having the benefit of hindsight and sort of editing things out, or if it really is there. But it seems [there is] this arrogant sexuality to the modern world that I find very annoying, and, I guess, threatening, if I'm going to be honest with myself. Everything has to be cool. Everything has to be sexy and fast-paced and rock-and-roll and I just find it kind of offensive. There seems to be a sort of dignity to the way we were creating the world a hundred years ago that I find much more comforting. It seems to have more of a respect for other people. I went to a number of towns north of Chicago and took a bunch of photos as reference for a particular part of the story and I was just amazed sometimes at the bleakness and lack of thought that went into these settings. Human beings: they are living out the grand dramas of their lives in these horrible areas that just seem to mock them at every turn. The modern world seems to make fun of people in a lot of ways. Of course that's part of the book.

Q: Do you have any interest in pop culture?

A: Oh yeah! Especially the pop culture from the 1890s to the 1920s.

Q: But you have no interest in modern pop culture?

A: Not really. No.

Q: Do you consider yourself part of pop culture?

A: I don't know. I try not to think about it too much. I don't think it's good to think about who's reading your stuff. I don't really know and I don't want to know. I don't want to aim either consciously or unconsciously at anyone. I think that's the worst mistake in the world.

Q: You suddenly introduce this black character in Jimmy Corrigan. Where does your interest in race come from?

A: Well, it's a fundamental American thread, I think. You can't get away from it. It seemed to me that Amy, as being an adopted girl of a different race and originally of a different culture — implicitly, I guess — she's even more separated from finding her own background than Jimmy Corrigan.

Q: A lot of the book is the story of America, yes?

A: I didn't plan it that way, that's for sure. I didn't foresee it as any sort of grand opus or meditation on the American experience. I just wanted to put as much in there as I possibly could that I saw around me and try to deal with as many things that made me uncomfortable, not necessarily as a person but just simply as an aspiring cartoonist or writer. "Can I really deal with this or even describe this in any way? Can I even write a character like this?" It's more of a challenge for myself.

Q: Throughout the book secondary characters' faces are cropped out or obscured by foreground objects. Why?

A: That was a way on my part to focus attention on the main character. I found early on that, when trying to tell slightly more complicated stories, if I took the regular old approach of simply showing a room full of people with everybody's face, for some reason the experience of the story got kind of confused. You were identifying with all these different viewpoints in the room. It seems like some of the best known cartoon characters end up being these peculiar, almost sexless, baby-like men — bald, pink men, like Charlie Brown, and Tintin and Skeezix, and Barnaby. It's the least specific character. It's the character you can immediately identify with, and I don't really understand it. There's something really peculiar going on there. So by [keeping out] these very specific faces I found that it was a little bit easier to keep the story oriented around the main character. You have to balance a general and a specific in a comic strip. "Real" drawing is about specifics. It's about describing an object as accurately as possible. In a comic strip you have to draw a picture of the idea of the object. You have to draw the word that you are picturing, then you have to mix in specifics with it for it to work as a story. But you are still working with drawn words.

Q: Is this the last of Jimmy Corrigan?

A: Yeah. I think so.

Q: What's next?

A: I'm working on a story for the same paper called Rusty Brown. I'm drawing him as a kid in the mid-Seventies or so. I'm trying to make it a little more readable on a weekly basis, and a little bit, I don't know, not necessarily humorous. I'm in the midst of it so I don't really know. There's many more characters in it than in the Jimmy Corrigan story so it doesn't necessarily just focus on one character. If anything that's the most obvious difference.

Q: Are you able to support yourself doing these comics?

A: Shockingly, yes I am. I don't know how much longer it's going to last. I'm the luckiest guy in the world.