When Words Collide: Chris Ware & Marvel's "Untold" Stories

Mon, October 15th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

I still haven't made it down to the New York Comic Con this year.

As I write this, on Saturday night a couple of hundred miles away from the city, the overwhelming crowds at the Javits Convention Center have dispersed, and I'm guessing that all of the major announcements have been made. There are usually few surprises on Sunday, and that's when I bringing my wife and kids down to the show (they're the ones who really wanted to go this year, when I was going to skip it completely). As you read this, the convention will already be over. But I'm sure we had an amazing time on Sunday. Those Vamplet dolls are not going to buy themselves.

So this week's column won't feature any NYCC travelogue or commentary on any recent announcements. If I have anything to add about that, I'll save it for next week.

No, this week's column will be about something more pressing and immediately important: two big books I read this week! And one of them was not exactly a comic book, and the other one was definitely not a comic book, but CBR readers should still make sure to pick up both as soon as possible.

I'm talking about Chris Ware's "Building Stories" and Sean Howe's "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story." Both excellent reading material and for very different reasons, as you can imagine.

TRIPLE-DECKER ELEGANCE: BUILDING STORIES

"Building Stories" is Ware's latest collected-edition-plus-original-material, and it's a massive box of comics. If it weren't so good, I'd say it's almost a parody of a Chris Ware project, with a dozen comics of varying size and shape and purpose set inside a gorgeously designed thick cardboard shell. It's an echo of Ware's entire career -- his "Acme Novelty Library" series is a monster of irregular shape issues and I wish I had a nice sturdy box to hold them all together, but even the "Building Stories" receptacle isn't big enough for some of the single installments of Ware's career-long ongoing series.

I have a feeling that, by 2012, either you're into Chris Ware or you're not. You can't have been around comics long and not perused his work. Every time he puts out even a chapter of a longer narrative, with a year-long (or more) wait for the next one, his comics end up dominating Best of the Year lists everywhere. He's impossible to ignore. Along with Jaime Hernandez and Dan Clowes, Ware is one of the three major talents who get acclaim from all corners of the comic book community and the literary establishment too. I'll put it this way, if you're teaching a class on "The Graphic Novel" and you don't include something by Chris Ware, you're probably a terrible person. Surely everyone agrees with me on that.

But while 99% of all comic book artists working today come from a background heavily dosed in Stan Lee and John Buscema's "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" and Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art" and Jaime Hernandez comes from a bit of that and a lot of Dan DeCarlo and Alex Toth and Dan Clowes comes from a bit of that and a lot of Charles Addams, Chris Ware seemingly rejects all of those traditions and comes from a place with a touch of Richard McGuire and a whole mess of instructional leaflets circa 1960-1985. Ware's comics are diagrammatic, designed, and rich in precise detail. Cold and lifeless? Maybe, but only if you don't read them.

The insides of "Building Stories"

The conceit of Ware's "Building Stories" is that these various comics -- large and small, inside the boxed collection -- depict several overlapping lives, as all the featured characters occupy various levels of a three-story home. The slices of story can be read in any order, though there are events that clearly happen in sequence from book to book and pamphlet to pamphlet, so a near-chronological progression is relatively easy to piece together, if that's what you're interested in. I'm not much interested in the chronology as I am in the effect, and the amplification of the narrative with each successive chapter -- even out of order -- is magnificent.

Except for the stuff about the bees. That's less magnificent, but I can see what Ware's doing with the parallel "lives" of the bees around the building and the humorous counterpoint it provides. It's just less powerful than what happens inside the building, and inside the lives of the characters.

This -- like all Ware comics -- is a project about interiors. The characters may go outside, but what matters is what happens to them inside, and what they feel in their hearts and minds. These are not happy people, but they do engage with the world around them, and when they fail to, they're punished for it. The tragedy they face is proportional to their ability to see the walls they have put up around themselves. The building is not just a setting, it is a metaphor for their lives.

But of course it is. It's a Chris Ware comic. And though he's been mistaken for a heavy duty realist -- maybe by myself, in previous readings of his work -- he's more like a graphic-design-oriented Marcel Proust, navigating the poetry of consciousness in a hyper-stylized way.

"Building Stories" is worthy of the accolades it will continue to receive and the Best of the Year lists it will probably dominate. Pick up a copy, build a special shelf for it, enjoy its devastating beauty.

SEAN HOWE VS. THE MARVEL UNIVERSE

My patience for books about the history of comics is pretty thin. It's not that I don't find comics -- and the history around the creation and the creators -- endlessly fascinating, it's that the same stories tend to appear again and again. How many times can you read about that damned golf game between Martin Goodman and Jack Liebowitz? Every comic book history project brings up that incident, where Liebowitz told Goodman about this new "Justice League" thing they were cooking up and how that led to the birth of Marvel Comics as we know it.

Sean Howe "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" begins with that anecdote too, but it's merely the prologue for something much more interesting: a slightly gossipy, always engaging look at the creative and business side of Marvel Comics from the pre-Marvel days of World War II through the opening of the Avengers movie in 2012. It's not completely a "warts-and-all" biography of Marvel, but it's a lot closer to that than any of the hagiographies that have been released over the past couple of decades. And I wouldn't say that the majority of the stories are truly "untold," but some of the chapters will feature things you likely haven't heard before, and a lot of it has never been presented in quite this clear a fashion.

The arc of the book isn't as simple as the "Rise and Fall of Marvel" because the story of Marvel Comics doesn't fit that archetypal structure. Instead it's the story of a company that grew out of a mercenary need and was largely dominated by the personality of a single individual: Stan Lee. But Howe does not portray Stan Lee as any kind of heroic figure. Instead, his version of Lee is a salesman from the very beginning, more of a public relations mastermind than a hyperkinetic creative force. Yet Lee is still a central character throughout the book, even if his influence over the actual comic books ended almost 40 years ago. But as the public persona of Marvel, what Lee was doing throughout the decades, and how he felt about the comics at the time, keeps coming up as worthy of discussion.

Stan Lee and Spidey

Howe traces the business needs of Marvel and how that shaped its creative output. Unlike most tales of Marvel (or of Stan Lee or Jack Kirby or of comics in general), he doesn't spend a disproportionate amount of time detailing the heights of the Silver Age. That's just one part of the larger story, and he spends just as much time on the days of Englehart and Gerber and Starlin as he does on the "Secret Wars" of Jim Shooter or the ascendancy of the Image gang. He also presents a few lesser-reported accounts of major turning points for the company, like the original, but ultimately-scrapped plans for a Jim Shooter reboot of the Marvel Universe or the sequence of events that led to Joe Quesada's rise from artist-and-indie-publisher to Marvel Knights mastermind to Editor in Chief of a resurgent Marvel Comics.

Because Howe tells it all with matter-of-fact prose, an appropriate objective distance, but a clear passion for the events that transpired and the comics that emerged, the whole book is compulsively readable and entertaining throughout while also being substantial enough to feel like it's far more than just another comic book biography. Though it focuses on Marvel, it really does act as a commentary on the entire comic book industry, incisively targeting the cyclical nature of the machinery behind the product, and showing why the history of comics can sometimes feel like a hot dog factory that occasionally spits out something delicious.

Howe ends the book on a bit of a depressing note -- maybe Ware and Howe in one week would be too much to handle if they weren't both so good at what they do -- as the overarching story about individual creative forces vs. oppressive (and usually embarrassingly ignorant and short-sighted) business decisions leads to the era we currently find ourselves in and a rundown of "where are they now" doubles as a list of writers and artists who have been burned by Marvel and vow never to return.

But it's also a bit reassuring to read a book like "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story," look around at the industry today and see too many comics that don't look all that interesting or worthwhile and realize: "Oh, it's not just me. It's the shape of history."

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, marvel comics, chris ware, sean howe

When Words Collide Home | When Words Collide Archives

 
When Words Collide

Send This Article to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.