By Jesse Coburn
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Most people hate public speaking, graphic novelist Chris Ware among them. “I have to apologize,” he told an audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on Tuesday night. “I find that if I don’t apologize then it’ll be just more painful, and I’ll say even more embarrassing things that I regret.”
But Ware had little to be sorry for. The celebrated cartoonist’s self-deprecating humor was never in short supply at the event, the most recent installment of BAM’s Eat, Drink & Be Literary series. But Ware interspersed those self-directed barbs with profound insights on art, storytelling and everyday human experience.
According to Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review, who moderated the event, it’s the sheer ordinariness of the stories that fills Ware’s richly illustrated works that makes them so relatable. “I don’t think there’s anyone better than Chris at capturing the texture of our everyday lives,” Stein said.
Ware’s work may trade in the commonplace, but it’s certainly not simplistic. His award-winning graphic novels like “Building Stories” (2012) and “Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth” (2000) consist of intricate and colorful illustrations that the cartoonist completes painstakingly by hand. The pages eschew traditional comic templates, often including dozens of panels of varying sizes that only sometimes proceed chronologically.
Ware compared his meticulous drawing process to architecture. Creativity only factors into one stage of his work, he said, while most of his time is spent on mechanical tasks like outlining his initial pencil drawings in black ink and then coloring them. “It is painful,” Ware said. “I think any sort of creative work is painful.”
Stein wasn’t surprised to hear this. “There’s a lot of painful material in all of your work,” he said. Indeed, Ware’s comics are somber and poignant as often as they are funny. His stories catalog the complicated relationships and fraught interior lives that most every reader can identify with.
The cartoonist said he draws heavily on his own memories in making his work. In this way, according to Ware, cartooning is similar to archeology — the “digging of one’s own visual memory,” as he put it. “Before you know it,” he said, “you’re drawing the corner of a room that you haven’t thought about in a certain number of years.”
Perhaps this is why Ware’s work feels so intimate and engaging to readers. And fostering empathy is exactly what Ware says he’s aiming for. “I just want to make something that’s as good as [I possibly] can,” he said, “and hopefully communicate some emotion of life as I’ve experienced it to a reader.”
Judging by the rapt attention of the audience at BAM on Tuesday night, Ware’s efforts to reach his readers have been a success.