Books + Comics

Work Hard and Be Kind: An Interview With Chris Ware

We talk to the cartoonist about substance abuse, storytelling, and the reality of dreams.

Self-portrait by Chris Ware, including his teenage, “version 2.0 ‘stoner’ self.”

Thanks to this wonderful piece a reader sent us that went up just the other day, I don’t really need to tell you who Chris Ware is. I will say, however, that if I could ask all humans to read just one thing, it would be any of his books. They’re not quite comic books or graphic novels; he’s almost created his own medium. Sometimes his books have pages of satirical advertisements drawn by him. Sometimes there’s no dialogue throughout an entire spread. Some panels look like complicated mazes but flow like streams of consciousness. The same characters pop up in different stories, the most overlooked details of everyday life get the most attention, and I always come away from it all feeling more connected to any person I may pass on the street and with a strong desire to create something of my own. That is, I believe, the best a person taking in a thing another person made can hope for.

Chris very generously answered, over email, my questions about his new book, being a teenager, and the reality of dreams.


TAVI: What were you like as a teenager?

CHRIS WARE: That’s a complicated question, since I think I mutated every three months or so, but a general string of adjectives might be: insufferable, desperate, scrawny, bad-skinned, triangulating, self-doubting, self-conscious, crude, and unappealing. I spent a lot of time watching television and following a program of musical taste that one of my friends unintentionally curated for me (i.e., I copied everything he liked), and I tried to make my naturally buoyant hair look longer by straightening it with a hairdryer. I attended private school until 10th grade in Omaha, Nebraska, where I wore a “formal uniform” which I modified to express my true self via footwear or digital watches that weren’t officially sanctioned by the Episcopalians. I was terminally unathletic and terrified at the thought that I might one day have to remove my shirt in public. To make up for this perceived deficiency, I stupidly got into various experimental substances, a period which ended in a moment of self-realization after buying said substances while driving my grandmother’s Oldsmobile Toronado—probably the dumbest, most shameful moment of my life—when I found myself thinking, What if I’d gotten arrested? What would that have said about me, about her, and about my mother, who tried to raise me right? Fortunately, I abandoned that particular path of inquiry.

What were your biggest influences at that time?

Because of this brief substances-experimenting I became “interested” in the idea of the 1960s (or whatever “the idea of the 1960s” meant to a Midwestern middle-class kid in the 1980s) and ended up buying a lot of so-called underground comics at head shops and out of the back room of the local comic book store from which I’d bought superhero comics as a middle-schooler. It was there, while hoping to find pornography, that I discovered RAW magazine, Robert Crumb, and Harvey Pekar, and somehow through the example of these and other artists like Gary Panter and Charles Burns came to the conclusion that the only thing I had any remote proclivity for—drawing—might possibly be employed in creating comics, which to me seemed like an untapped, slightly edgy world of expressive possibility and genuine honesty, and maybe even a way of meeting girls. (It wasn’t.) In the 1980s, popular culture was so mired in falseness and compromise that comics seemed (and still seem to me, actually) an unpretentious potential vessel for solitary authenticity. It was Robert Crumb who amazed me first artistically, Harvey Pekar who made me realize that regular life itself could be written about, and Art Spiegelman who provided the first (and still the finest) example of how it all might be synthesized into a thoughtful, readable artistic medium.

When I saw you speak last month at Unity Temple in Oak Park, someone asked you what the ACT of drawing FEELS like, and you said it was just horrible. I also read somewhere that you can’t look at any of your books because you’d notice only what’s wrong with them. There’s a page in The Acme Novelty Library with tips about being a cartoonist that make it sound miserable. If neither the process nor the product are satisfying to you, what drives you?

I don’t know. I guess I’m motivated by actually finishing something—something that I know I’ve tried my absolute hardest at and have put every bit of myself into—while the tolerability of the actual creative experience remains a distant concern. There are also those rare moments while writing and drawing where something comes up completely unexpectedly on the page—like a gesture or a facial expression on a character—which suddenly reveals something about the story or the person I simply never would have thought of just sitting around thinking. In the best of these instances, I might also realize I’ve been lying to myself about some part of my own personality for years, and that consequently there’s something I need to change.

What advice would you give to someone who is in the early stages of that and possibly struggling?

To work as hard as possible, and then, when you think you’re done, to work just a little bit harder. To know that if it feels “right” it may actually be completely wrong, and that if it feels “wrong” it may be completely right. There’s no governing principle to any of this except that strange instinct and feeling within yourself that you simply have to learn to trust, but which is always unreliably changing. To create something for people who have not been born yet. To pay attention to how it actually feels to be alive, to the lies you tell yourself and others. Not to overreach—but also not to get too comfortable with your own work. To avoid giving in to either self-doubt or self-confidence, depending on your leaning, and especially to resist giving over your opinion of yourself to others—which means not to seek fame or recognition, which can restrain rather than open your possibility for artistic development. With all this in mind, not to expect anything and to be grateful for any true, non-exploitative opportunity that presents itself, however modest. And to understand that being able to say “I don’t know what to do with my life” is an incredible privilege that 99% of the rest of the world will never enjoy.

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23 Comments

  • purrr November 29th, 2012 3:31 PM

    “I consider my drawing, for better or worse, to be a way of showing things translucently, the way typography is transparent on a page—intended to be read, but not really completely seen.”

    This is a really useful idea – I mean I’ve always been aware of the IDEA, but I think the wording is magical – a lot of kids around me don’t “get” art, and it’s like they’re trying to read a book, but instead of reading it, they stare at the squiggly lines.

    Ahhh that is actually pretty much a life saviour-line in explaining art to people. thank you so much.

    http://sanctifiedyouth.blogspot.cpm/

    • cartespostales November 29th, 2012 5:29 PM

      There is a book (published 1955) by Beatrice Warde on this Subject, it is called “The crystal goblet. Sixteen essays on typography” and there she describes the crystal goblet as a metaphor for “good” typography. It should be beautiful but beautiful in the way that it accentuates its content and not itself. Here’s a link to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crystal_Goblet, in case you’re interested

  • Mary the freak November 29th, 2012 3:32 PM

    an interview with Chris Ware. Rookie, I love you. And his books.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • spudzine November 29th, 2012 4:03 PM

    Thank you, Rookie, for an interview with a genius.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com

  • cj575 November 29th, 2012 4:12 PM

    AND THEN YOU INTERVIEWED HIM!! awesome!!

  • Dylan November 29th, 2012 4:22 PM

    Wow the last answer wow

  • Amy Rose November 29th, 2012 4:57 PM

    “To understand that being able to say “I don’t know what to do with my life” is an incredible privilege that 99% of the rest of the world will never enjoy” just absolutely tore at me in the best possible way.

    • Dylan November 29th, 2012 7:54 PM

      YES like I don’t even have the words

  • aberina1221 November 29th, 2012 5:02 PM

    “And to understand that being able to say “I don’t know what to do with my life” is an incredible privilege that 99% of the rest of the world will never enjoy.”

    SO TRUE. This is something I say to myself daily, thinking how hard life is.. never realizing that I am incredibly lucky that I have a choice and that I am in charge of my own destiny. Thanks Chris Ware! Also, you are amazing.

  • cartespostales November 29th, 2012 5:26 PM

    I’m going to look for books by Chris Ware now, I really liked his answers in the interview, especially the one about the transparency.

  • Abby November 29th, 2012 6:40 PM

    Wow. Just… wow. I LOVED the last answer… it makes me proud to be part of “the youth today.” I always hate how adults always dump on teens like we’re all lazy drug addicts who are getting pregnant all over the place. There ARE good young people out there, and Chris Ware, I LOVE YOU for seeing that. Thank you. Also, I REALLY want to read your stuff now… I was never into comics, but it sounds so GOOODDD…

    ANYWAY, AMAZING article, and AMAZING person!!!

  • Terra November 29th, 2012 7:10 PM

    Tavi, you have such an amazing ability to speak the language of the people you interview.
    Again, awesome work. Thank you for helping to expose all of these wonderful people to us. (:

  • mickeyscandystore November 29th, 2012 7:13 PM

    I just discovered Chris Ware’s breathtaking graphic novels thanks to you guys and now you interviewed him! AH, thanks so much!!! I really wanted to know more about him.

  • Serena.K November 29th, 2012 8:02 PM

    Wow.

  • sophiethewitch November 29th, 2012 8:18 PM

    Chris Ware: This generation seems to be doing great.
    Me: OHMYGAWD CHRIS WARE GAVE *ME* A COMPLIMENT HE THINKS I’M A GOOD PERSON OBVIOUSLY THAT WAS INTENDED SPECIFICALLY FOR *ME* OHMYGAWD!!!!!

  • 062131 November 29th, 2012 8:25 PM

    Sometimes I don’t want to comment because it’ll be just another positive comment that won’t add anything to any discussion, but hey, you guys deserve it. Good job.
    Thanks Tavi/Rookie for asking interesting things and thanks Chris Ware for answering very interesting things.
    (Is anyone not feeling super AW YEAH after that last answer??)

  • Arabelle November 30th, 2012 8:14 AM

    This is definitely one of my favorite moments in Rookie-dom. What a kind soul.

  • starrinightx November 30th, 2012 11:53 AM

    WOW THANK YOU ROOKIE AND CHRIS WARE. I’ve been reading Rookie for what feels like a very long time and this is the first time I feel moved to comment because it’s so beautiful. To be reminded about what an incredible privilege it is to be able to choose what to do with our lives, and to…I don’t know. It’s the first time I’ve come across an adult who has expressed such belief in our generation, and though I’m not from America I feel it applies and I feel empowered. :)

  • joenjwang November 30th, 2012 1:06 PM

    CPS graduate, represent!
    I love how Mr. Ware articulated our youth today. I’m tired of adults decrying “our generation” or the culture of today. I sincerely believe there is legitimate HOPE in our world and that civilization is not “over” (eye roll to a generalized group of vague people who berate youth, lol.)
    A tangent: I also dislike how people berate CPS and the “south side” etc. People are severely ignorant and unfair when they criticize the STUDENTS (for being from the “ghetto”, for being “stupid” compared to suburban schools). grah, I wont rant.
    Thank you for this interview!

  • kirjoittaakrime November 30th, 2012 2:52 PM

    Provoking, relative questions! An honest, powerful and optimistic piece. MERCI!

  • peter-s December 3rd, 2012 9:33 AM

    “Do you ever dream about any of your characters? . . . Do you ever dream in the style of your drawings?”

    These may be the two best questions I have ever read in a Chris Ware interview — or perhaps in any interview with a cartoonist. They produced one of those perfect “That’s EXACTLY what I was hoping you’d ask, but didn’t realize it till you asked it” moments.

    I was at the Unity Temple talk too (and even posed the “how does it feel to draw” question). I’ve sometimes come to think that we’ve exhausted all there is to ask of Chris Ware — and exhausted the artist himself in the process.

    But your thoughtful, living conversation proved those fears unfounded many times over. Thanks for a terrific article.

    P

  • wendygee February 12th, 2013 12:18 AM

    bless this mess!
    I’d so always heard of this here blog, but, eff that. What an intelligent, good grief, BRILLIANT interview with Chris Ware. His books (latest espesh) knock my socks off. I’m an ex-NYer/magaziner/Sassy/Bustist (not really) but very much old enough to…know better. In a position to say: GO FOr it, kid (natch: you already have). I’m delighted you’re turning your pals onto the likes of Chris Ware. I’m still super arrested, development-wise, but shall try to follow your blog stash. You need to get a nitch-shay for old ladies (but maybe you already do). OOOh, am just tickled to have found this CWare interview. Pretty sure I saw you on the Colbert Report (?) maybe, too? go nuts

    I know I did. Long time ago.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica April 27th, 2013 10:21 AM

    Deep and moving and beautiful and perfect.