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.

So many of your stories—as you pointed out at that speaking event—are about people whose dreams have gone unrealized, or who are maybe creative but not necessarily talented, or who just never went after what they wanted, and now it’s too late, and they carry with them a sadness about it. From where I stand, as an admirer of your work/a person who has seen only positive reviews of your last book (and all of your books) in prestigious publications, I would say you have found success in a creative field. What part of you consistently writes the story of someone who hasn’t?

I feel extraordinarily lucky for any so-called success I’ve enjoyed, and I’m deeply grateful for every single kind word and generous sentiment I’ve received. It’s a far cry from what I experienced as a kid, and not what I ever expected my adult life would bring, though I’m sure whatever counts as drive within me was forged in that crucible of self-doubt and fear-of-being-jumped-in-the-hallway I endured in my early adolescence. Beyond that, I believe that everyone has within them some urge to create something—whether it’s a story, a picture, a song, or a child—but for one reason or another many of us simply aren’t lucky enough to be able to. [That drive] comes of trying to understand and to feel and to empathize; it’s the reason we have language and, in turn, art.

But to answer your question more directly: I went to art school, and while I did intend to write and draw comics, I also thought maybe I could be a more traditional fine artist—a painter or a sculptor or whatever. I didn’t, and while in most ways I’m grateful for the directness and artistic freedom comics provides, sometimes I still feel as if I “gave up” on something.

Normally your books are quite carefully put together, and reading them can be like solving a maze—the order and arrangement of the panels is very purposeful and important. Your new book, Building Stories, is a box of books and pamphlets and broadsides and the like, but you’ve set no guidelines for where to start or finish. Why?

I wanted to make a book that had no beginning or end, and, despite the incredible pretentiousness of how that sounds, to try and get at the three-dimensionality of memories and stories—how we’re able to tell them starting at this or that point depending on the circumstance, and to take them apart and put them back together, whether to actually try and make sense of our lives or simply to tell reassuring lies to ourselves. I also wanted to make a book that seemed fun to read, and the idea of a box of nonthreatening booklets has always appealed to me. Also, I had a dream about exactly such an object.

There’s a quotation from Picasso on the inside cover of Building Stories: “Everything you can imagine is real.” You said at Unity Temple that you can remember stories your grandmother told you and how they looked in your head more vividly than some events that actually occurred in your own life. There’s that part in one of the booklets where one of the characters dreams that she finds an amazing book she wrote, and even though it only ever existed in her subconscious, it confirmed for her that she had that potential in her. I’d never considered giving so much validity to a reality that’s so personal and in-your-head and fictionalized, and I found it very comforting. So, how did you figure that out on your own—that something that exists only in your mind could have a valid enough reality to be a comfort?

Well, really, our memories are all we have, and even those we think of as “real” are made up. Art can condense experience into something greater than reality, and it can also give us permission to do or think certain things that otherwise we’ve avoided or felt ashamed of. The imagination is where reality lives; it’s the instant lie of backwash from the prow of that boat that we think of as cutting the present moment, everything following it becoming less and less “factual” but no less real than what we think of as having actually occurred.

Do you ever dream about any of your characters?

I do. Some of them have come to me fully formed, very vividly, in the same way that I can only really feel the presence of people who have died in my dreams. Sometimes I think [dreams are] how we sort through all of the day’s new data and file it as ideas within the story-like structure of how we imagine and remember our lives.

Do you ever dream in the style of your drawings?

No—the way I draw is intended to be completely transparent, though maybe I’m the only person who sees it that way. 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.

What would you like to tell the young, impressionable minds reading Rookie?

Well, that life is a lot more serious and shorter than it seems like it will be. And that you can easily waste it. And that happiness is overrated. Be kind. This said—and I can’t talk about the rest of the world—but I’d say that you’re a member of the first generation of modern Americans whom I consider genuine, ready-made citizens. And by that I mean America has essentially exited its protracted national adolescence (approximately the 1920s through the 1980s, with the 1960s being the apex and the baby-boomer presidencies of Clinton and Bush as the hangover) and as a nation we’re at something of a deciding moment of anxious self-awareness, both as to where we’ve been drawing our resources, and from what and how we’ve been weaving our moral fabric.

I’m not blowing smoke here, but I’m overall quite impressed by the seriousness, intelligence, and maturity of the generation half my age, both on the larger scale of considering social issues without the giddy recklessness of the 1960s all the way down to the way I’ve seen children and teens treat each other one-on-one. My wife is a high school teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and she regularly comes home with stories of kindness and empathy on the part of her students that I find absolutely unfamiliar to my own teen experience, which was marred by self-preservation, meanness and insobriety. There appears to be a certain clearheadedness and sense-of-place-in-the-worldedness with “the youth today” that wasn’t prevalent when I was a kid or a teen. I think there’s a sense of direness or a certain kind of embarrassment if not plain disgust at the foolish reluctance my generation and my parents’ generation might have enjoyed which you all seem to have refreshingly no time for at all, while also seeming to know how to have a fine time yet to know the relative value of fun versus what makes life important. In short, I think you’re doing great, and I’m impressed, if not a little envious. ♦


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  • 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.


    • 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:, 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.

  • spudzine November 29th, 2012 4:03 PM

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

  • cj575 November 29th, 2012 4:12 PM


  • 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


  • sophiethewitch November 29th, 2012 8:18 PM

    Chris Ware: This generation seems to be doing great.

  • 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.


  • 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.