Reading: Daniel Raeburn on Chris Ware (part one)


The image above is a detail of one of the images that initiated this project. It is the third instalment in a series of cartoon strips by the American artist Chris Ware that will eventually chronicle a single day – hour by hour – in a Chicago apartment building, to be published under the title Building Stories (currently being serialised in the Independent on Sunday). In introductory panel, Ware has removed the elevations and roof of the building to reveal its interior, showing the occupants, furniture and discarded socks within. The structure and internal divisions of a domestic building provide the initial framework to a story that will involve the inhabitants of the building, reminiscent of both a dolls’ house and Georges Perec‘s use of an apartment building to connect the disparate lives and stories of its inhabitants in Life, A Users Manual.

This study takes a particular interest in Ware’s comics, graphic novels and artwork. Ware’s work has been phenomenally successful and has been widely discussed in both the specialist and mainstream media, most notably after winning the 2001 Guardian First Book Award for Jimmy Corrigan. His precise drawings and close study of typography and graphic design has created an instantly recognisable style of graphic art that develops comics from sequential images with speech bubbles to a more coherent and complex art form.

“The basic idea of comics is just slapping word balloons on top of drawings,” Ware says. “That is so boneheaded.”

Daniel Raeburn, Chris Ware (Monographics)
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 10

An early concern I had with this dissertation was that it would be easy to be sidetracked by engaging comics and graphic novels that featured idosyncratic representations of buildings, but which did not adequately further the development of a discourse between comics and architecture. Ware has already stated some of his thoughts on the use of architecture in comics however, and Building Stories is already a stimulating development of a cross-over between the structure of sequential art forms and architecture.

Ware compensates for the page breaks in the composition by deliberately placing recurring images and visual motifs in an identical location on their page spread, visually linking parallel emotions and events in the lives of the Corrigan men … to nudge the memory and help the reader see more of the book at once. This points out what we might call the architecture of comics.

Daniel Raeburn, Chris Ware (Monographics)
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 25 (my emphasis)

Ware has been employing ‘architectural’ techniques in his work for many years now; Building Stories is merely the most convenient opportunity for us to draw direct parallels between his aesthetic techniques and those of an architect. Many architects are, for instance, familiar with the strategy of repeating elements to help navigation or to encourage observation, for example by using the same material or circulatory structure to guide people through a building.

Ware subsequently draws a important parallel between comics and music. A comic strip might be made up by a series of images, but through the participatory act of reading them, the reader brings a story to life by introducing an element of time to a knowingly constructed narrative.

“What you do with comics, essentially, is take pieces of experience and freeze them in time,” Ware says. “The moments are inert, lying there on the page in the same way that sheet music lies on the printed page. In music you breathe life into the composition by playing it. In comics you make the strip come alive by reading it, by experiencing it beat by beat as you would playing music…”

Daniel Raeburn, Chris Ware (Monographics)
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 25

Raeburn concludes the introduction to his study of Ware with an observation of a note made by Ware in one of his sketchbooks. Quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

…[Ware] copied “ARCHITECTURE IS FROZEN MUSIC.” Beneath it he scrawled, “This is, I think, the aesthetic key to the development of cartoons as an art form.”

Daniel Raeburn, Chris Ware (Monographics)
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 26

My personal fascination with comics, graphic novels and other forms of sequential art lie close to this analogy. The very act of picking up a comic and reading it, interpreting the words and the pictures (itself an act that varies from artist to artist) transforms the fixed ink marks on a page into a living story that occupies time and which employs a narrative to flow through it. One might argue that cinema or video art incorporate time into their works, but of course the control of the passage of that time remains in the hands of the artist. Comic book artists have both the gift of being able to lay down a rhythm of time through the structure of the page and the individual panels, and the open ended opportunity to allow each reader to find their own tempo in the beats that are presented.

Many of Ware’s cartoons employ ‘silent’ sequences, when characters who inhabit a scene make no ‘sounds’ or engage in no dialogue. This sophisticated skill of being able to present a period of time in a comic book that passes in silence demands a closer investigation. The analogy between architecture and comics certainly cannot be limited to one direction only: if comic artists can structure their pages to present both a space and a time, how can architects look to comics to more actively present their buildings?



  1. 1 Reading: Daniel Raeburn on Chris Ware (part two) « “no words no action”

    […] on which the city-centre sits, I ended up at Café Brant near Marc-Bloch University to revisit my earlier post on the introductory chapter of Daniel Raeburn’s book on Chris Ware. That post ended with the […]

  2. 2 Reading: Gary Groth interviews Chris Ware (part one) « “no words no action”

    […] people, places, emotions. Ware has already made his thoughts clear on the use of words in comics (see this earlier post), so we interpret these symbols to mean words, pictures and any other visual device that he employs […]

  3. 3 from the Comix Scholars Discussion List « “no words no action”

    […] […]

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    "no words no action" was an experiment in academic blogging. The blog recorded the progress of reading, research and investigations that lead to a Masters in Architecture dissertation at the University of Sheffield in autumn 2007. You can find out more about the author's interest in blogging here.

    To find out more about the thesis, download the original dissertation proposal (pdf format) from February 2007 or the semi-formal first chapter (pdf format) from April 2007.

    Further research projects are in the works, and their dependence on human interaction and networking suggests more blogging will be inevitable when the time comes.


    At the time that this blog was created, James Benedict Brown was a fifth year Masters of Architecture student at the University of Sheffield. James' personal blog is here.

    James graduated in 2008 and now lives and works in Glasgow.


    This project was supervised by Renata Tyszczuk at the University of Sheffield


    If you want to correct me on something, offer an opinion on a particular artist or building, or if you'd like to recommend someone or something to find out about, please feel free to leave a comment. Just click on 'Comments' under the headline of the relevant post...


    Click here to browse James' bookshelf, and to purchase books being used in this project.


    I've managed to miss almost half a dozen compelling conferences around the world so far this year, simply because I have no (more) money to travel and no time to escape my studies in Strasbourg and Sheffield. However, if I had a magic plane ticket and plenty of time, here's my selection of essential conferences to attend. Hopefully I'll be there for more of them next year... click here for the diary (updated every time I miss another one).

  • NOTE

    All images are used for illustrative purposes only, and the copyright remains with the artist and/or creator. Please contact me if I have misappropriated an image or incorrectly credited it. Thanks... JBB


    Creative Commons License
    The content of this blog is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

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