‘A Book Is the Perfect Metaphor for a Human Being’: Watch Chris Ware Explain the Meaning of His Famed Art Comics

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" episode, "Chicago," 2016. © Art21, Inc. 2016.

From June through October this year, the Bibliothèque publique d’information (Bpi) at the Centre Pompidou is honoring American comic artist and author Chris Ware with a retrospective exhibition devoted to his inventive graphic novels and illustrations, which upend conventional storytelling techniques and focus on the inner lives of protagonists.

Based in the Oak Park neighborhood of Chicago, Ware’s stories are often set there too. Details from his own everyday encounters blend seamlessly into works like Jimmy Corrigan (2000) and Rusty Brown (2020). In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of the Art in the Twenty-First Century series, Ware explains the laborious process of making his intricate works.

A general view of atmosphere with the work of cartoonist Chris Ware during Summer Exhibitions Previews At Centre Pompidou on June 7, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Foc Kan/WireImage)

“Generally each page takes around 40 hours,” he explains. Though many of the books are two or three hundred pages, he continues, “every strip, all the lettering that you see is all a product of my hand.”

First, the artist lays out the illustrations on a large piece of board, which he draws on with a blue pencil, before tracing his work in black ink and layering on colors. “When I’m composing my pages, the way that the individual panels line up and inform each other is extemporaneous,” Ware details. “But there are always things that happen on the page that actually add meaning to the overall structure of the story.”

Ware’s approach to structure is novel, too. His 2012 work Building Stories—which took 10 years to complete—consists of 14 printed works including cloth-bound sections, newspapers, pamphlets, and flip books. Readers can start and stop the book from any of the individual sections, so that each experience is unique, and the reader has a sense of ownership of the story arc they choose to follow.

“A book itself is the perfect metaphor for a human being. It’s got a front and a back,” Ware says. “It’s got a spine, and it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “Chris Ware” is on view at the Bibliothèque publique d’information at the Centre Pompidou from June 8 to October 10, 2022

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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