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Transcript: An interview with Chris Ware


Q: Is Jimmy Corrigan based on anyone you know?

A: I started doing him as a parody, a satire of the strips of the Great Depression -- I'm not good at creating things out of thin air. He was a pathetic version of myself. I was feeling extra sorry for myself after I moved from Austin to Chicago (to attend the Art Institute, from 1991-1993). I was in a new city, I was lonely. I missed the old comic strip I'd done in Austin. I'd had to do that strip every week and go to school. Studying for exams and doing a full page a week -- that was really hard. But without that deadline, I felt cast adrift.

Q: The book tells the stories of four generations of Corrigan men, with a focus on their often troubled or sad or lonely childhoods. What was your childhood like?

A: As a kid, I was, shall we say, not the favored one. I ate lunch by myself. I had some friends I talked to on the weekends -- but they wouldn't talk to me at school. The extreme eagerness I showed for friendship was off-putting, I guess. And I wasn't good at games -- I was about as physical as an inert gas. Dodge ball was the worst -- they'd just kill me with that ball.


Q: Did you have a nickname?

A: Oh, yes -- "Albino," because I was so pasty and pale.

Q: One memorable sequence in "Jimmy Corrigan" deals with a boy threatened by his classmates with an after-school beating. Did that ever happen to you?

A: Oh, kids were threatening to kill me all the time. It was mental torture. And I was so stupid: I'd just smile and try to be nice to them -- which was the one thing that antagonized them even more, that set them off.

Drawing was the only way I had of distinguishing myself, of trying to impress people -- impress people with my one pathetic ability. (rueful laugh) There's nothing less impressive than a scrawny kid with poofy hair, drawing superheroes.

Q: You write in the notes at the back of Jimmy Corrigan that the story is "semi-autobiographical." How "semi-"?

A: Nothing that happens in the book actually happened to me. But some of the circumstances were the same: Like Jimmy, I never knew my father. Over the years, I tried to envision him, to imagine him. I'd seen photographs of him, but they were years old -- I had no idea what he looked like. And then he called me up one day.

Q: How old were you when you finally met him?


A: Twenty-nine.

Q: Was he as you'd envisioned him? How did you get along?

A: I was probably a little hostile. There were so many regrets...

Q: Did you develop a relationship with him?

A: Not really. I didn't spend that much time with him. The few meetings we had, and the few times we talked on the phone -- I added it all up once, and it added up to just about five hours. In total, I knew my father for just about five hours.

Q: How does the book-length story of Jimmy Corrigan differ from your original "Jimmy Corrigan" strips?

A: The book corrects some horrible factual errors in some of the early strips. I revised the early strips quite a bit. I first drew Jimmy Corrigan in 1990 in Austin, but I started developing his story in 1993. It was like a tree, growing outwards.

Q: How do you set about writing and drawing a story? Do you first plan out a scene, its characters, and what the characters will say to each other , and then draw the pictures -- or do you create it all as you go?

A: I "see" what I'm going to draw as if it was events that actually happened to me -- as a memory. The sequences in Jimmy's father's apartment, for example -- I imagined the images as if I was in that apartment.

Q: You don't figure out the arc of a character's development in advance? Or sow clues early on that explain a character's actions or reactions later?

A: No, honestly, no. I never thought, as I was drawing this, "Oh, I need to show how he became that way." It just happened.

Q: Does that account for the frequent and sometimes abrupt shifts in time, from the story of Jimmy as a boy, to the story of Jimmy's grandfather as a boy, to the story of Jimmy's father as a boy?

A: I didn't want to get too bored. Comic strips let you flip back and forth in time, flip from one perspective to another, frame by frame.

Q: Several times in the story, you depict a character's dreams. What do you think dreams are -- memories? fantasies? wishes?

A: There are all these theories that dreams are a reassessment of information, in some way, or that they act as a clearinghouse for our hopes and fears. Are they ways of storing memories? Yes, I think they often are -- although it's as if there's some shut-off valve in our minds, as if we're not supposed to remember our dreams.

Q: There are several long sequences built around the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. What sparked your interested in that event?

A: In 1995, I broke both my legs -- I jumped from a balcony that was higher up than I'd thought, and I landed wrong. I ended up sitting in my apartment for weeks. I read a lot, and I read a lot of Chicago history. I thought the buildings put up for the fair, the buildings in Chicago at the turn of the century, were beautiful -- I remember looking at pictures of them again and again.

Modern buildings -- they mock people. They don't elevate them or inspire them -- they just contain them. Look at them -- we're surrounded by them. (indicates high rises in midtown outside Random House windows) There's no ornamentation or decoration. And we rip down all the beautiful old buildings, built by immigrant craftsmen who were paid pennies. I put them in my story so people would see that, and understand a bit of history.

Q: The style of many of your drawings, and of your lettering, seems to recall an earlier era.

A: I guess my graphic style does draw from the past. Turn-of-the century -- I prefer things from that era. The style then seemed to have more respect for the viewer. What was presented was something hand-made, something crafted with care and skill.

Q: Do you draw from memory? Do you draw from photographs, or actual objects or models?

A: All of those. I draw from photographs, especially historical ones. For the scenes in the book set in the small town in Michigan, I went to a small town that shall remain nameless in Wisconsin, and took my own photos as reference for the diner, the gas station, the burger place, the apartment complex.

Q: Your drawings are so small -- almost miniaturized.

A: I don't actually draw them that small -- the original drawings are about double the size you see in the book. But I have them reduced to a very small image. Making the images small helps draw the reader in. Smaller makes for a more compact world. A little magical world ...

Q: As small as your drawings are, they are very precise and detailed -- yet elegant, in the mathematic sense: They have no unnecessary properties.

A: The more specific you get with comics, the more vulgar you get. My representations are the ideas of a scene. The pictures are ideograms -- drawn words, if that makes any sense. The pictures tell the story -- I'm a terrible writer.

Q: Many of your readers would disagree -- they find your writing lyrical, poetic. Do you read poetry at all?

A: No -- I'm a complete rube. I tried so hard to read poetry, and I just couldn't. Strange that I couldn't, because comics are the visual equivalent of poetry: You're using imagery, in a limited space.

Q: Many of your fans also praise the rhythm, the pacing of your stories.

A: The pacing is important. When you read a sequence of pictures, something happens in your mind: If you read it closely, you'll hear it. I'll draw a page, then read it, then re-read it, to see if the pacing is right. Chopping a scene up into more pieces can alter the pacing. Drawing a larger panel after a series of smaller panels can create a long note. Where you place the dialogue balloons -- that controls the pacing. Telling a story in this form is one of the most complicated things you can do on paper.

Q: What role does your choice of color play in the pacing or the mood of your story? You don't use the bright, primary colors usually found in comic books.

A: I wanted every page to have an emotional warmth to it -- and warmth from the color, not the expressivity of the line, necessarily.

Q: And what about your use of written sound effects -- the "tss" of bacon frying in a skillet, the "flp flp" of a bird wing, or Jimmy's nervous little "koff"?

A: That "koff" -- that's what people do. And they communicate a lot with a nervous cough or a sniffle. The indications of sound -- it adds life to a character, to what is just there, flat, on a page.

Q: A poll of those waiting in line at your recent book-signing in Manhattan revealed that 90 percent of them were graphic artists or illustrators, and most of the remaining 10 percent were film students. Several of the film students praised the "cinematic" aspects of your drawing and your scenes -saw your pages as highly literate storyboards.

A: I don't like to think of my work as "cinematic." A movie is passive -- you're watching it, taking it in. Where a comic strip, it's completely active: you have to read it, search it for meaning, for the connection with your entire experience and your memory. Yes, you do have the illusion of watching something happen in a comic strip -- but if it's done well, it comes alive on the page like a novel. A novel is the most interactive thing ever created.

Q: The book is billed as "a new humorous fiction" -- but many readers find it more tragic than humorous. Is this more of a tragicomic book than a comic book?

A: When I started trying to do comics that weren't self-conscious garbage, I wanted to make something that was empathetic. Something that is humorous can divert the reader, but something that is tragic is empathetic. I wanted to do both. Some people have said that they don't find Jimmy comic enough for the (comic book) genre ... although the idea of anyone doing anything that's "within a genre" -- that's defined before you start -- why would anyone want to do that?

I just want to be as emotionally honest as possible. I don't mean the story to be pessimistic. But it upsets me to see stories that are nothing but happy people, with happy things happening. Life isn't like that. Overall, I've had a happy life, but unhappy things have happened in it.

Q: Do you have a 'target' reader or audience?

A: I would never write for anyone, no. As soon as you become aware of an audience, you might as well give up.

Q: Have you been approached by any television or movie studios about an animation version of Jimmy Corrigan?

A: Yes, there's been interest. But I can't imagine not doing all the work on it myself. I'd have to really come to hate it first, before I could turn it over to anyone else.

Q: What's next for you?

A: I'm working on a theme park right now, based on Jimmy Corrigan, geared to 12-year-olds ... Seriously, I'm working on a new serialized story, set in the '70s, about the childhood of a boy named Rusty Brown who will grow up to be a toy collector.

Q: Are you yourself a collector?

A: Oh, yeah -- I collect old sheet music, old instruments -- especially banjos, phonographic cylinders, old comic strips, toys. And old photo albums -- I find them in thrift shops and junk shops, and I think to myself, Why would anyone do that? Throw something this fantastic away? My grandmother's albums were some of my favorite things when I was growing up. My grandmother -- Clara Louise Ware, known as "Weece"... I used to marvel, watching her write out a check at the grocery store in this elegant handwriting. She used to say that "a messy signature shows carelessness and arrogance."

Q: The last page of Jimmy Corrigan says "The End." Is this the end of Jimmy Corrigan for you?

A: Yes! I'll never draw him again. At least, that's how I feel right now.


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