Building Stories - the introduction

The US cartoonist Chris Ware has done more than anyone to change the modern perception of comic books. His semi-autobiographical 'Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth' won literary prizes and acclaim far beyond the medium's usual circles. Over the next 24 weeks in The Independent on Sunday, The Sunday Review magazine will present an advance preview of his latest work, but first, allow him to apologise for inflicting it on us
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The editors of The Independent on Sunday have asked me to say a few words of introduction about this strip, probably as a way of getting them off the hook when the angry letters and cancelled subscriptions start pouring in as it unfolds over the next few weeks. While I've learned that it's not always the wisest decision to discuss artistic or literary efforts before they are unleashed, I'm willing to forego this rule here if for no other reason than it might save The Independent's legal and correspondence departments some unnecessary grievance and aggravation.

The three strips that follow introduce a 24-part story which is itself a chapter of a larger story which I've been writing and drawing (or, more properly, cartooning) for the past five years, all to be eventually collected as a so-called graphic novel sometime in the dim future by Jonathan Cape. The book follows the inhabitants of a three-flat Chicago apartment building: a 30-year-old woman who has yet to find someone with whom to spend the rest of her life; a couple (possibly married) who wonder if they can bear each other's company for another minute; and finally, an elderly woman who never married and is the building's landlady. The pages to follow in the upcoming weeks will each collect particular events in the life of this building and its tenants for one hour out of a day (23 September, 2000) as it passes from midnight to midnight. (Sticklers for accuracy are welcome to investigate Midwestern weather and American news reports for the 24th to see if, by proxy, my more quotidian reportage is to be trusted.)

The idea of serialised fiction in periodicals is by no means new, your literature-shaping and deadline-crushed countryman Charles Dickens being probably the best and most successful example. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy also mailed out their stories piecemeal, though in the modern era it's the comic strip form of storytelling that's most often taken in both weekly and daily doses. (It's probably immaterial to mention here that such cartoon serialisation gave rise to both the radio and television sitcom, but I'll do it anyway.) In America, newspaper comics have become pretty watered down, aimed at a level of literacy that I'm sometimes not even sure is detectable, but in the United Kingdom, the success of Posy Simmonds' Gemma Bovary in the Guardian has demonstrated that comics are a viable means of presenting something a little more subtle. And while I am not aware of Raymond Briggs' serialising any of his own work, I do want to mention that his memoir, Ethel and Ernest, stands in my mind as one of the most moving examples of what comics in the gentle hands of a master are capable.

Most art forms don't require an explanation or justification every time some new composition appears (imagine, for instance, having to sit through a brief history of film-making every time one went to the cinema) but for some reason comics are still "emerging" as a viable art form in their own right, free from the constraints of commercialism and genre, and so sometimes confuse the reader if they don't fulfil some previous stereotype of content. Though I can't claim that the story which will follow over the next few months is a representative or even good example of advancing an experimental or artistic criterion, I can at least say that no one told me what to write and that I followed my own impulses and instincts while working on it, much in the same way that real artists and writers do. Thus, I should also offer my apologies, as I am solely to be blamed for it all, and, as a corollary, wish to remind the frustrated reader that newspapers can be used not only for reading, but also conveniently for wrapping fish or mopping spills - or, more readily, simply crumpled up and thrown away.

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