Chris Ware, by Daniel Raeburn

Chris Ware - By Daniel Raeburn. Yale University Press, 112 pp, $28, softcover.

At its best, the work of Chicago-based cartoonist Chris Ware intersects visual art and storytelling in such a seamless fashion that the reader is immersed in the narrative in the same way that one can become absorbed by a particularly compelling film. Ware is a brilliant enough illustrator to have won just about every award the comic-book world has to offer, but his graphic-design skills are ever employed in aid of his stories, which show the same spark of genius. Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000), a depiction of a man's first meeting with his estranged father, earned him the Guardian First Book Award, which marked the only time that prize has gone to a graphic novel. As comics pundit Daniel Raeburn, author of this monograph about Ware's work, notes in his 19-page essay titled "Building a Language" (the rest of the book comprises reproductions of Ware's work with commentary by Raeburn): "This was the first time that a comic book was officially judged on an even playing field against literature and found superior."

The 37-year-old Ware is unquestionably a writer as well as a designer, but Raeburn argues that "it is fair to say that Ware's chosen art also requires him to be a casting agent, wardrobe artist, set designer, and actor. In short, Ware has to work like a theatre director." Interviewed in 2003 by Raeburn, the artist notes that his aim is to develop a visual vocabulary that can be scanned just as readily as any written language. He has stretched the conventions of the comic book, taking inspiration from disparate, and sometimes unlikely, sources such as 1920s newspaper strips, ragtime music, Sears catalogues, and the architecture of 19th-century American master Louis Sullivan. Ware often tells stories entirely through drawings, but, as a master calligrapher, he has also imbued his words with shades of meaning through judicious variations in colour, size, and typeface. His use of the visual language he is developing is sometimes dizzyingly complex, reading like so many immaculately composed hieroglyphs. At its most elegant, however, it conveys, in a truly moving way, the basic human emotions that are at the heart of Ware's work. "I rarely ever did a comic just for the sake of experimentation," he tells Raeburn. "Even when I did, I was always trying to get at some kind of feeling."