More Songs About Buildings and Food

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Stop the presses! Sorry to disappoint  all my fans but this post is actually not going to be about genealogy or local history. Not that I won’t try to make a connection anyway. After working in the Local & Family History Services department for a few years my pop-cultural insights tend to get colored by my time here. Dragons, wizards, epic battles against a menagerie of mythic creatures, pffft, I was on an epic genealogical quest with Eddard Stark while reading Game of Thrones, marveling at how everybody in the story seems to know their entire lineage while also cringing at the lack of sources given. To me the story became about the transcribing of history, the fight to preserve the truth in the face of people who want to manipulate the written record for personal preservation or gain. But that’s not what sparked my desire to write this blog.

SJCPL recently acquired something that got me so excited I felt the need to shout about it from the rooftops. Yes, that’s me you hear in the distance. First, a little background. One of the three “things” in this world that I unabashedly love and consider as important as breathing to my continued existence is comics (the other two being baseball and Neil Young). Comics is a little broad, I don’t care as much for the tights and capes crowd anymore, and if I had to be specific it would be narrowed down to alternative/underground type stuff, which itself is pretty broad (if I had to really narrow it down though, I would just say Peanuts and call it a day). As I’ve gotten older though, my disposable income has shrunk to the point where I can no longer rationalize spending hundreds of dollars on them.

Given that my tastes run a little counter to what is more widely held I don’t usually expect to find myself catered to when it comes to materials SJCPL orders. Yes, I do know that there is a request form on SJCPL’s website, when I mentioned spending hundreds of dollars on comics I left out that sometimes that might be on one book. However, price isn’t the only thing that might potentially cause problems.

When I read about the forthcoming “thing” being published by Pantheon for one of my favorite artists, Chris Ware, my excitement quickly turned sour. It would be one thing for SJCPL to order a copy of something slightly esoteric that was bound and presented in a traditional way. I thought there was no way that an arty comic that has 14 individual items formatted in 14 different ways that came bundled in an oversize box would ever find its way to SJPL’s shelves. I resigned myself to never being able to experience what looked to be the crowning achievement of not only one of my favorite artists but one of the greatest artists working.

Then, one morning during my compulsory tour of the graphic novel shelves, there was a beam of light that didn’t seem to be coming from any windows, but from some large box on the bottom shelf. There were church bells ringing somewhere, and I swear I saw Gandalf beaconing me over. I knew exactly what it was, composing myself before security was called, and quickly escaped with my oversized prize. Then I opened it and passed out.

Not really, but it did completely floor me. To those unfamiliar with the work of Chris Ware he can initially seem to tread in bleak, miserable, depressed characters and stories. Which, to be fair is pretty accurate. There is a current of dark humor at play though, to go with spoonfuls of absurdity and surrealism. Where he really shines though is in his design and page layout. This is an element that really cuts through a lot of the dark subject matter as you get a sense of playfulness and just plain beauty in how he arranges the panels.

In the case of Building Stories much of what is in the box has appeared in various publications over the past few years, with each collected story formatted in it’s own appropriate way. The stories primarily revolve around the lives of 3 people (and 1 bee) who live in an old apartment building, as well as reflecting on the life of the building as well. I don’t believe there is any sort of “right” order to read the 14 different pieces, though obviously stories within are falling along different time periods, so if you really need to have things in a chronological order you might want to brace yourself. Some of the complicated page layouts have the same effect, you’re still generally going left to right and up to down but there were some pages that felt like you could take in the different sections in whatever order suits you. The overall effect this causes is to make everything feel like scattered, melancholic memories. It really feels like the penultimate artistic expression from a great artist at the peak of his creative powers.

How cool is it that thanks to SJCPL I was allowed access to such a unique, important cultural document?

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post, Kevin! When I first heard about this, I too thought, “There’s no way they’re going to buy this!” Hooray for being wrong!

  2. Ok, as someone completely unaware of the work of Chris Ware, this looks completely awesome. Hold placed.

    I am however completely aware of the excellent Talking Heads reference, though. Here’s another seemingly appropriate one:
    Love——>Building on Fire

    Thanks.

  3. Thank you for loving this book. I was afraid the format would be a shelving kerfuffle, but it is so worth it. It’s an amazing piece of work!

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