Let me be frank – this is not a review of Building Stories (Published by Pantheon Books, 2012) by Chris Ware (Published by Mr. and Ms. Ware, 1967). Nor is this an attempt at analysis, extrapolation or understanding. No. The point of this article is the fine line in which your humbled reviewer throws his hands in the air and admits defeat. The point in which the writing of the review becomes an exploration of limitations of the self.
Now, I’ m not saying it is impossible to review Building Stories (there are plenty of other reviews in the far reaches of the web, and plenty more will come); nor am I saying that this book / graphic novel / box-o-stuff is free from faults: it has the exact same faults that I found in every other Ware work to this day – the sheer, overwhelming misery of the characters and plot, the thinness of the story, the sameness of some of these stories… normally I would say of such a work that if you liked Chris Ware’s previous efforts you should go for it, but if you were ambivalent about them (as I was) you should let it pass. But I can’t say that; because that would be to pass judgment that I do not believe myself fit to pass.
It’s started with the size of the thing: Building Stories, in case you have only witnessed it in previews, is not a “Graphic Novel” in any sense of the term we use today. It’s official size is 11.7X1.8X16.7 inches; a polite and calculated terminology that in way term express what is like to hold this thing in your hand: It’s big is what I’m saying. A bloody-big-box of comics – it dwarfs (totally and utterly) every omnibus or Absolute edition that I have; looking at it, feeling its dimensions and heft at the store told me it was something else.
And there are the contents – the fine folks at Amazon list it as containing 260 pages, divided over 14 “parts” which include books, booklets, accordion strips, posters, Hardcovers and Foldout stand. Again – in writing, it sounds like a small matter: 260 pages is a not very impressive in this world of Omnibus and Deluxe editions, the modern comics reader is well acquainted with five hundred, even the thousand, pager book. But these are ordinary comics, there is simply more of them in a more limited space. One (well – this one) can read the entirety of the Invincible Compendium (1024) or Scud: the Disposable Assassin (786) – but it took me months to work through Building Stories. Ware’s work was always dense, but the regular page sizes still put a limit upon him; with the varying sizes of Building Stories‘ many parts these limits no longer apply – it took me longer to read certain pages than it took me to read whole issues.
The reason I make all these bland descriptions, all these obvious claims (you don’t need me to tell you that Chris Ware’s work is heavily dense and impressive looking – you have eyes after all) is to avoid reaching the point where I have to comment on the actual value of work (re – is it “good” or “bad”, is it “worth your time”). I try to avoid this point because I can’t make that judgment. This has never happened to me before with a comic book.
Oh, sure – I have read comics the inspired me with their insightful understanding of the world (The Filth), comics that impressed with the sheer might of craftsmanship (Promethea), comics that amazed me with their unbound imagination (The Incal) – but I’ve never been in such a state of un-knowingness: what do I think of Building Stories? I can’t say. I can’t criticize it because I can’t comprehend it; Building Stories is, quite literally, off my scale.
The only other artwork of narrative nature to which I can compare Building Stories is David Foster Wallace’s (in)famous novel Infinite Jest – a behemoth of a book, heavy in themes, plots and characters; perhaps the longest and most difficult read I’ve ever experience. Reading Infinite Jest broke me: when I started reading it, I still had some delusions that I will someday be a writer of note, when I turned the last page I was decided that there is no point in becoming a writer because I can never write something like that.
And were I an aspiring writer or craftsman of sequential art, it is quite likely that I would have felt the same at the final page of Building Story – a sense that there is no point in attempting to create something of your own because you are never going to top what you’ve just experienced. And that is what Building Stories is – it is not a “comic” or a “graphic novel”, it is an “Experience” – with a capital E and probably capital XPERIENCE. If you have even the slightest interest in comics as a form and a medium you owe to it to yourself to read – I won’t say you like it but you still have to do it.
 I am reminded of Roger Ebert attempting, and failing to review The Human Centipede (a horror film whose title is really all you need to know about it): “The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.” Granted, Ebert was being overly negative while I am, mostly, positive in my refusal to rate the discussed work. but we both share a kind of sentiment…