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A Triumph of the Comic-Book Novel

But the building is wrong, and the odds are pretty good the reader already knows it. Half of the fourteen items in Building Stories’s box are devoted, at least in part, to the aftermath of this encounter: Phil and the girl get married, have a daughter, and move to the suburbs together. We glimpse their lives in a series of fragments—money worries, Halloween, arguments, apologies, shopping, worries about aging and “peak oil.” The pages tend to be larger and more open, and with the building gone (we get a brief image or two of its demolition in 2005), they feel just a bit hazier, and less claustrophobic. There’s nothing as sustained as the book of September 23, nothing as dark as the girl’s night of despair. The suicide of an old school friend is an occasion for genuine grief, but also for petty resentments and competitions, and a return to flower-arranging that, we learn elsewhere, eventually results in the girl opening her own flower shop.

One of Ware’s favorite techniques in this work is to center a page on an object—a faded snapshot, a flower, a birth control dispenser, an empty room—and let the panels and text spread associatively around it. A set of panels surrounding a notebook, for instance, tells of a creative writing class the girl attends. One of the shortest bits of Building Stories is a large broadsheet section, only four pages long, with a center spread organized this way. The object at the center is the girl’s six-month-old daughter, curled up in a pink onesie, drawn, startlingly, at life size. The broadsheet around her shows the girl’s father dying of cancer, and her returning home for the funeral with baby in tow, reminiscing in her childhood home, and attempting to comfort her grieving mother.

Tucked away in the corner of the page, in panels smaller than the infant’s feet, is one of the most surprising moments in all of Ware’s comics, a moment that in everything he’s previously published seems simply inconceivable. The sobbing widow turns to her daughter and says, “I just wish he could see how happy you are now, that’s all…” And the girl knows she’s right: “the awful part is…I really am happy…finally. I am happy.”

“The raw core of human experience,” Ware declared back in the 1990s, “is loneliness. There’s always that sense of isolation, whether you’re with someone or not.” Throughout Building Stories, Ware’s attention to the awkward physicality, the constant humiliations and cruelties of human existence is as precise and as brutally funny as it is in his previous work. So it can come as a shock to realize that he’s changed his mind, and this scene is utterly sincere. All those pages of chores and worries and marital recriminations, and the despair and terror that preceded them, drawn with such unsparing care, were, at the same time, showing exactly that: an idea of a happy life, and how it came to be.

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