Teaching Building Stories

Chris Ware's Building Stories (2012). Photo by Alan Trotter.As one of the first people to teach Chris Ware’s Building Stories (which just came out last month), I thought I would share what I’m planning. Given the loud and enthusiastic acclaim that has greeted Building Stories, I expect that others will also teach the work.  (To the best of my knowledge, the only other person teaching Building Stories this term is Dave Ball.)  As serious readers of comics and graphic novels already know, Building Stories is a box containing fourteen textual objects – book, booklets, magazines, newspapers, Little-Golden-Book-designed book, small folded strips, board game, and the box itself (which resembles the box to a board game).

This poses some challenges.  Since these items can be read in any order, where do you begin?  Should you impose an order at all?  For practical reasons, I have imposed an order.  I’ve told students that they can read this work in any order they like, but we have a specific order in which we’ll be discussing it, in class.  The order in which the items emerge from the box determined my order.  That, I figured, was both arbitrary and consistent.  I say “consistent” because I expect that all boxes were packed similarly: so, each reader would encounter this “order” first.  As we get deeper into the work, I will also ask about how order shapes our sense of chronology and meaning.  However, to start, I’ve dived the class into groups of two or three, assigned each a section on which they’ll become an “expert,” and provided some “generic” questions.  Here’s what I told the students when I announced this plan a month ago, followed by a collection of readings (on Building Stories) that I’ve been collecting since then.  (My name for each section derives either from the first lines of text or from something more descriptive.)

Chris Ware, Building Stories (unpacked)

As mentioned in class today (16 Oct.), I’ve divided up the readings for Chris Ware’s Building Stories – this is on the page I handed out in class, and the syllabus’s Schedule of Readings (scroll down).  As I also mentioned, the book is the graphic novel event of the season.  It made its debut about 2 weeks ago, and was the best-selling book on the New York Times‘ Graphic Books list this past Sunday (14 Oct.).  In this post, I’m listing: (1) the questions (same as those handed out in class), (2) the list of readings, and (3) links to some of the many reviews, essays, and stories that have been published in the past few months.


  1. What stories does this part (or these parts) build?  Provide at least three examples.
  2. What do we learn about our unnamed protagonist (the amputee)?  In some cases, the connection will be more challenging to make. Pick three moments.
  3. Why tell this story in this form (book, newspaper, magazine, booklet, etc.)?
  4. What questions do you have?  These can be discussion questions or simply subjects that perplex you.

Each group (or pair) should address these questions, and bring them with you on your day.  Bring an extra copy for me, so that I can follow along during discussion.


13 November

Group 1

1) [wordless / 7.5 x 25 cm / nights and days]

2) “God… I can’t bear it… I can’t… I can’t” / “I don’t care… I just don’t care…” [2-sided folded strip]

3) “Her laugh is like a flight of tiny birds, taking off…” / “Momma, I don’t know how I feel right now. I mean, I don’t know how to say it. I’m just not happy or sad. I’m in between.” [2-sided folded strip]

4) Branford, the Best Bee in the World

Group 2

5) September 23rd, 2000 [Golden Book]

15 November

Group 3

6) “Shit” [magazine]


8) DISCONNECT [larger magazine]

27 November

Group 4


29 November

Group 5

10) The Daily Bee [newspaper]

11) “Recently, my high school boyfriend friended me on Facebook…” / “As a kid, I could sit in front of a mirror and stare at myself for hours, trying to imagine what I’d look like when I grew up…” [newspaper]

12) “Before winter starts” [architecture / blueprint / board]

Group 6

13) “god…” [newspaper]

14) “It all happened so fast… When I think back now I almost can’t believe it” [newspaper]

15) Building Stories [the box]



  • Kevin Larimer, “The Color and the Shape of Memory: An Interview With Chris Ware,” Poets & Writers Nov.-Dec. 2012.
  • Casey Burchby, “The Life Cycle of a Cartoonist: An Interview with Chris Ware,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 Oct. 2012.  Wherein Mr. Ware observes, “books offer a sort of reassuring physical certainty for the ineffable uncertainties of life, but then again I’m 44 and don’t tweet or have a Facebook page or participate in most of the things that blunt the textures of experience in favor of delivering them up more quickly to your friends, so maybe that’s just me.”
  • Debbie Millman, “Chris Ware,” Design Matters, 19 Oct. 2012.  45-minute audio interview.
  • Stephen Carlick, “Building stories with graphic novelist Chris Ware,” MacLean’s, 19 Oct. 2012.
  • John Williams, “Book Review Podcast: Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories,’” New York Times Book Review podcast, 19 Oct. 2012.
  • Rosanna Greenstreet, “Q+A: Chris Ware,” The Guardian, 12 Oct. 2012.  In which Mr. Ware reports, “My head looks like an uncooked ham with glasses.”
  • Françoise Mouly, “The Quotable Chris Ware,” The New Yorker, 12 Oct. 2012.  Click through each picture (at bottom) to find such quotations as: “I don’t think of myself as an illustrator. I think of myself as a cartoonist. I write the story with pictures–I don’t illustrate the story with the pictures.”
  • Chris Mautner, “‘I Hoped That the Book Would Just Be Fun’: A Brief Interview with Chris Ware,” The Comics Journal, 10 Oct. 2012.  Wherein Mr. F.C. Ware provides a helpful definition: “memory is more like a gem or a flower or a three-dimensional something that we can turn and turn inside out and get into and out of.”
  • Kat Ward, “Inside Chris Ware’s Graphic-Novel-in-a-Box,” Vulture, 7 Oct. 2012. Repr. from New York Magazine, 15 Oct. 2012.
  • “Good Minds Suggest–Chris Ware’s Favorite Concept Books,” Good Reads, Oct. 2012.
  • Calvin Reid, “Life in a Box: Invention, Clarity and Meaning in Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories,'” Publishers Weekly, 28 Sept. 2012.  In which Chris Ware offers some insight into his creative process: “I try to write in a way that hopefully reflects something of how I experience life happening…. What it’s like to be inside a body experiencing the world with all the myriad multi-layers of thoughts and memories that happen at the same time. And then the way that those things contradict each other and then the way that we think of ourselves as people, somehow all layered together.” And explains why he prefers books to e-books: “There’s something about the ideas and thoughts and feelings and uncertainties that go into books that demand a certain opposite and opposing structure to contain them. It’s almost like an aesthetic necessity that the books have, they have to confine and protect these ineffable things in a way.”
  • Christopher Irving, “Chris Ware on Building a Better Comic Book, “ Graphic NYC, 6 Mar. 2012.  A long interview, in which Ware observes, “I do believe that cartooning, a very memory-based art, has something fundamental to do with a constant sort of revision of ourselves and our lives, the same sort of resorting and refiling that goes on when we’re dreaming.”  When the interviewer observes, “Your comics, especially, are about memory,” Mr. Ware responds: “Because that’s what life is. It’s all we have.”




That (the above) is what they have to get us started.  At times, I wonder if I’m a little ambitious in assigning this dense, layered, beautiful, complex, experimental work to an undergraduate class on graphic novels.  But, based on my experience with the class so far, I think they’ll rise to the challenge.  In any case, teaching Ware is like teaching James Joyce or (in a children’s literature class) Lewis Carroll.  The bright, thoughtful students tend to be intrigued, and embrace the experiment.  Other students require more help in making sense of it.

Teaching Ware is also like teaching Joyce or Carroll because Ware changes our understanding of what the medium can do.  He writes strips that can (and must) be read in more than one direction, pages that need to be read multiple times, and books that make other cartoonists feel that they need to rethink their approach to comics.  If you’re teaching a class in graphic novels or comics, you have to teach Ware.  He pushes the medium further, and (I expect) will be pushing my students in the coming weeks.  So.  Here’s to the grand experiment!

Image sources: Alan Trotter’s 5∞, Mark Hayes’ Passing Notes.

Giving credit where it’s due: I found most of those links via Dave Ball’s Facebook page or his The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking Facebook page.


  1. Aaron Kashtan


    I don’t think I can teach this book because it’s too expensive. I don’t feel comfortable asking my students to pay $30 or more for a single book, especially if I’m assigning other books for the class. There’s also the practical problem of asking them to carry this giant heavy box to and from class every day, although it looks like you circumvented that problem by allowing them to bring only certain sections to each class. And I think these problems are not just trivial coincidences. I haven’t actually read Building Stories yet, but just by looking at it, I can tell that one of the important things about it is its sheer size. This is a book that’s designed to be huge and difficult and unwieldy and expensive, which I think would make it difficult (although potentially interesting) to teach.

    Now if I did teach Building Stories, I think I would not impose a specific order. I think it would be potentially productive if not all the students read the text in the same order. That way, they could talk about the way the reading order affects their experience of the book; they could share their insights as to how the story changes depending on what order you read it in. When I taught Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide to the North American Family, which is similarly designed to be read in any order, I asked the students to start from the first page and read to page 75, and I think that was a mistake. It limits the students’ ability to compare different reading experiences. I like your idea of asking specific students to become “experts” in specific parts of the book, though.

  2. Reply

    I should have mentioned, above, that I asked the library to buy copies of Building Stories, so that I could put it on Reserves at the library. The library agreed to buy two copies of it — so, two are on Reserves. I have also encouraged my students (from the beginning of the term) to share — they might, I suggest, buy a full set of books between them. I recognize that any English class is going to be expensive. So, what tends to happen is that some students buy the books, some borrow (from library or another student).

    I take your point about not having them read it all in the same order. I agree. That would make for productive conversation about how reading order affects one’s experience. One question, though: Would you then require them to have read the entire box before the first day of discussion? If so, that’s a fairly large assignment.

  3. Aaron Kashtan


    That’s an interesting idea, and it would be especially appropriate for Building Stories since it’s possible for multiple people to read it at once.

    I would not ask them all to read the entire book before the first day of discussion. Instead, I might ask them to read, say, 5 or 6 of the 14 components for each day. I think this would lead to interesting conversations because some of them would have read stuff the others hadn’t. That would mean that the students would not all be on the same page (both literally and metaphorically), but I think that in itself could be interesting.

  4. Reply

    If I had a once-a-week class, then I could ask people to read it all at once, for the first day of discussion — especially if that class were an upper-level class. And, were that the class I’m teaching, I’d probably do that.

    But I do think we need to have all read what we’re talking about in class. It’s difficult to have a conversation about something you’ve not yet read. We’ll never be all “on the same page,” precisely, but we do need to have at least read the same pages.

  5. Reply

    As someone who also teaches a college-level class on comics, I want to thank you for posting this. It’s a fantastic teaching design and a great set of resources for anyone who wants to engage more deeply into this challenging and important work. Kudos!

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