It's impossible to talk about Chris Ware's Building Stories without addressing the physicality of Building Stories. It's a brightly colored box, 16 inches long, 2 inches deep, and about a foot wide. Upon opening the box, you'll find 14 books inside, arranged more or less by size. The experience of opening Building Stories resembles opening a board game for the first time, without all the little plastic gewgaws clattering around. (It's funny to think how just 15 years ago, comic books were frowned upon by many literary-minded snobs. Now, as the importance of physical books shrinks in the face of an e-book onslaught, Ware's inventive storytelling techniques make the best possible case for the physical book as an integral part of storytelling.)
Once you open the box, on the top are the pamphlets—it's a strange experience to see the guts of coverless comics sitting there with their panels right out front, like accidentally walking in on a naked roommate—but you can see that there are many shapes and sizes of books inside. One looks like a Little Golden Book. One is shaped like a newspaper. Another is a large cardboard screen. You sink into the box the way you slip into a Sunday newspaper: Some readers will pull all the pieces apart and restack them into an order that pleases them. Others will explode all the books across a room and choose the next book at random. Others will rigidly keep to the order in which the books came, from the top down.
It takes a while of being dazzled by the form before you can begin to really appreciate the content. Five characters—well, four humans and an insect—wander through Building Stories, and the arcs of their narratives depend wholly on the order in which you read the books. But no matter where you first encounter the characters, the apartment building acts as a meta- structure providing all the stories with a shape and a context. On the ground floor, the landlady sits in her apartment, a lonely senior citizen who reflects on her missed chances for happiness. On the second floor, a young couple circles around each other in a continual cycle of argument and atonement. And on the third floor, a young woman with an artificial leg is trying to figure out what she wants from her life.
The comics jump around in time, relating couplings and decouplings. A few of the more fanciful stories are told from the perspective of the building—she's a matronly figure who prefers her female tenants. And two of them are the story of a dumb but well-meaning bee that leaves the house to collect pollen and provide for his family (a helpful footnote explains that females do the pollen collection in the hive, which makes him the bee equivalent of a crossdresser). A few simple actions—an argument about a negative worldview, the opening of a window, a tampon clogging a drain—take place again and again, viewed from different perspectives, depending on which order you read the books in.
All the stories, of course, could end in death—Building Stories launches itself into the distant past and the far future in tangents throughout the book—but the fractured narrative serves to remind us that death is almost beside the point. As he's aged, the color of Ware's sense of humor has gone from pitch-black to something more resembling an aged, burnished mahogany. He's less likely to end a strip on the "punch line" of a main character's loneliness or heartbreak these days, because he's finally enough of an adult to understand that nobody is truly alone; even the most insignificant heartbreak in the world belongs to us all.