In September 1999, as Jimmy Corrigan was nearing completion, Ware visited the preserved apartment of the outsider artist Henry Darger. Darger had lived an isolated existence, working feverishly on thousands upon thousands of pages of eccentric fiction and drawings. “The whole room,” Ware wrote in his sketchbook journal, “was set up entirely in the sole service of the maintenance of aching loneliness—it was strangely uplifting, though, and an apt yet strange condensed metaphor for the way we all go through life.” Within the year, Ware had begun work on Building Stories, which takes that metaphor, and that mingling of pervasive loneliness and unexpected uplift, as its starting point.
Building Stories centers on a run-down Chicago apartment building, whose three floors form a kind of triptych of loneliness. The “old woman” (as she is referred to in passing—none of the four inhabitants is ever named, a much less noticeable decision in a comic than in a prose novel) on the ground floor, who owns the building and has lived in it her entire life, has settled into solitude for good; she doesn’t dream of companionship, but remembers the dreams of it she used to have, with a mix of regret and relief. The “married couple” on the second floor are lonely together, trapped in a cycle of fighting and apologizing so habitual it precludes any real contact between them. And the “girl” on the third floor—the book’s heroine, actually a young woman in her late twenties, a shy art school graduate with a prosthetic leg and a menial job at a flower shop—is lonely with a youthful, frenzied desperation, convinced she’ll be alone forever: “God…I can’t bear it…Am I really so awful? I must be…I must be…”
All this unhappiness is housed not in a bound comic book (let alone a “book book”), but a rectangular cardboard box—like what a board game would come in—containing fourteen “distinctively discrete” printed items: a slim hardcover volume, a faux children’s book, long fold-out strips, stapled pamphlets, several enormous broadsheet sections, even something very much like a game board, showing the building in all four seasons. There are also two sections—a stapled booklet and a newspaper—that focus on “Branford, the Best Bee in the World,” a semi-anthropomorphized sad sack whose desperate attempts to provide pollen for his family, avoid the bullying of other male bees, and stop fantasizing about sex with the queen provide a comic counterpoint to the more solitary and realistic characters.
Though there is, buried in those “contents,” a traditional, linear story—of how these people came to this building, and to this miserable time in their lives, and, in the case of the girl, of how she eventually leaves it and starts another life—it isn’t so much read as circled around, scouted out. (Instead of a reading order, Ware offers suggestions for “appropriate places to set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents within the walls of an average well-appointed home.”) As one makes one’s own way through, landmarks are established, related to each other, reconfigured in light of other, later landmarks, and a map begins to form.