America's favourite alt-cartoonist on growing up in Omaha, the strange road trip that rocked his world and why he doesn't really blame the school bullies that tormented him
Chris Ware is America’s most recognised name working in the comic book medium; as the hubbub surrounding the release of 2012’s Building Stories demonstrated, the cartoonist has breakfast television pulling power alongside some of the biggest names in showbiz. In recent times, his reputation has even got him out of trouble with the law (read on for more on that). But as anyone who has seen him talk at festivals or read one-on-one interviews will realise, Chris Ware the man is almost disarmingly humble. Not only is he among the very best working in the medium, his output – from Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth to the Acme Novelty Library – exists somewhere between comic book and graphic novel form, working towards a new, previously unknown space for storytelling. His worlds are elaborate and simple, self-effacing and epic, satirical and human, historical and present. With characters that so pinpoint the social isolation and small triumphs of American life, readers are left itching to get under the skin of the man who draws them. As we pinned Ware down to talk all things USA, he proceeded to weave a tale of epic road trips, school reunions and police encounters...
What is your favorite quote about America?
Chris Ware: “Hollywood is the plastic asshole of the world.” — William Faulkner
What three words define the States today?
Chris Ware: The Civil War.
Which living American do you most admire and why?
Chris Ware: Elizabeth Warren, because she appears to be a fair, intelligent, decent person whom I really wish I could vote for.
Which living American do you most despise and why?
Chris Ware: Wayne LaPierre. I’d be curious to hear what sort of speech he’d give if a member of his family was killed in a school shooting.
Whose face should be on the $100 bill?
Chris Ware: Martin Luther King, Jr.
Who gave you your first break? Do you still talk?
When and where were you happiest?
Chris Ware: At home with my family.
What high school clique were you in? Do you stay in touch?
Chris Ware: I sort of went between being one of those “loner” kids to being a nerd, to being a stoner to being a straight-A student. I occasionally talk to my now-forty-five-year-old schoolmates and I have even been to a couple of very enjoyable reunions where one of the people who used to taunt me actually apologized, which was nice — though I owe them my life since it was in the crucible of their torment in which I was forged. I was also largely an insufferable, self-righteous child, so I really can’t blame them.
What food reminds you of home?
Chris Ware: Meatloaf, though I’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years.
What smell do you associate with the city of your birth?
Chris Ware: Electrocuted cattle. Every Saturday morning, if the wind was from the south, the sweet burning stench of the stockyards would waft northward into central Omaha.
What's the best road trip you've ever been on?
Chris Ware: An attempted tour in 1987 of all the sites where Scott Joplin lived, composed and played music in St. Louis, with my friend and fellow cartoonist John Keen. Every single one of the buildings we tried to find had been demolished or razed. We stayed up for 48 hours drinking Dr Pepper and taking No-Doz, listening to cassettes on his high school boom box which slowed down and warbled as the batteries ran out. At 4am in the middle of Kansas while listening to Kentucky jug band music at half-speed we rounded a hill to the sudden appearance of the gigantic pink words “Tension ENVELOPES” flashing alternately on the horizon. Though the words turned out to be the neon sign topping the factory that had originated those loopy string-and-cardboard-disc manila mailers, they seemed more like a penetratingly unlikely existential outer manifestation of our inner mental states.
Where did you lose your virginity?
Chris Ware: I’m not sure if my parents read Dazed but on the off chance they recently subscribed, I’d rather not say.
What would make you leave America forever?
Chris Ware: Not much more.
What noise reminds you of the States?
Chris Ware: Screaming profanity.
What is your favorite American building?
Chris Ware: The National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota.
Ultimate American film?
Chris Ware: Three-way tie in alphabetical order: Election by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Happiness by Todd Solondz, and Synecdoche, New York by Charlie Kaufman.
Most overrated US tourist attraction?
Chris Ware: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Most underrated US tourist attraction?
Chris Ware: I’m not sure if this is officially underrated (how does one gauge such things?) but a 1998 visit to Monument Valley and the Navajo Nation in Arizona changed my life.
Favorite slang phrase?
Chris Ware: “God!”
What is your ultimate American guilty pleasure?
Chris Ware: If I told you that I wouldn’t feel guilty anymore, just ashamed.
What law would you change or invent?
Chris Ware: An immediate ban on and seizure of all automatic and semi-automatic weapons new or previously owned.
Where in the States would you ride out the apocalypse?
Chris Ware: It’s not possible to “ride out” an apocalypse, and certainly not in the United States. Sweden.
When was your last run-in with the cops? What happened?
Chris Ware: I was stopped for mildly adjusting a traffic law to suit my specific motor vehicular circumstance, and the police officer recognized me as “that alternative cartoonist,” letting me go with a warning. I tried not to wonder at nor question the incredible, unimaginable unlikelihood of any law enforcement officer being acquainted with the obscure subculture of alternative cartooning as I slowly drove away.
If you could change one thing about the US, what would it be?
Chris Ware: Universal health care, monetary reparations for Native Americans and African-Americans and, most importantly, the equal distribution of monies collected from property taxes among all public schools regardless of geography (I know that’s three things, and four if you count question 22).
Ultimate American album?
Chris Ware: New Orleans Memories, 1939 General Records album (five two-sided 78rpm discs) of the last studio recordings of Jelly Roll Morton.
Which fictional American do you most identify with?
Chris Ware: Ishmael.
If you could vote for Obama again, would you?
Chris Ware: Of course.
If you lost it all tomorrow, what would you do the day after?
Chris Ware: Find water.
What will America look like in 2050?
Chris Ware: America in 1850.
Does the American Dream still exist?
Chris Ware: Only until the Baby Boom generation wakes up.