Review by Woodrow Phoenix
‘Monograph’ is an academic term applied to a scholarly treatise on a particular subject: a detailed, thoroughly researched and footnoted paper written about a limited field of inquiry, or a biographical study of the works of one person. After a few decades of big commercial art books about contemporary artists, architects and writers it has also come to mean any long, in-depth career retrospective exploring a creator’s work and/or life. By choosing to call this giant retrospective collection of his work Monograph – the literary equivalent might be J.K. Rowling calling her latest book ‘New York Times Best Seller’ – Chris Ware immediately lets us know it will operate in the same ironic, self aware and often painfully self-critical mode as all his previous books.
A mixture of autobiography, catalogue, graphic design sourcebook, scrapbook and portfolio, Monograph initially demands respect due to its sheer size: 46 cm tall by 34 cm wide (18.5 inches by 13.5). This is about 4 cm larger than the average Artist’s Edition so shows off the original art displayed very well, but even at these dimensions, most of Ware’s drawings are reduced – some by as much as half of their true size – because he works at very large scale to get the detail he requires into his pages. The original art for his Jimmy Corrigan cover (shown at left) is 60 x 38 cm, about 30% larger than the reproduction in this volume and almost five times larger than the final printed comic book. Many interior comics pages are similarly enormous, the largest being 91 x 60 cm, almost a metre wide. Everyone wondering just how he could cram such tiny, precise and exact lettering into his crisply delineated comics can now appreciate the secret to this feat: art drawn much larger than standard comic art, with correspondingly more extreme reduction.
This volume is filled with many more production insights, with sections detailing the making of every strip and book collection. There are extensive galleries of promotional graphics with original art; paste-ups, mechanicals and proofs; cover designs and interiors designed for books of other artists such as George Herriman’s Krazy and Ignatz; every New Yorker cover and related illustration. There are photographs of the many toys, puppets, boxes, buildings, vending machines and other complex three-dimensional constructions that Ware has built from the beginning of his career; excerpts from sketchbooks, personal diary drawings and writings. There are even three mini-comics pasted in among the spreads. Everything is annotated with his notes on his process. His memoir pages detail his personal and family history in intimate detail, from delving into his relationship with his beloved grandmother and her effect on his creative life, to explaining how he modulates his relationship with his daughter through drawings and other creative expression.
Monograph is introduced by three of Ware’s highest-profile collaborators. Ira Glass, creator and producer of the National Public Radio show This American Life provides a preface. Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker, publisher of TOON Books writes one introduction. Her partner Art Spiegelman, co-editor of RAW and author of Maus, writes a second intro. The astonishing level of craft and technique plus the prodigious quantity of images on display in this book is head-spinning. There is so much impressively conceptualised and flawlessly executed artwork, dioramas and book design here that fans can feel thoroughly satisfied examining the images up close without reading the commentary at all. But should you need words to reassure you this tour through three decades of Chris Ware’s stellar career is worth your attention, there are lots of those here too.