Writers & Company

Chris Ware on how Peanuts, his mother and being bullied in school made him a cartoonist

The American cartoonist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about how his childhood shaped his distinctive art style and outlook on life.
Chris Ware is an award-winning American cartoonist. (Pantheon, Gil Roth)

The work of comic book artist Chris Ware has been described as inventive, masterful and "paradigm exploding," from his breakthrough book Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, to his latest title, Rusty Brown — a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. 

Ware is the recipient of an American Book Award and a Guardian First Book Prize. His work has been featured at the Whitney Museum of American Art's Biennial, and he's created more than two dozen covers for The New Yorker. 

While still in college, Ware attracted the attention of Art Spiegelman, the author of the ground-breaking graphic novel Maus. When Spiegelman invited Ware to contribute to Raw, a radical comics anthology, Ware's career was launched. 

Ware lives in Chicago, which is where he spoke to Eleanor Wachtel. 

Let it snow 

"Winter is my favourite season. I lived in Texas for a few years and I just couldn't take it because it was so hot. There was no snow and the heat was just kind of relentless. I spent most of my time huddled against my window air conditioner unit drawing pictures of snow.

As a kid I looked forward to those days of snow. It meant I could stay home and draw or play with my superhero dolls.

"I think snow is probably one of the most beautiful things that planet Earth has to offer. It's almost better than any human art. When you think about it, there's millions and billions and trillions of these little tiny unique snow flowers — or snow roses, as I guess they're called in other languages — that pile up and erase the boundaries between objects and people. 

"As a kid I looked forward to those days of snow. It meant I could stay home and draw or play with my superhero dolls. Now as an adult, when it snows I have to go out and shovel and be annoyed. But then I look down and I see these beautiful little crystal structures and it makes me look closer at the world."

An excerpt from Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. (Pantheon)

Encouraging mom quotes 

"My mother was a writer and reporter at the Omaha World-Herald. She wrote for the science and features sections. She would go to work every day and write beautiful stories. She even wrote some early human interest stories about me as a kid. Somehow, seeing her write and have things published got the idea lodged in my brain that this is what big people did: they created something; and having it printed somehow validated it. 

She told me once when I was young that she didn't care what I did with my life, so long as I did the best damn job at it.

"My mother encouraged me in whatever I was interested in, as long as it was legal. She has never been anything but deeply encouraging. When I told her I wanted to go to art school she thought that was great.

"She told me once when I was young that she didn't care what I did with my life, so long as I did the best damn job at it." 

An excerpt from Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. (Pantheon)

The power of Peanuts 

"I was reading superhero things like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, all that stuff. I didn't read them as much as just sort of study them — and try to learn to draw by them. I'd do that questionably esthetic thing of tracing the drawings and then trying to put my own head on top of them, or making up my own superheroes.

Peanuts really changed my life more than anything; I looked at superhero comics, but I read Peanuts.

"My grandfather was a managing editor of the Omaha World-Herald for a while. One of his side jobs in that capacity was deciding what comics appeared in comics pages. He had a basement office full of free collections of comics sent by all the syndicates; one of his shelves was full of all the earliest Peanuts paperbacks. I used to sit in the basement and read all of those.

"Peanuts really changed my life more than anything; I looked at superhero comics, but I read Peanuts. Those characters seemed so real to me, like real friends. Every time I entered that world of Charles Schulz, those little drawings came to life on the page for me in a way that almost nothing else did. It made me really want to become a cartoonist."

An excerpt from Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. (Pantheon)

Rooting for Rusty

"Rusty Brown is a nervous little kid who lives more in a realm of fantasy than of reality. This is sort of a stand-in for my own childhood, where I honestly believed that I would somehow acquire superpowers when I was young. Looking back on it all, I was clearly pining for some sort of permanent father figure — and I don't think I was alone in that regard. Certainly in the generation of the '70s, there was a lot of shifting in and out of parental figures. 

Looking back on it all, I was clearly pining for some sort of permanent father figure — and I don't think I was alone in that regard.

"I don't mean this in any accusatory way: it's just the nature of the times and people are trying to figure things out. So Rusty is sort of stuck in this idea of becoming more powerful and of acquiring powers that he doesn't necessarily have."

An excerpt from Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. (Pantheon)

Beating the bully

"It's a little harsh to say I was beat up — although there were definitely some moments of physical assault. But mostly it was mental assault. I always just tried to be nice to everybody. But it seemed to make the bully kids even more angry, which I never understood. I just thought, 'If I'm extra nice they'll be nice to me.' But it doesn't work that way.

I actually kind of owe my life to the kids who made fun of me and jumped on me in the hallway. I was forged in that crucible and I came out a cartoonist.

"I was nerdy and pale and scrawny. I made weird animal noises and stuff in school and I probably irritated other kids tremendously. So I probably would've irritated myself if I could have been outside of myself. At the same time I was interested in comics and science fiction and weird stuff, which were things you should not have been interested in at that time.

"I actually kind of owe my life to the kids who made fun of me and jumped on me in the hallway. I was forged in that crucible and I came out a cartoonist. I'm able to somehow pay the bills by drawing self-indulgent, self-lacerating stories about this stuff."

Chris Ware's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

An excerpt from Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. (Pantheon)

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