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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Chris Ware, Graphic Novelist

"I think the worst word one can apply to oneself as an artist is 'career.'"

Chris Ware as a child.  

When I was in first and second grade, I had a really good friend with whom I played regularly. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he was, like, my only friend. We were both interested in superheroes and comic books and superhero dolls and running around with capes — activities which seem like nothing unusual now, but back in those days only the absolute weirdest, nerdiest kids read comics, and he was literally the only kid I knew who cared about them as much as I did. Then, at the end of second grade, he called me up and said, “Guess what? I’m moving to Indianapolis!” Even now, I can feel my heart sink at the sound of those words.

When third grade started, I felt pretty miserable and lonely. The teachers at that time encouraged us to use this sort of paper that they referred to as “story paper” — a kind of cheap newsprint stuff that was widely lined on the bottom but had a blank space at the top where one was supposed to illustrate the stories one wrote on the bottom. Prior to his leaving, my friend and I would use this paper to draw pictures of superheroes, so, really, out of nostalgia I folded a few of these papers up in half and stapled them into a makeshift booklet which I kept in my desk, and when I had some free time or I knew the teacher wasn’t looking I would draw in it, not pictures of superheroes, but — and I know this sounds sort of pathetic — a story about my friend and I playing together. And really, it was the first time I ever tried to do a story about real life, the first time I felt that I re-created an actual event or a feeling on the page that I probably couldn’t have articulated any other way. It filled a void for me that was created when he left and that particular book I guess was sort of a … I don’t know; I think about it pretty often, and I realized it was the first time I’d ever done anything where any real kind of emotion suddenly came through the art and back to me. From that point on, I think — I even remember telling my mom — I wanted to be a cartoonist.

I went to college with the intention of drawing serious comics and took literature and art classes and philosophy classes with that aim in mind. But I think the worst word one can apply to oneself as an artist is "career." I never thought that I would be able to make a living doing what I’m doing; I thought I’d be the weird guy working at the grocery store who people would point to and say, “He’s the guy who’s doing that long graphic novel … don’t go near him, he’ll start ranting at you”—which I guess in a way I still am. But as far as actually paying bills? I never thought that would happen. In some ways I think it’s almost worse to be able to support yourself by doing your art: A host of complications come tied to it. When your work becomes a means of support, then you give yourself shortcuts, telling yourself certain things like, “Well, that worked — maybe I should just do that again,” and you unconsciously become less and less adventurous.

When I was 22 and just about to leave graduate school, I realized my rent was going to be due at the beginning of the summer and that, rather embarrassingly, I had no plan at all. In short, my time was up: I had to get a job. At the time, I’d been working as a cartoonist for a free weekly paper — which paid at that point, I believe, $30 per strip — and also as a graduate assistant at the School of the Art Institute, work which obviously wasn’t going to continue. But, amazingly, a very nice fellow named Dave Cihla contacted me out of the blue and asked to buy a number of my original weekly strip drawings, including some of the earliest “Jimmy Corrigan” pages; needless to say, I said yes, and his doing this paid my rent through the end of the summer. And from there it was just a series of lucky events of being asked to do a drawing for this or that magazine and sort of floating from month to month until all of a sudden I was paying my rent and that jeez, maybe I was a cartoonist. I mean — it wasn’t anything I planned. But I’ve realized in the years since that if Dave Cihla hadn’t bought those pages, I think I might not ever had that chance.