Handling and Comprehending Comics. Aesthetic experience through visual-tactile narration in Chris Ware’s Building Stories (written in German)

Photo: Comic "Building Stories" by Chris Ware
Titelbild: © Chris Ware 2020 | Foto: Carina Schlüter-Peyinghaus

Published with Reimer in the series Bild + Bild

In my dissertation I investigate on the possibilities of aesthetic experience that recipients (in the following: reading viewers) can make with and through comics. I define comics as narrative artifacts of the visual-tactile medium comic, i.e. I focus my considerations on narrative comics (in contrast to abstract comics), which I examine in the context of their visual and material dimensions as well as regarding their handling. In doing so, I propose a perspective that understands comics in a dialogical exchange with reading viewers, instead of understanding comics as self-contained entities, as dominant definitions of comics as image-text-structure suggest.

My conception of comics as an aesthetic experience is based on the sensual perception of the reading viewers and can be divided in three interrelated dimensions: Cognition, Corporeality and Affect. The reading viewers become aware of their own perception and involvement through distinct mechanisms in comics. These mechanisms generate insights into the effects of the specific comics and/or the history of the medium as well as the socio-cultural preconditions of the reading viewers (cognitive dimension); they let spatial relationships become physically present (corporeal dimension) and involve the reading viewers through empathy and immersive qualities (affective dimension). Since comics are understood in a dialogical relation with the recipients, it is insufficent to theorize aesthetic experience only on the part of the reading viewers. The aesthetic experience of and with comics consists in re-integrating cognitively, physically, and affectively generated knowledge into the narrative, thus intensifying the examination of the comic, the affection and the emotional involvement of the reading viewers.

I illustrate these theoretical considerations with the case study of Building Stories (2012) by Chris Ware. This comic consists of 14 publication formats in a box, including several magazine formats, a folded game board, a children’s book, a hardcover, a flipbook, several newspapers, leaflets and two leporellos. All the components together tell a story with a total of six protagonists: the four inhabitants of a Chicago apartment building, Branford the bee, and the apartment building itself. The individual narrative strands of these six characters revolve around everyday life, emotional distance, fear of failure and the search for secureness.

The dissertation combines a theoretical and a monographic dimension by developing an overall approach to comics as aesthetic experience and basing it on the analysis and interpretation of Building Stories as main example. The understanding of comics as narrative artifacts of the visual-tactile medium comic forms the common basis for these two parts.