I looked at the box.

It was beautiful—with interesting prints on top, a pictorial description of its content at the back, “Building" printed on one side and “Stories" on the other. My son, 10, has a lot of similar boxes in his room, but none as beautiful. And this wasn’t his box. It was mine. The man who sold it to me told me that the CEO of a large global publishing firm told him that only five such boxes came into India. The man has no reason to lie; he has given up trying to surprise me.

I used a cutter to carefully slice the polythene covering of the box, and removed the top. Inside were 14 elements. One was a large board, much like a game board. Another was a broadsheet. Still another was a tabloid. There were two books, both hard-bound, but of different sizes. There were some strips, including one that opened out like an accordion. Each was a comic; each told a story; and I was sure that I could somehow use all the pieces to build a bigger, larger, better, more beautiful story—a graphic magnum opus.

I loved the box. It was a Meccano set like none I had seen before. And because I was building the story my way—just as others who were lucky to get the box would do it their way—it was, in some ways, my own story. But before it became my story, Building Stories was Chris Ware’s.

Ware’s intensely expressive style is reminiscent of Winsor McCay’s, the cartoonist and animator who created Little Nemo and who enjoyed a burst of fame last year when his work was the subject of an animated Google Doodle. In Building Stories, with the help of 3D props (like the box and the board), Ware takes his play on architecture to another level—and it is as much about building (n) stories as it is about building (v) stories.

Ware has always been a master of form—the Acme Novelty Library series is testimony to this, as is the McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern special on comics guest-edited by him—but it is clear that Building Stories, with its Meccano format, has another message to deliver—about the superiority and novelty of print.

Building Stories is interactive, but it doesn’t involve anything digital even remotely. Over the past 18 months or so, I have moved to reading comics online (especially through the fine comiXology iPad app), but I cannot see how anyone could hope to recreate the Building Stories experience in the digital medium. Parts of Building Stories have appeared elsewhere (including The New Yorker), even online, but, having experienced the box and its contents, it is difficult to visualize this story being told, or packaged, in any other way. I loved the box—the gushing text is sure to have given me away—and enjoyed the contrarian message Ware was trying to send across, but it was the story that really moved me.

Ware’s unnamed female protagonist moves from childhood, when she loses a leg in a boating accident, to young adulthood and two failed relationships, one fleeting, the other, with her husband, enduring, through motherhood, through a failed career, and through the death of the people she loves; and to the autumn of her life—all largely played out in buildings that seem to define the boundaries of her life and the limits of her abilities. Put like that, the story sounds mundane, and it should have been, although it is anything but. Each strand of her story is an element in the box, and because you can read it in any order (at least, I did) you could start either at the end, or the beginning, or, like I did, somewhere in the middle.

And as I made my way through the 14 elements, I found myself quietly rooting for the woman who goes through her extraordinarily ordinary life without succumbing to despair (although she does have her moments). Like much of Ware’s work, Building Stories is a poignant tale of lost love and a lonely life, but his central character’s resilience shines through—leaving the reader with a comforting warm feeling at the end of a book with a non-linear narrative and a preponderance of straight lines.

R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.

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