JIMMY CORRIGAN, THE SMARTEST KID ON EARTH
By Chris Ware
The best-known comic book character in the world is Superman. It makes a kind of sense then for the Man of Steel to make a cameo appearance at the beginning of Chris Ware’s brilliant graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan. As Jimmy watches from his office window in downtown Chicago a man dressed as Superman jumps from the top of a neighbouring building and falls to his death. There are no superheroes in Jimmy Corrigan’s world.
The hero of Ware’s story is neither a kid nor very smart, but rather a “lonely, emotionally-impaired human castaway.” His place of employment is a cubicle, the Dilbert prop that has become our favourite metaphor for contemporary isolation and anomie. He seems to be only in his thirties but already looks like an old man. At least once a day he phones his mom.
The story is concerned with Jimmy’s attempt to understand the secret past that has been riding him like a genetic ghost all his life. It begins with his receiving a letter from the father he never knew asking him to come visit him in Michigan. When he gets there he is introduced to a family history that includes an adopted sister and a grandfather, also named Jimmy Corrigan, whose story is told at length in flashback.
Grandfather Jimmy is another human castaway, having been abandoned by his father during a trip to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The Fair’s White City is the symbolic center of the novel – an unreal, artificial world that is both indifferent and cruel. Its image becomes the novel’s theme.
Jimmy Corrigan isn’t for kids, and it certainly isn’t meant to be fun. The tone throughout is one of unrelieved loneliness and depression. Crutches and walkers symbolize emotional disabilities. Personal relations are only forged with great effort, and always end in pain. In a dream sequence Jimmy imagines that he has become a metal man so that he can’t be hurt by human contact. Joy, even the joy of a child, can’t penetrate the envelope. The only time we see either Jimmy smile is when Jimmy Sr. is played for a fool by a school mate who later takes the opportunity to humiliate him.
The art of Jimmy Corrigan, its dull colouring and smoothly vacant backgrounds, provides a perfect complement to the novel’s melancholy. The figures are drawn with thick black outlines that emphasize their separation from a geometrically pure and inhuman world (cubicles, clapboard rooming houses, the White City). The faces of secondary characters remain hidden, turned away or concealed behind body parts, thus increasing our sense of isolation. And even Jimmy is an alienating site. His old-fashioned clothes exaggerate his prematurely aged physique while his eyes look like a couple of milky pinholes punched into a saggy lump of pink clay. It is as though Ware is daring us to walk away.
It is an amazing book, with perhaps the most amazing thing about it being the way Ware, writing for serial publication at the rate of two pages a week for the past seven years, manages to control such a complex visual narrative and give it the kind of shape it has. With its interest in race, history, family and identity it has something of the status of an American epic, while its cool eye and ad-art background help make it into an ironic pop statement on unpopularity. It will have to be read more than once to be appreciated fully – but most readers will find the extra time well spent.
Review first published December 2, 2000.