Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware, 2000
James Joyce wrote in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that his protagonist/alter ego’s aesthetics sought to create an art that neither attracted the audience nor repelled them. He sought, in some sense of the words, aesthetic arrest, a transcendent moment when the art would present itself unalloyed by emotion or even rationality and one’s true self would behold deep to the core the nature of Truth in Art.
As a reviewer, I am often touched by this notion. It sometimes seems to me unfair to review a piece I absolutely love or absolutely loathe prior to writing about it. Not that I don’t swallow this idealized piece of ethics and go ahead and write the review anyway, as reviewing is primarily about one’s own personal feelings and judgments about a piece. And there is, no doubt about this, a certain gleeful pleasure that you can take in getting behind a heap big wrecking ball to tear something up. Yet, having a love or hate for something, then reading or listening or watching it again with an eye toward writing a review feels a bit like cheating. I already know how I feel.
And perhaps that’s the biggest issue: feelings. When you have strong feelings one way or another for a piece, it can often interfere with your ability to deal out strong, honest critical analysis. At the same time, the duty of a critic is to say, “Oh yes, you absolutely must” or “Good heavens no” or even some sentiment in between. There just seems to be something inherently dishonest or less than honest perhaps about knowing long before finishing the second run of a work that I’m going to sit down and right a “Oh yes, you absolutely must” review.
All of that said, the moment you get done reading this review, turn off your computer, go outside, get in your car or on your bike, go to the nearest book store and buy Chris Ware’s innovative, moving, stunning, and powerful graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth.
Ware’s style, honed while writing and drawing strips for his college paper and for Chicago’s New City takes a bit to get used to. Often there are a multitude of very small panels crowding one page broken up by larger panels and the flow of these panels is idiosyncratic and rarely the same path twice. Your initial reaction to follow a standard top to bottom, left to right reading will be of use for most pages, but occasionally you will be forced to adjust. (This page from Random House’s online preview demonstrates this tactic alarmingly well.)
There are no less than three generations of Jimmy Corrigans in the course of this 380 page sprawling history of both the men sharing that name and the city, Chicago, they call home. Our main protagonist is the third such Jimmy. He is a shy man with, like most of us, a far more interesting fantasy life than real one. He lives alone in Chicago, harried by his domineering mother, when one surprising day his long absent and estranged father who he never knew calls him and invites him to come and visit. In the course of his visit, Jimmy will meet his father James and his grandfather as well. It is the first and the third Jimmy Corrigan who make up the bulk of the novel, while the second Jimmy plays a rather limited role, instigating the events without fully participating in them.
Through the eyes of Jimmy the grandfather, we see the Chicago of the late 1890s as the Great Columbian Fair is being constructed. He lives with his abusive father, William, a glazier, and his dying grandmother. The intrusion of this earlier plotline jars you out of an incredibly small cliffhanger from the story already underway of Jimmy the third alone in his father’s apartment in the small town of Waukosha. It is this turn-of-the-century story of abuse and abandonment that is the most touching of all the tales that fills this book.
What makes the work all the more remarkable is that Ware began writing it as a meandering reminisce on his own absent father in the pages of the New City before launching it as its own digest sized comic, and he began writing it with no clear story that he intended to follow. Improvisatory work often suffers from its own inability to shake or fully inhabit its shapelessness, leading a work to be either striving for form or uncomfortable in its own formlessness. Jimmy Corrigan is remarkably well structured and paced, perhaps more by the help of later tidying and editing, and each turn in the story feels perfectly like the outgrowth of what came before. As you see Jimmy’s relationships with his various parents, you understand why Jimmy the grandfather became the man he did and how that led his son to become the man he did and how James' divorce of Jimmy the third's mother and abandonment of his son led our protagonist into becoming the man we follow. There is an organic nature of each relationship being a progression from the earlier ones. These graphic characters become more real and three dimensional with fewer words than most novels use.
Ware’s work in all its various permutations is laced through with a terrible sadness and isolation. Jimmy Corrigan remains one of the saddest works I’ve read and it does it without the characters being knowingly self-conscious of their suffering, without ever once there being a tacit admission that one is unhappy in the greater scheme of things. This rather restrained acceptance of one’s misery is a far more moving testament to that misery than all the melodramas of self-pity many melancholic writers dole out.
Then there is the art itself. With such simple lines, Ware is able to tease out the finest nuance of loneliness, worry, anxiety, rage, and helplessness. The panels often have the heavy and brooding lines of woodcuts and the color palette underscores such fine grades of emotional shift. A sudden realization is punctuated by all background details dropping from the panel and a garish shock of red illuminating the characters. Memories from either long ago or only moments before are sketched out in a ghostly overlay, tweaked as memory often is by emotional highlighting. In one scene, while Jimmy the third sits in the hospital with his father and discovers he also has a sister, his father perhaps inappropriately jokes, “What…you thought you were the only mistake I ever made? Ha ha.” Minutes later, when his father steps out of the room, Jimmy sees him as a monochromatic outline, pointing at him and accusing: “You’re a mistake the only mistake I ever made, you mistake.” In this same earlier exchange, in the midst of answering one of his father’s almost badgering questions, Jimmy momentarily is rendered as a child, cringing in fear from a louder, older man.
Ware’s panels can go from almost bereft of any detail, just the silhouette of a shoe moving down the silhouette of a stair, to a full page breathtaking rendering of a giant exposition hall from the 1890s. One scene of Jimmy the third waiting in his father’s apartment is a triumph of free floating dread and discomfort rendered in the most mundane of markers: a digital clock face relentlessly ticking forward. In another, we are given a deprived child’s eye view of entertaining yourself.
Ware’s novel is hopefully a harbinger of things to come, a sign of life in the graphic novel industry that enjoyed a brief flourishing Renaissance in the late eighties and early nineties before the burgeoning market’s bottom dropped out. Innovative, intelligent graphic work for adults arrived farther and farther apart, while the bedrock of the American comics industry, adenoidal cases in ballet costumes fighting crime, regained their dominance. Between Ware and Daniel Clowes, the graphic novel in a serious, experimental, and literary form may possibly prove the vanguard into a sizable adult market. What Ware will do in the future I look forward to expectantly.