Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth
by Chris Ware
Published by Pantheon
380 pages, 2000
Chris Ware: The Smartest Cartoonist on Earth
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Imagine a cultural landscape where cinema is considered nothing more than a medium to display sensationalistic visual effects: from the onrushing train of the Lumière brothers to Imax; where prose fiction is seen as nothing more than a vehicle for romantic fantasies of haute société; where no one can be convinced that television is good for anything but live transmissions of grand events and glorifications of consumer culture. Imagine a world where the worst exemplars of a medium are de facto considered the best that medium can achieve. Imagine no one taking Polanski's Chinatown seriously because of Verhoeven's Robocop. Imagine J.G. Ballard being ridiculed because his chosen medium is the same as Danielle Steel's. Imagine Joss Whedon's subversive and hip Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Michael Moore's irreverently angry The Awful Truth being treated like nothing more than clones of Beverly Hills 90210 or The Price Is Right.
Imagine that no one believed that comics could spawn anything but infantile talking animals, crude jokes and badly written superheroes. Imagine that no one recognized the staggering and prolific imagination of Jack Kirby, the bizarrely hilarious science fiction of Matt Howarth, the disturbingly ambiguous sexual musings of Dave Cooper, the anthropologically savvy speculations of Carla Speed McNeil, the unflinching reportage of Joe Sacco, the formal achievements of Alan Moore, the excitement of -- Oops. I forgot. That's this world. No one but comics geeks cares about any of these people and their work. To paraphrase John Lennon: Comics is the nigger of the art world. But every once in a while something happens (for example the success of Art Spiegelman's Maus) that threatens to free comics from its ghetto. The latest such event is the publication of Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth.
In 1993, Fantagraphics -- an American comics publisher dedicated to presenting works by a variety of visionary cartoonists -- released the first issue of Chris Ware's The Acme Novelty Library. The cover copy included blurbs such as "An Indefensible Attempt to Justify the Despair of Those Who Have Never Known Real Tragedy" and "A Guaranteed Solace for the Economically Privileged" and "Where Art & Avarice Share the Same Telephone Line." The comic book featured a character called "Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth" who was neither a kid nor very smart.
The visual style evoked classic American comics strips from the early 20th century, creating a nostalgic aura of simplicity that lulled readers into a false sense of security. What followed was a mosaic of despair, loneliness and pathos, of hurtful memories and risible daydreams. And far from simple, the narrative techniques demanded that readers pay close attention, lest they be lost in a murky zone between reality and fancy or between panels with no idea where to go next. Chris Ware's work is widely considered to be the state-of-the-art in modern comics. He strives to create deeply layered stories in which irony and pain clash in every scene to result in a multiplicity of meanings and textures. Ware's comics are at least as rewarding as they are demanding.
Ware's reputation among the cognoscenti has been growing from year to year, as evidenced by the growing number of awards he's been reaping. For example, at the 2000 Harvey Awards (named after Harvey Kurtzman, the creator of Mad), Ware was nominated in eight categories and won in an impressive total of six: Best Cover Artist, Special Award for Excellence in Presentation, Best Letterer, Best Colorist, Best Continuing or Limited Series and Best Single Issue or Story. It's important to note that Ware has earned the Special Award for Excellence in Presentation for six consecutive years now. Indeed, perhaps the most distinguishing feature of his comics, and certainly the one that prompts potential readers to browse through his comics, is Ware's innovative and -- I must emphasize -- jaw-droppingly gorgeous use of design techniques not only for exterior and interior presentation but also imbedded into his narrative style. More than anything, it is Ware's sophisticated and synergetic use of design that makes his work fascinating comics and also one of the most arresting artistic achievements in recent years.
Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth is yet another Ware design triumph. It collects, along with a few other related tidbits, the long saga serialized in eight issues of The Acme Novelty Library from 1995 to 2000. It's the latest in a select series of comics albums from Random House/Pantheon (publishers of Art Spiegelman's Maus and of Ben Katchor's The Jew of New York). Jimmy Corrigan is the eponymous full-color, 380-page tale of a sad, socially inept man who visits his father after years of estrangement. The story that unfolds is an intricate mosaic that, with artful use of flashbacks, spans generations. The main protagonist is the current-day Jimmy Corrigan, but there's a secondary storyline, featuring Jimmy's grandfather -- also called Jimmy Corrigan -- set in late 19th-century Chicago.
Both Jimmys have a tendency to indulge in spiteful daydreams laced with absurd elements. Both are social pariahs greatly oppressed by their respective parents. Both are unsympathetic losers forever poisoned by fear, anger and -- most of all -- parental betrayal. They are so wrapped up in their own lives that they are incapable of any true feeling for anyone else, save spite and hatred and envy. Ware's story navigates with dreamlike logic between the two Jimmys and their respective fantasy lives.
On the one hand Ware ridicules his unsympathetic protagonists' shortcomings, but he also explicitly details some of the cruel and difficult circumstances which shaped them into what they are. Ware makes us laugh while pointedly underlining that this is no laughing matter.
Ware's meticulously slow pacing emphasizes his characters' social ineptitude. The book's social interactions are filled with long, uncomfortable silences. Jimmy Corrigan the younger, for example, is devastatingly bored and boring. He barely exists. He feels excluded from the pageant of life and it feeds his unexpressed and repressed bitterness. He could be a potential serial killer, except that he lacks the will for any kind of expression or action. He lets life push him around. He feels powerless to do anything about anything: his domineering mother, his obnoxious father, his abusive coworkers, his dull, dull, empty life.
Before the release of Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware was mostly known by a core of die-hard comics aficionados who saw in his work a serious, dedicated, and -- above all -- visionary devotion to the art form. Now, with this handsome and hefty volume distributed in bookstores by one of the world's largest publishers, perhaps Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth will expand not only Ware's audience but also the perception of what comics can be and, as a result, the audience for comics. Dare I hope that the walls of the ghetto may finally come crashing down? | November 2000
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.