Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth, by Chris Ware

Charles Shaar Murray hails a graphic novel that draws on deep feelings as well as smart art

Saturday 16 June 2001 00:00
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Jimmy Corrigan, the protagonist of cartoonist Chris Ware's epic monument to communication breakdown and the mundane surrealism of ordinary life, is neither smart nor a kid, though he is indubitably on earth. Wispy-haired, pear-shaped, potato-faced and prematurely middle-aged at 38, he is a quintessential nebbish, the barren butt-end of a dysfunctional dynasty of cowed, confused men, lost in America.

While the comic book has been dominated ever since its inception in the 1930s by superheroes, its ancestor, the newspaper strip, was always a far more eclectic beast. Though Superman ­ or as close to Superman as Ware can get without provoking Time Warner's regiments of copyright lawyers ­ appears as a recurring motif of Jimmy's inner landscape, Chris Ware's creative roots reach all the way back to the late 19th century, where, indeed, crucial sections of his story are set.

This exquisitely packaged graphic-novel edition of the strip, which ran in Ware's own Acme Novelty Library for most of the 1990s, has been hailed as a masterpiece, and rightly so. Ware has been praised for the acute psychological insight of his writing, for the crisp, pellucid elegance of his art and design, and for his formal innovations, not least the dizzying variety of graphic idioms and narrative through-lines set in different time-periods, which he juggles with awesome self-assurance.

Dave Eggers, one of Ware's most enthusiastic cheerleaders, hails him as "the most versatile and innovative artist the field has known" and this book as "arguably the greatest achievement of the form". This should come as no surprise, since much of the attention attracted by Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was attributable to the elaborate conceptual machinery with which he scaffolded what was a fairly conventional, and highly approachable, narrative.

By contrast, Ware's own conceptual machinery ­ manifested most ostentatiously in a blizzard of text pieces, diagrams and self-assembly models and dioramas ­ is far from being a delightful bolt-on extra. It is organically as much part of the work as his lustrous, crystalline colours and haiku-like narration: "And while he might have readied himself for harsh words, rough handling or even a slap nothing prepared this boy for the unchecked sobs of a child anticipating the imminent loss of his mother."

Reduced to plot outline, Jimmy Corrigan could scarcely be simpler. Child-man wage-slave Jimmy, working in a generic cubicle job in Chicago, living with his tyrannical mother and fantasising about a never- happen relationship with the mailroom girl, receives an air ticket from his estranged father, absent since childhood. He flies to Michigan and meets not only his dad Billy, but his grandfather, also Jimmy, who was himself abandoned as a child by his father during the Chicago Columbian Exhibition of 1893. He also meets Amy, the black adoptive stepsister of whose existence he had previously been unaware.

Swamped by a succession of tragicomic disasters, a man who has never quite come to terms with his own humanity must recognise the humanity of an Other (black, female) in order to cope with the humanity of the father whose absence had blighted his life. Not surprisingly, the strip began in part as an attempt by Ware to work out his feelings towards his own estranged father.

So far so plain, and so soapy. Except that it isn't. In Ware's world, lost boys grow up (or fail to do so), turning into lost men. Grey waves of depression cascade endlessly down though lost generations. No feel- good endings here: what prevents the bleakness of Ware's vision from overwhelming the reader in a flood of cosmic pessimism is the sheer craftsmanship, imagination, inventiveness and compassion with which it is realised.

Periodically, a new graphic novel or strip is lauded as helping to transform comics into literature. George Herriman, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore and the Hernandez Brothers have already demonstrated that there is no reason why comics cannot attain this stature. Chris Ware now joins this select company, and Jimmy Corrigan merits the fullest and most immediate attention of comics aficionados and sceptics alike.

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