Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
by Chris Ware (Pantheon, 2003)

Jimmy Corrigan began life as a weekly strip in Chicago's New City alternative newspaper, where it won the Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series in 1996 and 2000. It was collected and published in hardcover in 2000 and is now available for the first time in paperback. Inventive, sweeping and definitely pushing the boundaries, it is a masterpiece of graphic art and storytelling.

Jimmy Corrigan is a loser, one of those people that life tends to overlook. Friendless, awkward, meek and rather too mild to make an impression on anyone, Jimmy lives under the thumb of an overprotective mother, with only his superhero fantasies to keep him company. Out of the blue he receives a letter from his estranged father, asking if the two can meet after years of silence. What follows is an Ulysses-like exploration of a moment in time when the past and present collide, revealing secrets and creating whole new lifelines and stories.

The absolute quintessence of shy and retiring, Jimmy is at one and the same time an Everyman and the epitome of an unmotivated person whose fear-born laziness in regards to his own life completely cripples his ability to actually live it. As the layers of family histories are slowly peeled back, Jimmy's reticence becomes more and more understandable so that by the end of the book it's hard not to feel protective of him and the cocoon in which he lives. There is so much pain surrounding the issue of abandonment that the unfortunate Corrigan family seems to carry like a gene, that it's a wonder they can even make any sort of connection at all.

Every twist and turn of the slow-moving, delicate plot raises questions about the meaning of human activity and of life itself. Although Jimmy lives in a self-enclosed universe with little or no disturbance from the outside world, it is quite obvious that his life is neither placid nor tranquil. Jimmy's many weaknesses are almost comic, but Ware raises his hero above the level of caricature by allowing him to occasionally identify with others in profound ways and by keeping the satire as gentle as possible.

The wry humor successfully keeps mawkish emotion at bay, while the sentiment likewise works to keep the story from becoming whimsical to the point of idleness and emotional stagnation. Ware pulls off the enormous feat of making each detail relevant to the plot. In spite of being so crammed with minutiae that it seems as though there is another story, or perhaps even 10 more stories in each of the vignettes presented, Jimmy Corrigan never feels overwritten.

The visual style and story are perfectly balanced. Beautifully colored and illustrated, the spare and uncluttered artwork is architecturally precise in its renderings. The panels are small, keeping the action tightly contained. "Linear" is the best adjective to describe both the art and the story: the strained but unbreakable lines that connect one person's lifeline to another's, or one place to another, a small town in 1980's Michigan to the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago. Lines that keep us stuck in one place, marking time in one spot, or lines that hurtle us into a world where revelations about the past turn life upside down.

So dreamlike is the art and wording that it would have been easy to simply let the book become a purely expressionistic vehicle, existing for the boundary-pushing artwork alone, but Ware keeps the story grounded enough to follow the plot without being overwhelmed. The moral undercurrent is one of reconciliation in spite of enormous anguish. Underneath all the tragedy lies hope that somehow, people can find a way to connect despite the burdens they carry. Bad things happen to good people, and good people, while waiting for life to happen, sometimes let their lives slip through their fingers. Almost, anyway. You never know when a sliver of hope will rear its head, and in the unlikeliest of places to boot.

In terms of the field of graphic fiction JC remains one of, if not the, modernist masterpiece, in which Ware takes both art and storytelling to splendid extremes. Unusual though it is, JC is compulsively readable, and can be navigated with relative ease, provided you're willing to be challenged by Ware's wonderful storytelling.

review by
Mary Harvey

13 December 2008

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