Bob's Comics Reviews December 2000 Arrows


Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth
I reviewed Acme Novelty Library before, but I've always worried that I missed something, something that other readers seem to find in abundance. The recent publication of the Jimmy Corrigan story in expensive hardback form seemed like an excellent opportunity to rectify any errors, and redress any slights which may, despite the vaunted objectivity of the reviewer, have been committed.

(Sorry. Ware likes to write like that, and it rubs off.)

Jimmy's scintillating conversational style

The plot is simple enough. Jimmy Corrigan lives alone in Chicago, bereft of all human contact except for a domineering mother and a coworker who barely acknowledges his existence. His father James, whom he has never known, unexpectedly sends him a plane ticket to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with him in Michigan. Reluctantly, Jimmy goes. There are no epiphanies: the two men's conversation is awkward in the extreme, and pained by a couple minor setbacks (James's car is stolen; Jimmy is hit by a truck) and a major one.

Along the way we get a substantial chunk of Jimmy's grandfather's ninth year. This includes some spectactular drawings of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, and young James almost but not quite getting to know a young Italian boy, a cute redhead, and his own father.

Then back to the present, for a surprising revelation: Jimmy has an adoptive black sister, Amy. They're thrown together for a day or two when Dad ends up in the hospital. Then, in an echo of his grandfather's basic fucked-up-ness, Amy rejects Jimmy and Jimmy retreats to Chicago.

Graphically, the book is stunning; it has the assured, hard-edged lines of commercial illustration, with some lovely architectural vistas and snow-softened landscapes. Ware also likes to interrupt himself with postcards, cut-out projects, and blocks of mock-Victorian prose set in type so small it made my eyes hurt. There are also some awfully clever diagrams which wordlessly summarize some of the rather complicated character and place relationships.

All that said... Jimmy Corrigan is just not my cup of warm spit. Jimmy is just barely alive. He seems to be one of those pitiable folks who find ordinary life troublingly difficult, but he doesn't have the gumption to create an inner life of his own. He barely responds when he's spoken to; when he does speak, he says nothing interesting. When someone shows him kindness, he freezes up; when they're rude, he retreats.

His grandfather, the subject of the Victorian sections of the book, looks and acts exactly alike; only his father, who after all gets married and adopts a daughter, has a bit more life in him (though a banal sort of life that seems to aesthetically offend Ware).

All this becomes a bit more comprehensible when we learn that Ware himself had never known his own father. In fact, he met him for the first and last time while working on this book-- and he died before the book was done.

So, the basic circumstances of Jimmy Corrigan are autobiographical. But Ware has left something out: Jimmy is not a cartoonist. Ware has the ability to articulate his life and make art out of it; Jimmy does not. Perhaps he belittles this ability, or feels that without it he would as much of a zero as Jimmy. Still, it seems to me to be a significant and fatal omission. (Another is that Ware has managed to get himself married, something it's hard to imagine Jimmy doing.) Is it really an act of authorial compassion to chronicle lives as devoid of any human value as this? Or is Jimmy Corrigan Chris Ware's opinion of the rest of us?

Jimmy has received critical attention of the sort that Gary Groth craves, such as reviews in the Village Voice Literary Supplement. I don't begrudge it; Ware has certainly shown that the sort of existential despair that suffuses much of modern literature can be successfully evoked in comics.

back to Metaverse