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Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth

In The Catch-Up, a longtime fan and a newcomer discuss a TV show, movie, book, music, or other pop-culture item. In this installment, Noel Murray and Oliver Sava discuss Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, Chris Ware’s groundbreaking 2000 graphic novel.

Oliver Sava: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth is a graphic novel that I had tried reading multiple times in the past, but was always too busy/happy to really devote my time to. I first tried to read Jimmy Corrigan after seeing Neil Gaiman praise it on the back cover of Blankets, but my adolescent mind just wasn’t able to process what was going on within its pages. I picked it up years later because my roommate had a copy along with a few issues of Acme Novelty Library, and while I was able to get into Acme, I struggled to make it through the first pages of Jimmy Corrigan. When I received a copy for my birthday last year, I began reading it one more time, and stopped at the same place: the moment Jimmy Corrigan receives a letter from his father, the catalyst for the story. After finally reading the entirety of Ware’s epic meditation on loneliness and inaction, I can’t help but notice the pattern of ending my reading at the start of the story, as if I were afraid to truly take the leap into Jimmy Corrigan’s world. I’m a generally upbeat, happy person, and this book’s reputation for soul-crushing misery scared me away. I was Jimmy Corrigan on the ledge of a building, thinking about the dead Superman corpse on the sidewalk rather than believing I could fly.

Reading Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth in one sitting is an incredibly intense emotional journey, engrossing and exhausting at the same time. Against the backdrop of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the biggest event in the world, Ware tells the deeply personal story of two boys generations apart: 8-year-old James Corrigan and his grandson, 39-year-old manchild Jimmy Corrigan. Ware’s use of small panels highlights his exceptional gift for capturing the minutiae of life, which combined with the bleak, desolate tone of his writing, emphasizes just how little everyone is in the grand scheme of things. Those tiny panels also come in handy when Ware wants to tell an entire story in a single page, showing just how huge that cosmic scheme really is, and ultimately proving that we’re all more connected than we may believe. From a visual storytelling standpoint, Chris Ware is genius, using the graphic medium to delve into the human psyche in ways that I’ve never seen before. Dreams and fantasies weave in and out of everyday events, lending the book an ethereal quality that balances the stark depictions of human tragedy. As depressing as the story gets, Ware has a great sense of humor, and there are enough moments of joy interspersed throughout to ward off complete emotional devastation.

You have a much better knowledge of Ware’s history and his contemporaries, Noel. What were your first reactions after reading Jimmy Corrigan? Have you gone back to it all since then?

Noel Murray: Well, I first read Jimmy Corrigan in serialized form, in the original Acme Novelty Library comic-book issues, and I initially had a hard time grasping what Ware was trying to do. The Corrigan character actually appears in the first issue of Acme, where he’s both the sad-sack middle-aged Jimmy of the graphic novel and the child-friendly pulp adventurer that the “Smartest Kid On Earth” tag implies. Then Acme #5 presents the first real chapter of what would become the graphic novel (though some of the Corrigan material had been previously published in Ware’s weekly Acme comic strip). After four straight Acme issues of playful formal experiments, dark slapstick comedy, and classic comics pastiche, suddenly Ware offered up this moody, oblique little narrative piece, most of which was taking place inside Jimmy’s head. The next issue continued the story, albeit with less of the fantasy and more of the slow-drip slice of life. Then Acme #7 reverted back to oversized, non-Corrigan gag strips, before Acme #8 returned to the graphic novel, with a jump back in time to the 1890s. At the time that #8 came out, those of us who only read Ware via the Acme comic books had been inching our way through the main Jimmy Corrigan story for almost two years, and frankly, it hadn’t been all that rewarding.


But the eighth issue was a real turning point. For starters, the opening “100 years ago” vignette—with its details about life in and around Chicago as the city prepared for the Columbian Exposition—was more immediately compelling than the previous dreary pages of a mumbly Jimmy eating bad fast food with his long-absent, profoundly creepy pop. Also, in the middle of Acme #8, Ware inserts an amusing two-page “story so far” (also included in the collected graphic novel), which clarifies what had been going on for the previous 100 or so pages, and sets the stage for what’s to come. The remaining chapters were much easier for me to follow, as Ware alternated between the familiar awkwardness and ugliness of modern life and the more exotic melancholy of the past. In fact, while I’d say that Jimmy Corrigan is meant to be read—and should be read—as a book, I’m not sure that the experience of reading the collected story can measure up to the experience of reading Acme #13, the beautifully written and illustrated chapter in which James Corrigan takes in the wonder of the Expo and then is abandoned by his father.


Oliver, you ask if I’ve returned very often to Jimmy Corrigan and the answer is yes. I read the collected version when it came out in 2000, and I’ve re-read it a couple of times since then. But when I taught a comics history class in the early ’00s, I put Quimby The Mouse in my syllabus instead of Jimmy. Much of what I like best about Ware—his imaginative page designs, his warped sense of humor, his gift for wordlessly conveying complicated ideas about our common human cruelty—is more in evidence in his giant one-pagers than in his longer narratives, in my opinion. I do think Jimmy Corrigan is a major work, and one that I like a great deal; but it can be a difficult book, both because it’s so sour and because Ware was feeling his way through the story in the early going, trying to find the style that suited the material. (Ware even admits as much in the book’s postscript, though he tends to be intensely self-critical, so it’s hard to take his “apology” completely at face value.)

I am curious though, Oliver, what other Ware-like comics you’ve read, which ones you’ve liked best, and how you’d position Jimmy Corrigan in your personal pantheon of great comics (of any type or genre).


Oliver: That two-page “story so far” is when the book clicks for me, because I need to have all those separate threads mapped out. The Acme #13 chapter was also where I found myself the most emotionally involved, and I wish that I felt as much for Jimmy as I did for his grandfather. There’s something so cold about the present-day sequences, and the trip back in time to a chaotic world full of possibilities brings life and energy to the narrative. It’s still dreary, but it’s more active. And after all those pages of little panels, the flood of splash pages really emphasizes the sense of wonder and grandeur at the Expo.

Before sitting down to read Jimmy Corrigan, a friend told me that I should probably read it in sections because there are arcs to the story with distinct endpoints. That surely comes from the book’s original publication history, which is probably why you’re more aware of the changes Ware makes along the way. As someone who has little knowledge of the Chris Ware library, I find it hard to see artistic shifts that might be more evident when there are considerable gaps between short chapters. I feel like now I need to read those old Acme Jimmy Corrigan stories to see how the character evolved over time, and this has definitely left me eager to explore more of Ware’s work, especially those Quimby The Mouse stories. I once saw Ivan Brunetti dissect one of Ware’s oversized pages in a lecture, and it was fascinating to see how his composition and design skills capture the scope of an environment and the passage of time.


It’s hard for me to pinpoint what makes a “Ware-like” comic because he has such a distinct visual and narrative style. In terms of stories that use the medium in innovative ways to tell personal stories, I would definitely place Jimmy Corrigan in my top five, with Asterios Polyp, David Boring, Wimbledon Green, and Blankets. None of those books are anything alike, which again raises the question of what exactly constitutes a “Ware-like” comic. Each looks into the life of one central figure (or in the case of the different generations of James Corrigan, one central idea) and shows that character’s unique viewpoint. In Wimbledon Green, the main character is an enigma; his entire life is defined by tangential comic strips, both in the story and on the page. Asterios Polyp accentuates how its hero perceives the world by utilizing different lettering and linework for individual characters. Craig Thompson’s expressive, lyrical style perfectly captures the beauty and angst of teenage romance. 


In that pantheon, Jimmy Corrigan is closest to David Boring, which makes sense considering Daniel Clowes and Ware are friends from their Chicago days, and I love how both of those stories use superhero imagery. For both Clowes and Ware, the superhero represents the lofty wishes and dreams that go unfulfilled in a regular person’s life. As a superhero comics reader, that’s the kind of depressing story I wish I had in a Superman or Spider-Man book, rather than the “kill/rape/maim random character” variety of depressing we usually get. I know Ware’s interpretation of Superman is a recurring character in Acme; does he play with this theme a lot in his other work? I find the relationship between art comics and superhero comics fascinating, and think the latter would benefit greatly from taking an example from the former, especially in its progressive use of the medium.

Noel: That makes me think about a couple of my favorite mainstream superhero comics of recent years: James Sturm and Guy Davis’ Unstable Molecules (which is sort of a Fantastic Four story) and Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s Secret Identity (which is sort of a Superman story). Both explore the meaning of pop-culture icons in a more realistic setting, and get beneath our persistent attachment to them. It’s not just power fantasies that compel us; we’re also drawn to the idea of makeshift families, and secrets, and making the best of what we have. I agree, Oliver; I’d rather see more writers and artists use superheroes with that kind of sensitivity and imagination. Lord knows I’d take that over the umpteenth rehash of what happened to the young Bruce Wayne’s psyche when he saw his parents get bumped off in Crime Alley.


You have an interesting interpretation of how Ware uses his “Superman.” I think it’s a good reading, especially given that one of the most memorable (and funniest) images in Jimmy Corrigan is of Superman leaping off of a tall building and falling to his death. It’s worth noting that in some of his earlier one-page strips, Ware drew Superman as a capricious God, taking only a casual and self-serving interest in human affairs. So the image of the pulverized Superman in Jimmy Corrigan has another possible meaning here: God is dead, and we’ve been left alone in the universe to figure our own shit out.

But I’ve always read Jimmy Corrigan’s Superman differently: as a representation of Ware’s own absent father. The opening scene of the book shows a young Jimmy meeting the television actor who plays Superman, and then shows that actor sleeping with Jimmy’s mom and ducking out before breakfast, leaving Jimmy with a mask as a souvenir. Even Jimmy’s father-figures abandon him. Ware has made no secret of the fact that this story was inspired by his own life, and his imagining of what would happen if he ever met his long-vanished dad. (In a strange bit of synchronicity, that reunion actually did happen, when Ware’s father contacted him out of the blue while he was in the middle of working on Jimmy Corrigan.) Because Ware started in the world of newspaper comics—a medium where Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown over and over, and Ignatz launches bricks at Krazy Kat’s head every day—he tends to work in motifs, repeating plots and images until he’s gotten them out of his head. That’s the case with the Quimby strips, which are mostly about the death of his grandmother and about a bad romantic break-up; and that’s the case with Jimmy Corrigan, which is about how generation after generation of Corrigan boys are emotionally crippled by the selfishness of their pops.


I’m looking forward to seeing what Ware’s latest epic, Rusty Brown, will look like when it’s finished. Its individual chapters have been arriving at a crawl, with the most recent volume having come out in late 2010. My initial reaction to the early Rusty Brown chapters was that they seemed to be covering too much of the same ground as Jimmy Corrigan and Quimby, from the at-times-overwhelming sadness and mundanity to the obsessive recreation of the Midwest of Ware’s youth. But of the four Rusty Brown books released so far, each has been more ambitious, trying out different styles of art and storytelling as once again Ware skips across time to show what shapes (and warps) us. Much like Jimmy Corrigan, the Rusty Brown character started as a recurring featured player in Ware’s gag cartoons, and now, as with Jimmy, Ware is in the process of creating a detailed, realistic backstory for the joke. Every time a new Rusty Brown book comes out, I reread what’s come before, and the work definitely rewards that kind of attention. I expect Rusty Brown may eclipse Jimmy Corrigan as Ware’s masterwork once it’s done, if only because it’s as assured throughout as Jimmy Corrigan is in its 1890s chapters.

But over time I’ve come to love the modern-day sections of Jimmy Corrigan too, because while I’m still not sure Ware handles dialogue all that well in the book—like a lot of young artists, he seemed to mistake vulgarity for realism back then—the man can damn well draw. As glorious as the Expo splash panels are (as you note), I think I’m even more enamored of the way Ware turns the unnoticed detritus of everyday life into icons. He applies his “airport safety card” style to a plate of cafeteria turkey and green beans, or an opened single-serving packet of creamer sitting in a small puddle of its own contents. Jimmy Corrigan adds psychological depth to a two-dimensional cartoon character, and renders the three-dimensionality of everyday life as a cartoon. It’s a remarkable feat of bringing those two worlds together, and I find the achievement itself more staggering every time I revisit it.


Oliver: I love that you mention Unstable Molecules and Secret Identity, two of my favorite superhero comics of the past decade and two books that benefit greatly from being set in the real world while exploring superhero themes. (You’ll be happy to know that Kurt Busiek is working on a Batman-focused sequel to Secret Identity: Batman: Creature Of The Night with John Paul Leon.) I wish that these kinds of stories were the norm rather than exceptional outliers, but then you’d risk losing the readership that buys superhero comics for the bright costumes and exaggerated proportions and widescreen fisticuffs. I think there’s a way to balance the two separate camps, and Marvel has done remarkably well in the past 10 years by taking alternative creators and putting them on long-standing properties. Both DC and Marvel have tried anthologies like Bizarro Comics and Strange Tales to give indie talent the chance to work on their characters, but how great would it be if there was an ongoing title dedicated to giving people like Chris Ware or Seth or Kate Beaton the chance to tell a long-form story?

Those Acme issues my roommate had were parts of the Rusty Brown story, and judging by the ease of which I was able to jump into those compared to Jimmy Corrigan, I’m anxious to read the entire completed story. Now I’m faced with a dilemma: Do I seek out old issues of Acme Novelty Library and catch up on Rusty in serialized form, or do I wait however many years and read the whole thing in one sitting? There’s enough Chris Ware material I still have to catch up on that I could easily see myself waiting for the finished graphic novel, but the excitement of reading issue-to-issue has become very appealing. It’s something I noticed when I caught up on Locke & Key in collections and switched to single issues because I couldn’t wait an entire year for the next trade: I don’t like having to wait almost two months between each individual chapter, but my enjoyment of each single issue is heightened in response. When I read them all together, I can appreciate Joe Hill’s long-term plotting, but taking each issue in on its own reveals Hill’s skill for creating captivating short stories within a larger context. I imagine that Ware’s serialized stories have the same effect, but amplified considerably because he’s such a unique creator. Regardless of how I consume it, I can’t wait to dive back into Ware’s work, especially as I grow older and my life experiences change. I took something different away from those first pages of Jimmy Corrigan after each of my three false starts, and it will be interesting to see how my reading of the book changes as I do. That’s the mark of a great artist: someone who creates a work that grows long after it’s been completed.


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