Sunday Review: Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest kid on Earth

My regular readers might know that I have an abiding interest in comics and graphic novels. This usually manifests itself in reading some Japanese manga classics, such as Osamu Tezuka’s “Phoenix” series. I also teach Art Spiegelman’s classic Maus in one of my English classes. And recently, I’ve been introduced to another American graphic artist and storyteller: Chris Ware, the author of the large, epic, intricate, and frequently depressing Jimmy Corrigan.

If you read the New Yorker magazine, you’re probably already familiar with Chris Ware’s work. He creates many cartoons and covers in many of the magazines, and they are all in his characteristic sleek, monochromatic, and perfect, style. By perfect, I mean with flawless, professional outlining, the sort of cartooning and illustration that you would see in the emergency procedure manual of an airline. As a result, the people in his panels can sometimes seem generic, but that works well for Chris Ware’s premise: pretty much every character and Jimmy Corrigan is utterly banal, suffering from a painfully blank middle class, middling existence.

There is a kind of fascination with which we can examine Ware’s panels: he is a master of capturing the sort of bleak stripmall settings that have spread across much of America today. Notice the care with which he has rendered the gas stations, dead-end diners, and salt-stained health clinics that dot the areas surrounding our suburbs. On top of this painful, perfect precise capturing of middle America, Ware is also a machinist. His work is always elaborate, making you feel like a tremendously complex story machinery has begun to turn in the wheels of the story’s pages. Ware uses flashbacks, alternate storylines, and tense hypothetical imaginings in order to capture the multiplicity of our experience.

All this description shows how much I thoroughly enjoyed the book, even though I found much to despise in the characters. In particular, I was immensely frustrated with our hero, Jimmy Corrigan himself. Jimmy is a painfully shy, stammering lonely fool, who can’t seem to string together a coherent sentence with any person he finds himself interacting with. In most scenes, he ends up either running away or falling asleep in order to avoid any sort of confrontation. The more interesting portion of the story follows Jimmy’s grandfather, an equally shy, but more eloquent, storyteller, experiencing pain and family troubles. But Jimmy the first and Jimmy the third come from terrible family situations, rife with abandonment, betrayal, and frightening denials of death and the body. This is the depressing part. Nearly every scene in the entire book is a scene of crushing disappointment, bleakness, loneliness, or sadness.

The world may be beautifully rendered; but does that justify entering this world? It’s up to you to decide how much sadness you can take in one banal book. There is some measure of redemption in the story, but it’s very meager. I found myself touched by the ending, as well as being touched by the clarity and sharpness with which the author has captured a real slice of American life.

Edit: changed “mongo” to its proper spelling of “manga.” That’s what you get when you dictate a post!

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