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Jimmy CorriganReview - Jimmy Corrigan
The Smartest Kid on Earth
by Chris Ware
Pantheon Books, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jul 31st 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 31)

Jimmy Corrigan is a lengthy graphic novel about its namesake.  It is a difficult book to read because it seems to repetitive.  The main character is of course Jimmy Corrigan, whose father abandoned the family when he was a boy.  Jimmy is an emotionally crippled man whose main facial expressions register fear, bewilderment, and worry, with occasional signs of sorrow and loneliness.  He has thinning hair and he slouches, making him seem old, although in flashbacks to his childhood, we see he always looked like that.  The only person he talks with regularly is his aged mother, who frets over him and chastises him when he does not immediately return her phone calls.  The central event in the novel is Jimmy's trip to visit his father for Thanksgiving, who has contacted him after many years of silence.  He obeys his father's request, despite the fact that he has no idea who his father is or even what he looks like.  We find that his father is emotionally abusive and manipulative, and from flashbacks we see that he was always so.  Jimmy is a pathetic figure, and to plough through hundreds of pages of this graphic novel as each episode of this trip is recorded in minute detail is exhausting. 

One might compare this to some of the plays of Samuel Beckett, which are equally bleak in showing the complete lack of communication between the different characters.  But nearly all of Beckett's plays are also darkly humorous and even openly comic, and most of them have the virtue of being short.  One might also compare Ware's work to the angry young film directors who created the British "New Cinema" of the late 1950s and early 1960s, who with rather humorlessly highlighted class divisions and the drudgery of work--films such as Room at the Top, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and Billy Liar.  The more subtle work of British film director Mike Leigh in films such as Home Sweet Home or Nuts in May might also serve as a reference point for discussing Ware's work. 

Such comparisons bring to the foreground the political elements in the Ware's work.  Jimmy Corrigan is set in twentieth century United States of America, and it can be read as social commentary.  Jimmy lives in the suburbs and works downtown, and he visits father in Chicago; when he was a child his family lived in the country, and through the flashbacks, one gets some sense of the shifting cultural life in the background of the family's history.  His family is white and dysfunctional, and Jimmy works in an anonymous office cubicle.  Jimmy's story is not so much one of a search for meaning and community as one of his being buffeted around by the demands of others, and his utter inability to even articulate his emotional reactions, let alone try to change his situation.  If Jimmy represents the average American, then Ware has a particularly miserable view of his country.

However, what makes Jimmy Corrigan so distinctive is its artwork.  Ware's style is deceptively simple.  His lines are strong and confident.  The colors are solid and simple, yet the detail and precision in the drawing is astonishing.  It is reminiscent of classic comic art, especially in its depiction of buildings and the city.  His drawing of faces is minimalist but effective, and conveys the mutual incomprehension of all his characters.  Ware uses the page in a wide variety of ways, with frames of different sizes and in arrangements all through the book.  Some of the frames go down to very small sizes, with many on the page, while others occupy a whole half page.  Occasionally Ware takes the narrative into fantasy as a way of conveying some of Jimmy's inner life, and the surrealism is visually arresting -- giant Jimmy roaming through the city, or tiny Jimmy lost in a huge armchair. 

There's no question that Jimmy Corrigan is a milestone in the form of the graphic novel.  It's a mammoth work that explores broad themes and is highly inventive in its graphic style.  Its major limitation is the narrow emotional range of its main character and the lack of humor, which makes it hard work to get through.  Hopefully, when Ware writes a more concise work with a different main character, it will be more gripping to read.   


© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Link: Publisher's web page for book.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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