Chris Ware’s almost-autobiographical tale of a meek man and his familial foundering has been on my to-read list since it started winning a bunch of awards in 2001. I’m kind of glad I’m reading it now, because I’m not sure I would’ve had the emotional fortitude to survive it back then.
Yep, it’s that cheery. But then, what would you expect from a book that’s about Jimmy Corrigan, a kinda-sorta loser who’s agreed to meet with the father who abandoned him as a child, paired with the just-as-mournful tale of the same man’s grandfather, dealing with similar emotions in 1890s Chicago?
This is, undoubtedly, a masterclass in Feeling Bad. Abuses – physical and emotional, planned and unintended – are this work’s meat, and it floats along on an undercurrent of deep sadness and solitude. It’s bad enough to see a meek man’s lonely life, but to see a tiny boy, missing his mother and being degraded by his schoolfriends, his father and fate? Well, it’s pretty tough.
However, the grimness of the tale is overshadowed – just – by the jawdropping skill that’s displayed on every page. Ware’s work is much less like graphic novels, at least how I’m familiar with them, and more on par with draughtsmanship. The parts of the book set around the World’s Columbian Exposition are gorgeous: architectural rigour coupled with artistic flourishes; cupolas juxtaposed with intoxicating strands of hair, statues set against leaves and mud. It’s a work where large panels are given to the mundane, forcing the reader to contemplate things we’d normally rush past.
There’s a lot of nonverbal direction in the work, too: flowcharts seem to be an influence. The reading is not necessarily straightforward – panels flow in different directions according to what’s going on around them – but it all seems to make sense. There’s also a sort of silent film homage in panels filled with words indicating the transition of time, the development of problems. But it all seems of a piece: everything is assembled to guide you through the work. It’s utilitarian in the most delicious way. I guess this follows: Ware’s training is in printmaking – something I at least associate with clean, sure linework.
(Oh yeah. There’s also papercraft pages scattered throughout. Through their artifice, they somehow make the settings inside even more real.)
What drives this book is solitude: each character reaches out for another, but seems trapped in an emotional oubliette. There’s attempts at connection, but these seem to fail, or to be destined to fail. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the afterword of the book offers this definition:
LONELY (lōn’lē) adj
Alone, or by oneself. The permanent state of being for all humans, despite any efforts to the contrary. Can be soothed or subdued in a variery of ways, viz. marriage, sexual intercourse, board games, literature, music, poetry, television, party hats, pastries, etc, but cannot be resolved
For all that, though, it’s not as grim as I’d thought, or as I’m painting it. There’s light in the book – even if it is, for the most part, the light shining from its cleanly precise presentation.
If you’ve never read a graphic novel, or if you’re someone who thinks they’re all spandex and improbable physiques, you should really read this book. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth is a touching, subtle tale of the sadness curled inside each of us, accompanied by some of the finest graphic work you’ll find.