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Daily | 09.27.00
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
Joshua Allen on Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

WITH THIS month's publication of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware's epic comic book series of familial misery is complete and the seeds of self-absorption planted by graduate writing programs are finally bearing some palatable fruit. Ware is one of the most acclaimed artists working in comics today, and his Acme Novelty Library has received heaps of awards, even making an appearance in the Smithsonian. What gets the critics' kilts all a-twitter is his astounding technical skill as an illustrator. The covers are uncanny recreations of turn-of-the-century commercial art, the characters are cleanly drawn and precisely colored, rooms and buildings are assembled with an obsessive attention to detail. But when readers settle in, get cozy, and open Ware's intricate jewel box, the delight bleeds from their face as they realize that his subject matter isn't quite as polite as his drawing.

The problem is that even though this is one of them funnybooks, its story concerns a century or so of Corrigan men receiving and delivering abuse. The eponymous hero is only the latest installment in a family that seems incapable of producing psychologically stable mothers, fathers that stay in the same area code, or even a single snippet of dialogue that isn't hurtful or inane. This bleak worldview stems primarily from Chris Ware's having never met his father until halfway through his work on Jimmy Corrigan, which he calls a "semi-autobiographical setting in which I could 'work out' some of the more embarrassing problems of confidence and emotional truthfulness."

Working out these types of issues has long been the driving force behind many of America's young writers, and today's market is still glutted with rambling paeans to abuse, spiritual emptiness, dead mothers, absentee fathers -- books that wouldn't know the third-person voice if it beat them with a belt. Jimmy Corrigan is like the climactic scene of trauma from each of those books repeated over and over and over, and if Ware took out all the pretty pictures and called it a memoir, he'd be right up there with Elizabeth Wurtzel, Dave Eggers, and Mary Karr, kicking all sorts of Harry Potter ass.

But Ware is far more ambitious and innovative, and though his book is yet another example of art as self-analysis, it's rescued from such cheap banality by the very thing that will probably keep it out of the hands of most readers: It's a comic book. And not merely an illustrated autobiography, but a story that couldn't be told in any other medium with such potency. To the outside world, Jimmy is a passive, baffled character who can barely speak a complete sentence, but Ware's dramatic jump-cut-style sequencing articulates a roiling inner world. As he meets his father for the first time, the word balloons display tiresome real-world chitchat as the pictures show what Jimmy would prefer to be doing: goring daddy with a glass mug. Re-edited scenes from previous episodes appear as revisionist memories. A wordless diagram lays bare the past and future of three luckless Corrigans in a family photograph.

Some of these elements borrow the storytelling techniques of film, but Jimmy Corrigan's combination of written dialogue and illustrated thoughts -- and especially the contrast between these two -- gives us an unexpectedly rich, affecting view of life both inside and outside of Jimmy's hobbled psyche. Ironically, it's precisely the clichéd subject matter that throws the full genius of Ware's work into relief. By taking up the old semi-fictional abuse drama, Ware's book ends up doing just what great art is supposed to do: It shows us something deeply familiar in a startling new way.

Joshua Allen is a freelance writer living in Fireland, USA.
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