Chris Ware’s widely praised graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth, has won numerous awards since its publication in 2000 and, in 2005, was recognized by Time magazine as one of the top 10 English language graphic novels ever written. Of course, it did not win this title without good reason. Jimmy Corrigan details a powerful and touching tale of a socially confined, cubicle-bound, middle-aged man, Jimmy Corrigan, who had grown up with an absentee father and an overbearing mother. Looking for an escape from the grimness of reality, Jimmy constantly uses his overactive imagination involving his Smartest Kid on Earth alter-ego. The story begins when Jimmy is contacted by his father, who he had never met before, asking for some bonding time with him over Thanksgiving break. In parallel to the plot, a secondary storyline, set during the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, reveals the abusive childhood of Jimmy’s grandfather and the striking similarities between the two men. As Jimmy attempts to reconnect with the paternal figure he never had, he discovers more about himself, too.
Most of the substance in Jimmy Corrigan actually lies in character relationships and development rather than the plot itself. Although a few significant events do occur during Jimmy’s visit, the bulk of the story focuses on the two running plotlines juxtaposing Jimmy’s story and his grandfather’s a century earlier as they both explore the consequences of missing parental figures. Furthermore, Jimmy Corrigan is an inherently challenging read due to its abrupt time skips and shifts between reality and fantasy. However, author Chris Ware takes full advantage of the illustrative nature of the graphic novel to enhance readers’ understanding of the story.
Chris Ware creatively selects the colors he uses in different parts of the book to characterize specific emotions and moods. In the present day storyline, he tends to use brighter colors, while panels recounting Jimmy’s grandfather’s story are typically duller, with browns, reds, and grays, reflecting the bleakness of his life with his callous father. The only exception seems to be the Columbian Exposition, in which the elaborate buildings are illustrated in bright colors to reflect their magnificence. In certain panels, a bright red is also used in the background to express a character’s alarm or surprise. Entire chapters or subsections are often tinted a certain color to set the tone of the scene. For instance, rainy scenes contain a series of panels that are almost entirely gray.
One of the first symbols readers are introduced to is Superman. The story opens up with a scene from Jimmy’s childhood in which he idolizes Superman, but as he grows older, he begins to view Superman as a flawed figure, especially when he sees him plunging to his death from the top of a building. In fact, Superman is a constant reminder of Jimmy’s lack of a father figure in his life; even in his childhood, the Superman figure had left him after having a one-night-stand with Jimmy’s mother. The rest of the book presents Superman with imperfections and his image is tied to various encounters with Jimmy’s father, constantly reminding Jimmy and the reader of the estranged connections between the two of them.Ware also makes use of visual symbols for technical purposes. Jimmy Corrigan is a story told in multiple places and times, and Ware uses a red bird motif to bridge these gaps. The red bird is found in the panels between Jimmy’s first meeting with Superman to the current time and is used again to transition from Jimmy’s grandfather to Jimmy’s time throughout the novel.
Some readers enjoy books that hand them a roadmap within the first couple of pages. These readers are the readers that only venture a few pages into Jimmy Corrigan's story before making the mistake of placing it on a shelf to never be touched again. The readers who endure the complex and vague comic to the end do not typically find themselves with the satisfying aftertaste of closure. With that being said, is it worth it?It's definitely not worth putting down. Chris Ware creates a completely unique and painfully honest novel that always keeps the reader on his feet. Because of the abrupt changes between past, present, reality and dream, the reader must input a greater amount of effort than he might not be used to. It is not until about halfway through the book that some key pieces of information are finally stabilized in one’s head. Ware even produces overwhelming layouts for the reader to decipher and taunts his audience with symbols that continually reappear until they jump at the sight of each one. He grants us an intellectual challenge to prove ourselves tenacious as we trudge through the mess of Jimmy Corrigan's life.
In fact, the life stories of Jimmy and his grandfather James might be the more persuading arguments for the reader to reach that last page. Although the author seems to be enjoying himself as he lets his audience struggle, he shows a more serious side of his writing every instance we learn more about difficulties Jimmy and James have faced and what they have in common. Venturing deeper and deeper into this book reveals a sensitive side in the author and ourselves. Scenes of bullying and mistreatment pluck at our hearts because it seems only the scenes with the most emotional pain are purposely clear. The reader may not always follow what's going on, but he never concedes his attempts to remain at Jimmy’s or James’ side, whether to yell at Jimmy’s character for never taking action or speaking up, or to hold one of their hands.
Regardless of the role the reader wishes to play in Jimmy’s life, a single read-through will not be enough to truly understand the complexity Chris Ware packs into his characters and their relationships. Essential clues are bound to be overlooked among busy pages filled with symbolism. Ware seemed to design the novel so that the reader must draw from the entire book to obtain significance from just the first half, but he does this so well that the reader willingly comes back a second time through. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is not the book you pick up as a bedtime story or for a few quick laughs, but it will surely teach a reader to be patient and detailed.For some, their efforts strive toward the intrinsic reward of decoding Ware’s mystery. For others, the read is about the emotional connection they form with the smartest kid on earth and his grandfather.
Ware, Chris (w,a). Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. Print.