The story of Jimmy Corrigan is relatively straightforward. Jimmy is one of those quiet, pleasant anonymous types whose natural habitat is a cubicle in a large open-plan office. His day is one of tedium punctuated only by hectoring calls from his invalid mother and broken fantasies about the girl in Receiving. And then one day, routine is shattered. A letter arrives--a ticket from a father he hasn’t seen since early childhood and an invitation to visit at Thanksgiving. Guilt and curiosity make ultimately for decision. The man who begat him, Jimmy discovers, is possibly even more depressed than Jimmy himself, working in an airport bar, eating in diners, living in an anonymous apartment in Building C.
But behind this tale of two Midwestern milquetoasts lies a history that Jimmy’s father slowly reveals to him. It is a history that goes back to the childhood of Jimmy’s father’s father in 1892, during the construction of the Chicago World’s Exposition. It is also a history of the recent past that includes the discovery of a black half sister whose existence Jimmy never suspected. Not surprisingly, it is a history of abandonment, a case study of how a callus formed around the heart can be passed down through the generations.
What makes “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” unusual is that it is not merely a novel but a graphic novel by cartoonist Christopher Ware. The story itself has some basis in biography. In the “Corrigenda” printed on the inside back cover (indeed every spare inch of the book’s epidermis is thoroughly tattooed with cartoons and print), Ware writes: “I began this story in 1993 as a weekly comic strip in a very tolerant and forgiving Chicago newspaper . . . purely as an improvisatory exercise to take no more than a summer to complete, and to hopefully provide a semi-autobiographical setting in which I would ‘work out’ some of the more embarrassing problems of confidence and emotional truthfulness I was experiencing as a very immature, and not terribly facile, cartoonist.”
It isn’t the story, however, that remains with the reader after turning the final panel. Nor is it the character of Jimmy and his Hibernian nebbishkeit. Jimmy’s nose-picking passivity is so pervasive that it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathize with a man so completely abandoned by both family and history. Rather it is a general malaise of bleakness that Ware drives into the bones with his washed-out yellows and blues, his oranges that feel as if they’ve been rinsed in flesh tones to cure them of any vibrancy.
It is also a sense of exhaustion. Ware (and one must assume the decision was his because no sane publisher would have subjected his clientele to such pain) has published a book that is nearly impossible to read. The print is so tiny (and subtext is written in almost illegible cursive) that it becomes necessarily secondary to the pictures. Even then, the pictures are not in themselves stunning: Ware’s humans come from the Harold of purple crayon fame school of figure drawing, in which babies morph into old men with merely a stretch of a line.
There is a conservatism to Ware’s aesthetics that matches his alter ego’s fashion sense. Both prose and artwork are kitted up in sleeveless vests and wide-wale cords, smacking of an earlier, simpler time. The joke plays well, perhaps because in the world of comics, there was no simpler time. Earlier days were filled with the breathless adventures of Stan Lee’s caped heroes or R. Crumb’s nippled cats and Art Spiegleman’s long-nosed mice.
But it is neither Ware’s neoconservatism nor pedestrian hero that makes “Jimmy Corrigan” succeed. Ware’s genius lies in his arrangement of panels on the page, his appreciation for how the human eye can transmit multiple images to the brain in a way that sabotages the linearity of print. And so he gives us an illustrated Freud as Jimmy waits guiltily to return to his mother. Or he pauses in the rush of the story to devote a page to a bird carrying a sprig of hope like some damned Pandora, teasing us, as well as his line of multi-generational Jimmies, into believing that there is a reason in the end not to slit our wrists.