Corrigan: the smartest kid on Earth' by Chris Ware
Review by Borin Van Loon, December 2003
strips can be tricky customers. Contrary to popular belief, the
comic form (reinvented as 'graphic novel' over the past decade)
is very demanding on the reader. One reads the panels as well as
reading the words. The counterpoint between the two is the key to
a strip's success or failure. And when, as in 'Jimmy Corrigan',
large passages are wordless, you read (and re-read) nuance and tiny
detail in the successive frames. Chris Ware - whose name is almost
untraceable in the whole book - has produced this strip for magazine
publication since 1993. An estimated five hour's worth of reading
for those who are captivated by the novel is amply rewarded.
across three generations of Jimmy Corrigans, the setting is Chicago
and the themes are introversion, lack of confidence and a self-defeating
desire to be liked. The Jimmy we get to know (and it could be in
any of the generations, such are the timeslips in the narrative)
is a boy with the face of an old man who doesn't say very much and
doesn't do very much, but does a lot of it.
is glimpsed from a high office window as he plummets to his death
on the Chicago streets in the first few pages. Noone pays him much
attention as they pass by. Characters struggle with internalised
sexism and racism and occasionally the repression bursts out into
boiling fury and violence. We think these sequences might be fantasy,
but who knows? It's funny and matter-of-fact and heartbreaking by
turns. Just like life, really. The final sequence where the recently
reunited father and son inhabit different spaces within an impersonal
hospital, the former to die, the latter to be thrust aside by his
newly-discovered black half-sister when he tries to cover her hand
with his in comfort (or is it suppressed lust?) is deeply memorable.
Ware can reproduce by hand (I checked, they're not copied images)
a sequence of frames where virtually nothing happens like a Sam
Becket of the comics.
is the consummate anal retentive when it comes to style. You either
love the drawings or hate them. Tom Paulin described the colours
as 'really horrible'. Matt Groening describes it as 'a work of genius'.
Ware presents very simplified forms and 'shorthands' for the identifiable
human characters with blocks of flat computerised colour throughout.
But then he pulls away, like a great film director and we see that
the figures inhabit vast spaces filled with monumental buildings
with columns, sculptures, cupolas and subtle detail. As an architectural
illustrator, he's a whizz. Then a tiny bird lands on a telephone
wire and we watch it for a few frames ...
book won The Guardian First Book Award in 2001, when it first appeared
in hardback (link).
I recommend you to read this larger format, as the 2003 paperback,
which I read, is shrunk down and a challenge to the eyesight. It
also has a wilfully obfuscating cover and spine, so you really don't
know what you're picking up.
Corrigan will stay with you as an ache in your heart.
Van Loon, Dec 2003.
and images by Jimmy Corrigan available here.
Information about Chris Ware is here.