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'Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on Earth' by Chris Ware
Review by Borin Van Loon, December 2003

Comic 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.

Spread 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.

Superman 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.

Ware 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 ...

The 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.

Jimmy Corrigan will stay with you as an ache in your heart.

--Borin Van Loon, Dec 2003.

Information and images by Jimmy Corrigan available here.

Information about Chris Ware is here.