Two years ago the Regina Gouger Miller gallery displayed a few original pages from Chris Ware?s landmark debut graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, here on campus as part of the Comic Relief show. I felt that most of the show was a travesty, dredging up the worst pieces by gallery artists stealing blindly from a century of comics without mustering the dignity to even acknowledge their own lack of ingenuity. The Jimmy Corrigan page, however, was a tasty treat. Ware?s work has also appeared in several gallery shows across the country, following its successful show of his comics at the Whitney. Amongst ?art snobs? who chitchat about ?hip, underground comix,? Chris Ware has become pretty chic. The newest buzz is over his most recent independent comics collection, McSweeney?s Quarterly Concern. I think it?s all really good too, which is pretty surprising because my comic taste rarely intersects with that of ?art snobs.?
At the time that Chris Ware first became widely read, the two best springboards for new independent artists were World War III and Raw. Cartoonist Seth Tobocman, who spoke on this very campus not two weeks ago, heads World War III. Art Spiegelman, the prolific creator of the graphic novel Maus, started Raw. Spiegelman invited Chris Ware to contribute to Raw. His comics caught the eye of Gary Gross from Fantagraphics, who then offered him his own series. Acme Novelty Library ran in the early ?90s, and Jimmy Corrigan collected the later issues from this series.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth tells the story of Jimmy Corrigan, a 36-year-old ?emotionally impaired human castaway,? who receives a letter from his deadbeat father he has never met. This simple premise hermeneutically accesses a four-generation history of imagination, alienation, and defeat in the phlegmatic Corrigan family.
Jimmy?s personality is perplexing. In his rich fantasy life he demonstrates a grasp of human interaction, but in real life his autism leaves those around him with the impression that he isn?t a capable adult. His father, on the other hand, appears simple to understand. His abandonment of Jimmy?s mother, his ignorant views, and his ego-driven lack of empathy paint him as simply a bastard. His awkward attempts to reach out to Jimmy, however, and his successful relationship with his adopted black daughter would seem to indicate otherwise. His grandfather, as Jimmy meets him, is an apathetic old man, but flashbacks to the past reveal several parallels between the characters that are obstructed by age and circumstance.
Ware?s art is geometric, stylized, and reminiscent of golden-age newspaper cartoons. Even more interesting, however, is his poetic application of motifs and symbols, revealing layers of unspoken meaning to the story. These elements are emphasized in scenes that completely omit narration and dialogue, and contain subtle, beautiful moment-to-moment transitions. The expressive potential of shape, color, balance, and space are tapped along a vein that is accessible only in the medium of comics. In other sections his style adopts a sad sense of humor; he leaves the physical world altogether to make cut-and-fold puzzles out of the more tragic elements of the story.
The most important motif is Chicago?s World?s Colombian Exposition of 1893, which acts as both a backdrop and a living environment to the childhood of Jimmy Corrigan?s grandfather. More prominent aspects of the fair, such as peaches and birds, recur in the mute scenes from the present day. These references create subtle poetic links to the past beyond the obvious similarity of the characters. The fair acts as one of many anchors across the country at the dawn of American Modernity, a theme that echoes throughout the urban environment, alienating Jimmy. All of these symbols, past through present, are used to describe Jimmy?s sexual frustration, loneliness, and fear of being disliked.
Jimmy Corrigan acts as a link between artistic and literary circles. The book garners respect for its obvious merit and suffers from none of the usual stigmas that plague comics. As opposed to the wave of comic artists who try to push an agenda of breaking off ?graphic novels? from comics as an artistically legitimate medium, Ware?s work is successful simply because it is a comic that appeals across cultural boundaries. That kind of multilateral interest mirrors the across-the-board interest in Charles Schultz?s Peanuts from half a century ago. Having observed this link, it?s not hard to proceed to draw several parallels between the stories and styles of Ware and Schultz, especially when one arms oneself with The Complete Peanuts, which came out this past summer from Fantagraphics.
You should all go out and read both. Right now.