by Chris Ware
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is a big fat graphic novel, proud winner of last year's Guardian First Book Award, now available in paperback.
I liked it, it was purty.
Chris Ware's arch, structural portrait of family life is one of very, very few graphic novels I have ever read that does not by its very existence debase and insult the term 'graphic novel'. A lengthy and elaborately structured celebration of the excruciating banalities of emotional isolation, it offers a combination of epic grandeur and intimate pity that is genuinely affecting. The story is the tale of one developmentally stunted manchild and his wacky adventures failing to have any kind of meaningful human interaction with his long-lost absentee father or, indeed, anybody. As you can probably gather from that description, it’s really more about character than plot.
Any fictional character depicted with such savage loathing as the absolutely pathetic figure of Jimmy Corrigan is clearly a thinly-veiled representation of the author of the piece, and indeed that is the case here. With the full pitiless fury of the self-loathing semi-autobiographer, Ware lets rip and subjects his hero to a series of painful and humiliating traumas, always simultaneously reminding us how utterly uncharismatic the character is. (God forbid we should actually start to identify with the hapless little shit.) Jimmy Corrigan is a worthless human being; so consumed with a pitiful, craven fear of being disliked that he is barely able to function at all; barely even able to speak. Obviously a guy like this takes a while to warm to, and indeed that is the major problem with the book. Whilst admiring it in terms of formal achievement, it took me a long time to actually start to care about the story. This kicked in for me at some point during the middle section; a lengthy flashback set around the 1900 Chicago World’s Fair which tells the desperately sad story of another Jimmy Corrigan and another paternal abandonment. Here Ware tells a tale with incredible vividness and emotional force, which both engages on its own terms and provides a perfect counterpoint to the decidedly understated adventures of ‘present day’ Jimmy.
I suppose I should mention the art. It is a graphic novel, after all. What can I say? Ware’s work is inventive, stylish, frequently astonishing. It shows up pretty much everyone else working in comics whilst being an incredible glimpse of the potential of the medium. Blah blah yak yak. As I say. I liked it, it was purty.
I both agree and disagree with my brother. This is a book of emotion rather than narrative, but I didn't feel that the main character being pathologically introverted meant we could not have an emotional connection with him. While he may not (hopefully) represent us, he does represent the fear of embarrassment and lack of confidence that we all possess, magnified to a painful level. I therefore felt for the younger Jimmy, continually wanting him to make some human connection, caring about him. The masterful way that Ware mixed fantasy and reality to really communicate his inner life, allowed me to feel a sense of hope about the character, even though he is doomed by his own insecurity to never be able to act, like Hamlet or something.
Conversely, I felt it was the lack of hope that made me find the protracted central flashback sequence heavy going. It was an effective tale of the misery and emotional destruction brought about by poverty and a home without love, and it created the feeling of an existence without escape so well, that it actually quite depressed me.
Anyway, the art was very effective in helping create the mood, and really shows the possibilities of the format. Some of the images stay in your mind, as memorable shots from a film do. It even includes a how-to-read comics bit, for those of the female persuasion.
One small quibble, if he was the Smartest Kid on Earth, how come he didn't build any giant robots or anything? An opportunity missed, methinks.
Two thumbs up