Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth

This was a definite change of pace for me. I first came across Chris Ware’s ACME Novelty Library with Quimby Mouse during my first ever visit to Ottawa back in 1998, I believe. This was a time I was flirting with indy comics and had a genuine conceit that black and white, independent or manga was “better” than that corporate bullshit. And at some point a friend gave me a copy of Jimmy Corrigan for Christmas. It was the sequence in the story that takes place in a restaurant where Jimmy tries to call his mother without his father finding out. I remember it as clean and a fantastic visual but a bit bleak.

Then I sat down and read this collected version. I had no idea how bleak it would get. This isn’t a bad thing, the story is completely captivating but it is definitely bleak. It should be and it should invoke those feelings in the reader as it helps connect us to the protagonist who is basically paralyzed by his neuroses of trying to fit in.

This is a stream of consciousness story structure which took me a little while to get used to. I wasn’t sure if I could read the whole thing as I was having trouble adapting to the flow of the narrative and the layout. Once you start to get the hang of it and get over the hump of adapting to the fascinatingly mundane story it grows into directions you didn’t see coming. Oddly the World’s Columbian Fair in Chicago is becoming a setting for a lot of my reading – this book and the story of America’s first serial killer. But for the general flow it tends to focus on the aspects of life we experience when we’re trying not to focus on anything.

We get sound effects for shutting doors, shuffling feet or the air exhaling from vinyl chairs. The gaze of the reader is focused on everything but the face of secondary characters. We see the main characters but never anyone else face on. Jimmy doesn’t look them in the face and we’re not given that comfort either. This process further enhances the uncomfortable nature of the protagonist. We’re not given the regular parts of a comic to focus on – characters, dialogue and loud noises. We’re given the soft noises, characters who cough, clear their throats, swallow, shuffle and gently shut doors.

The art is presented in block colours that are generally toned down. We’re given mood through the clear and clean colouring. Along with these tonal variations everything has an extremely clean line. The artwork has a classic look to it but is almost architectural in some ways. Everything feels measured and precise all the time being new and modern with a sense of history to it. And seeing as the story is about a few generations of the same family that is a great way to present it. And the panel layout on landscape formatted pages allows for flights of fancy as the characters dream, since we’re already reading in a oddly whimsical manner.

And finally interspersed between everything are the Easter eggs. I don’t know what else to call the various cut outs and construction projects throughout the book. You can essentially create play things out of the mundane lives of these characters. Again the presentation is extremely new and original while feeling like they are very old. Unfortunately, I feel that Chris Ware is to a lot of comic creators what Alan Moore was to those previously. Whereas Moore’s Watchmen essentially ushered in the whole grim and gritty superhero story that was attempted to various degrees of success since, Chris Ware has essentially made art out of the extremely commonplace. Attempting to make art of the commonplace has been attempted a lot since Jimmy Corrigan came on the scene and has had various degrees of success. I know I’ve read a lot of nice looking comics that were essentially pointless but this collections doesn’t seem to fall to the traps that others have. I wish I could verbalize exactly what those traps are a bit better for you but I’m sure you too can recognize them when you experience them. I think a lot of it is that this collection is precisely that. We are given here a longer more comprehensive story instead of a slice of life. A slice of life on its own can feel extremely empty but counter posing slices against one another can help create meaning instead of trying to attach meaning where there is none. The collection finds meaning in how the slices are collected but a slice on its own has nothing to which it can be compared.

Got it? Good. If you haven’t read any Chris Ware yet, then give it a try. It’ll be like nothing else you’ve read. It’s captivating and beautiful but you may want to have a solid drink when you’re done to rinse down the gobs of depressed anxiety that you’ll experience reading this.

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