Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Notes toward an essay:
1. I both intellectually acknowledge the brilliance of this book and viscerally dislike it.
2. I bought it and began reading it in late 2000; I set it aside after about 100 pages and only took it up again—a library copy; I have no idea where mine is—two days ago. Back in 2000, when I was all of 18, I remember being immensely moved by some of those first 100 pages; Jimmy’s fantasy of being murdered by Superman, in particular, overwhelmed me. But the quality of pastiche—the design and visual storytelling echo early twentieth century comics and commercial art, from Winsor McCay to art deco—put me off, as I myself had no investment in those earlier aesthetics.
3. (Nor did I share Ware’s generational relation to Superman. The Superman of my youth was a sensitive, vulnerable, and humane citizen, a man of impeccable liberal sentiment in a romance of equals with a professional, feminist woman—he was not a punitive patriarch. But this is hardly Chris Ware’s fault; we were simply born in different years and grew up reading different iterations of the Superman character.)
4. Jimmy Corrigan, I thought, was a highly intellectualized exercise in self-pity, its ironic sneer at the past masking its wounded longing. My gut reaction has not changed in 15 years; I hope I have a language for it now.
5. Jimmy is approaching middle age, but looks at once like a baby and like an old man. The book he is caught in is, in its intricate straight-line grids, both puzzle and cage. It is with Jimmy Corrigan as with the other big generational statements by the men of that moment—PTA’s Magnolia, DFW’s Infinite Jest: the elderchild blubbering in the labyrinth of the text.
6. What is Jimmy Corrigan about? It’s about 400 pages. Aside from that, let more impartial observers tell you, in this comprehensive summary that opens an essay by Juda Bennett and Cassandra Jackson that I will quote again later:
Jimmy Corrigan traces the history of the titular character from a childhood characterized by an absent father and overbearing mother to his life as a middle-age white man whose isolation is represented by the cubicle in which he works. He is the novel’s Everyman. Contacted by the father he has never met, Jimmy travels from Chicago to a small town in Michigan. In Waukosha he meets Amy, his father’s adopted African-American daughter and – unbeknownst to them – a distant relation to Jimmy. Though the figure of the Everyman never completely understands himself in the context of a racialized America, the audience is aware of this complicated genealogy.
The narrative is interrupted periodically by the story of Jimmy’s great-grandfather and grandfather, which is set in 1893, and this narration focuses on the great-grandfather’s abusive relationship with his young son, whom he beats and eventually abandons at the top of one of the largest buildings in “The White City” at the Chicago World’s Fair. This narrative section also reveals that Amy is not only the adopted daughter of Jimmy’s father but a blood relation descended from Jimmy’s great-grandfather’s relationship with his African-American maid. Reduced to its barest bones, the narrative is built upon Jimmy searching for himself through the lost father and finding a much more (racially) complicated family. At the same time, the reader learns of a more complicated backstory to that diverse family (blood, and not just adoption, link Amy to her half brother). Given that the protagonist never discovers this history that the reader is privy to, the novel refuses a simple conclusion in which the protagonist finds or even fully knows himself.
7. I cannot now find it, but I recall that a critic at the time compared Jimmy Corrigan, with its complicated racial genealogy and its aesthetic formalism, to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. Absalom, Absalom!, yes, but as adapted by Wes Anderson. Or E. L. Doctorow. Most of my criticism of Jimmy Corrigan would, with allowances for the specificities of graphic storytelling vis-à-vis prose narrative, echo my criticism of Ragtime. Both Doctorow and Ware formally appropriate a past style or ideology, in implied quotation marks; Ware’s use of 1890s advertising and comics iconography is the graphic equivalent of Doctorow’s “There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.” It is a premature and adolescent disavowal of the past rather than an honest struggle with it. “That’s not me!” you say by way of mocking imitation, like an insult comic. You want to say, “The past is dead. It is even past.” Braver to go forth as the heir to your tradition that you in fact are. Your father’s sins will be visited upon you, yes, but petulant denial in the guise of formal mastery cannot in any case prevent that. Faulkner was not performing a pastiche of Shakespeare or Melville; he was writing as best he could in their tradition about his time and place.
8. Upon their father’s death, Amy violently rejects Jimmy; she literally pushes him over when he reaches out to her. This is less a Faulknerian gesture than this graphic novel’s Forsterian “not yet,” as at the conclusion of A Passage to India. Not yet, but when? I recently saw the statement, not made by a cishet white man, that “the voices of cishet white men are not necessary.” Well and good, but have cishet white men sent any other message than that very one in their major fictions of the past century? Since Forster ended his final novel with “not yet?” Since Faulkner raveled out Sutpen’s genealogy? Since Joyce, with whatever irony, founded the New Bloomusalem?
[Edited, practically half a day later, to add this: Forster was not het; and Joyce, born and reared a colonial subject, was not really white in the contemporary American sense of that word. Why did it take half a day for this to occur to me, even though of course I “knew” it when I wrote the above? For the same reason that some may be suspicious of generalizations such as “cishet white male” in the first place: because they often seem not to refer literally to what they refer to ostensibly. Rather, they are synonymous with power.]
9. (Ware, I observe, is a Joycean, as am I. Though we are different kinds of Joycean. I think I am a Proteus or a Hades to his Wandering Rocks or Oxen of the Sun. Sorry to be cryptic, but other Joyceans will catch my drift.)
10. Nobody means a self-canceling statement, though. Nobody who denies their will-to-power should be believed, as their denial is a mere ruse of their will. (I am a Nietzschean as well as a Joycean, you see.) Bennett and Jackson, praising Ware’s formalism from the perspective of critical race theory:
…Ware sets up a reading practice that challenges the ability to read and interpret race through simple chronologies. As the reader attempts to follow both Jimmy and his sister Amy’s stories, no simple narratives of racial origins emerge. Instead, the reader is left to actively piece together the narrative, making errors and corrections along the way. Ware reminds us of this reading practice at every step in the novel. For example, the novel withholds page numbers, deemphasizing a traditional narrative sequence and encouraging a reading practice that may move freely backwards and forwards and across the page in numerous directions. As if to complicate this practice even more, Ware’s hardback and paperback editions of the novel participate in this notion of errors and corrections in that the latter adds visual material not included in the former edition.
I understand, intellectually, the focus on error, but all the same: Ware tells, the readers learn, the characters never find out. They err, we err—but does Ware ever err? Are not even his corrections obsessive evasions of errancy? (Apologies, like claims to injury, can be assertions of authority.) Who’s in charge here again? To say “error” is to imply that the right way is known. Who is it that knows if Ware flattens time into space to draw us a map?
11. Ware errs, of course. Jimmy Corrigan, by the way, has a little idyll in which Jimmy’s grandfather leaves his loveless household to sojourn with an Italian immigrant family in a house full of warm cooking smells presided over by a gentle, loving, old-world craftsman father. This is silly and mawkish, if I may say as a child of the class and the ethnos specified.
12. Ware’s depiction of black characters does not sink quite so far, though the 1890s maid character is awfully close to an uninterrogated stereotype, i.e., mammy, as I read it. Amy is more complex, which perhaps shows what a crutch—a metaphor the book invites—it can be for the artist to dwell in an aestheticized and flattened-out past rather than dealing with the irreducibly complicated present. Still, Bennett and Jackson observe that, even with Amy, “Ware falls into myths of blackness as a present and secure signifier and whiteness, in contrast, as unstable”—or, to put it with a bit less jargon, he gives us something like the “strong black woman” of well-meaning cliche.
13. But there are the errors the author commits unwittingly—the repetition of cliche is their hallmark, as with Ware’s down-to-earth Italians and his strong black woman—and the errors the author allows himself out of self-trust—of which awkward or embarrassing but undeniable revelations are the sign. Is Jimmy Corrigan not a book suffocatingly without error of the latter kind? Compare Watchmen, which I will be thought a philistine for preferring, though I do prefer it. Watchmen is a similar exercise of the obsessive will to form, a similar conversion of time to space, a similar critique of the Superman archetype. Even a book similarly about race in America, though more subtly, and at the margin. Let us accept for a moment the perhaps dubious psychoanalytic postulate that when men such as Moore and Ware pursue the kind of rigid formal closure that Watchmen and Jimmy Corrigan achieve, a fear of the feminine, construed in the masculine imagination as flesh and disorder, is operating. Jimmy Corrigan is fairly overt about the fear of the feminine, in that sad-sack post-Crumb alternacomics fashion that I have always disliked. Watchmen, by contrast, touchingly seems to understand itself as a feminist statement. And yet Watchmen puts its fears viscerally and and violently and vitally onto the page; it stains its phallocratic grid, so twists its crystalline narrative that Zack Snyder, otherwise immobilized by literalism, had to straighten the plot for Hollywood. There it is, for all to see, chapter 12, page six: the vagina dentata that ate New York City. A sublime vision (the sublime, as an aesthetic mode, always expresses the fear that mother [nature] doesn’t love us combined with the confidence that we have something she lacks with which we can best her). Ware, wanting to annul himself, trusts himself too little to give us such a vision. But he doesn’t annul himself in consequence, after all. Here he is, acclaimed a master; here I am, writing about him, wishing I liked his book more.
14. The artist cannot simultaneously annul himself and make and publicize the artwork. No matter how unnecessary you or others find you for whatever local and contingent sociohistorical reason, your compulsion to create and share the creation is a fundamental human drive. So you might as well own up to it and get on with it.
15. But can any narrative this intelligent, this emotional, really be disparaged or dismissed, even if the intelligence and the emotion seem to be in the wrong proportion, the wrong relation? Maybe that is Ware’s error, of the text if not in it. Maybe I will be writing about again in 15 years. Maybe they will be writing about in 100 years. Neither would surprise me at all.
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