Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

Writer(s): Chris Ware
Artist(s): Chris Ware
Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0375404535
Price: $35.00
Page count: 380
Year Released: 2000
Status: in print
Original Source: The ACME Novelty Library 5, 6, 8, 9, 11-14
Other Collected Edition(s): paperback edition (ISBN 978-0375714542)
Genres: historical fiction; literature; superheroes
Recommended for Fans Of: Welcome to the Dollhouse
Possible Objectionable Material: violence; coarse language
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Also in This Series: n/a

Plot Summary
A multigenerational saga set in Chicago that focuses primarily on the life of Jimmy Corrigan, an awkward, friendless 36-year-old man whose father left when he was young. The book begins with Jimmy receiving a plane ticket and a letter from his father, asking Jimmy to visit him for Thanksgiving. What follows is Ware's exploration of a father/son relationship that may have started too late in both these characters' lives to ever work satisfactorily for either of them.

Interspersed with this story is a thematically similar one that takes place in 1892. It follows Jimmy's grandfather at the age of 8, whose own hardhearted father is working on the preparation of Chicago's "World's Colombian Exposition," which will open the following year. Like Jimmy, James is a lonely boy who has no friends and spends most of his time losing himself in the daydreams of youth, while trying to avoid the wrath of his father.

Though there are fleeting moments of human tenderness and understanding, Jimmy Corrigan is a tremendously depressing work. But it is also a deeply affecting work, and a shining example of what the comic book medium is uniquely capable of doing. As in his other books, here Ware applies some ingenious graphic techniques that can only be accomplished in comics. And these are not mere ornamental tricks, but rather integral elements that push the story forward in a way that prose alone could not do. Ultimately, Jimmy Corrigan is a textbook example that proves why comic books are an artform unto themselves.

My Own 2 Cents

Jimmy Corrigan is not exactly the antithesis of the average comic book (if one determines that even the more cerebral comics tend to depend on action—or interaction—to propel their stories forward) but it definitely operates on a different level, by necessity. This necessity is brought about by the fact that Jimmy—and in turn, his grandfather as a boy circa 1892—have no one to talk to. They exist in their respective worlds among other people, but also largely apart from these people. As a result, their stories are primarily internalized. A large part of the narrative is taken up by reveries that illuminate the solitary, daydream-driven interior worlds held dear by the unpopular or the shunned. Fleeting infatuations inspired by a single glance become imagined romances that lead to marriage and children; uncomfortable interactions are forced to the background as stream-of-consciousness visions take over. And considering the environment in Jimmy Corrigan, it’s no wonder. Ware has reconstructed the drab outskirts of 1890s Chicago as meticulously as he recreates the Chicago of his own experience through Jimmy’s eyes. The sky is a perpetual muddy gray except when it snows, which results in a cold steel blue overpowering the outdoor panels. Ware perfectly captures the bleakness of, for example, riding an Amtrak train alone on Thanksgiving, or staring out the window of a taxi at a continuous line of nondescript buildings you’ve never seen before, and will probably never see again. It’s a world of misery.

Our two protagonists are not wholly sympathetic characters (for example, James is embarrassed to be seen speaking with Antonio, the one boy who treats him like a friend, because Antonio is an Italian immigrant), but this only serves to make them more real, which in turn makes their suffering that much more authentic.

And yet, despite all that pain I didn’t want the book to end because, although it does close on a note of vaguely optimistic promise, I desperately wanted these characters to resolve the lingering (yet easily solvable) misunderstandings and miscommunications still clinging to them. Alas, it was not to be, but of course the book is only stronger for it. And this is one more reason why Jimmy Corrigan is one of the greatest comic books ever created.