Title: Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth
Author: Chris Ware
Illustrator: Chris Ware
I’ve been making my way through what one might consider the canon of essential comics and recently finished Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. The title leads the reader to expect this to be a youthful romp with a protagonist who outwits his lessers. This assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Jimmy Corrigan is a thrirty-six-year-old loner whose inability to socialize with others has become a disability. He has a strong desire to be liked and his fear of rejection prevents him from initiating any form of relationship. This largely in part is due to his father abandoning him at a very young age.
The novel traces the story of Jimmy Corrigan traveling to Michigan to meet his father for the first time. When he enters the airport terminal, his father is nowhere to be found. This sets the tone for the awkward relationship they will develop over the coming days.
A second story arc flashes back to 1890’s Chicago, where his grandfather experiences many of the same struggles that Jimmy faces. The two arcs never converge, but complement each other and demonstrate the pattern of rejection that is not likely to be broken.
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth is a difficult comic to read, but it is even more difficult to put down. Panels are crammed together and the lettering used in 1890’s Chicago is almost an unreadable cursive due to its miniscule size. I would even go as far as to say that the comic is painstaking to read at times.
But this is all for effect. Jimmy Corrigan (both the younger and older) are small men in terms of presence — nearly invisible in their daily interactions. Even though I am also a midwestern white male that is the same age as Jimmy, I struggled to relate with him. He displays very little agency throughout the book, but when he makes a gesture in the end, it creates a dramatic effect for the reader.
At first, Ware’s art seems simplistic — almost like a bad sixties advertisement. But as I progressed through the comic, I was struck by how effective his art truly was. The colors set tone (a sepia-themed pallet for the older generation, murky tones for dreams or approaching death, etc), panel size set pace, and the cut-and-fold inserts created an appropriate superficiality to Jimmy’s life. This novel was unique in its format, but at its core, it is strikingly familiar.
It is interesting how a completely inventive comic can bear so much resemblance to other characters. One obvious and frequently cited example is Stewie from Family Guy. They are drawn in similar form, with round, doughy heads that appear childlike. Both characters are dry and dream of being the smartest kids on Earth, but neither really lives up to any potential. While Stewie is a child prodigy, he is as helpless as an infant, needing his parent’s care. Jimmy Corrigan, though an adult, incessantly calls his mother for nurturing.
Another comic I just finished was Blankets by Craig Thompson. Like Jimmy Corrigan, Craig tells of a short trip to rural Michigan to fill a hole in his life. For Craig it is a fledgling relationship; for Jimmy, his father. While Craig found himself rejected by other classmates, his insecurities are nowhere near the hyperbole displayed in Jimmy Corrigan. And ultimately, this gets to the heart of why I loved Blankets but have mixed feelings about Jimmy Corrigan. I have seen Jimmy Corrigan referred to as the everyman, but his inability to cope in the real world kept him at a distance from me. Reading his exploits was like watching Michael Scott from NBC’s The Office. I cringed at his ineptitude instead of relishing in his antiheroics.
Is Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth a great novel? Yes — in many respects. Yet I can’t tell you that I loved it. I can’t even tell you that I liked it. Yet here I am with more thoughts than words and a story that will leave a lasting impression.