Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review - Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid On Earth

Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid On Earth
by Chris Ware
1996, 2000 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series
1996, 2001 Eisner Winner for Best Coloring
2000 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album: New
2001 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album: Reprint
1996, 1997, 2001 Eisner Winner for Best Production Design

How's that for a list of awards? This story ran for several years in Ware's Acme Novelty Library where the individual issues racked up a few more awards of their own.

One of the major reasons I took my odd hobby of reading all of these award winning books was to give myself a reason to hunt down and read some of the acclaimed works that I never got around to. That was the case with Jimmy Corrigan which I had seen on lists of "The Best Graphic Novels" and knew that Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library series was held in high esteem but for some reason I never read it myself. I went through a full range of reactions as I read the book and once I reached the end I was left with the conclusion that Jimmy Corrigan is an exception work that I never want to read again.

Jimmy Corrigan is a man in a bland job with no friends. His only regular human contact is with his overbearing mother. Jimmy's father abandoned his mother before he was born so when he is contacted by his father Jimmy travels to meet him. Running along side this story is the life of Jimmy's grandfather as a little boy watching the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 under construction.

The first thing that I noticed about Jimmy Corrigan is how well designed it is. The cover with a dust jacket that unfolds to be even more complex lead into the nearly microscopic details that fill the inside cover. Once you reach the comic itself it plays with exotic layouts and complicated designs. Unfortunately these design choices often come at the expense of readability; there's many times where the panel order is completely unclear and it matters. It initially struck me as a book intended to be looked at rather than read.

As I got further in I was struck by how brutal the narrative was. These are not pleasant characters. Jimmy is an emotionally closed man who gets lost in his own twisted (and yet somehow bland) fantasies. His father is a vile bigot who brags about the children he has abandoned. His grandfather might get to be the most down to earth but still we see mostly the petty cruelties of children. Ware sets up characters who I found myself pitying more than loathing.

So Jimmy Corrigan starts with an almost random narrative about people who I didn't really want to read about. It made those early pages a slog. Then about a third of the way through things change. Ware finds his narrative feet and starts assembling a story out of the disjointed pieces he had. The afterward states that this was originally a comic strip in a weekly paper even before he compiled it into the Acme Novelty Library series which may account for some of that. No matter the cause what had started as an unreadable mess became a stronger story.

Then an even more amazing transformation occurred toward the end. Ware found the good in his characters, the diamond underneath the broken human beings. There's a moment that forms the emotional climax of the book in my view where Jimmy finally reacts that's incredibly powerful given what Ware had built up before.

I think that this is a beautifully designed book even if the page layouts are sometimes unclear. Ware structures his forms around heavy, confining horizontal and vertical lines. There is little in the way of organic curves or even angles other than ninety degrees in the images and never in the panel borders. It's a design aesthetic that works very well for the story of human isolation that Ware is telling.

If I had been Jimmy Corrigan in individual issues I don't know if I could have waited six years to get to that point however taken as one complete work it was striking. I never want to be pulled over the broken glass of the story again but at the same time I'm glad that I did read it. I started out hating it and lost to what people saw in it, then found myself impressed with Ware's ability to get his emotional reaction though still not liking the book, and finally at the end of it all he won me over.