Serial Unhappiness and the Comic Art of Reproduction

By Esther Leslie, 10 July 2001

Chris Ware’s inaction packed but formidable comic book takes the twinkle out of make believe and the POW out of POW ZAP. Esther Leslie, author of Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory, and the Avant-Garde, reports. Comic books used to be about superheroes with extraordinary powers and, judging by its title, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth appears to be no exception. But one glance at the sloping shouldered sap on the cover gives the lie to the misleading epithet; none of the three generations of Jimmy Corrigans, each one more retarded than his father, could ever win such an accolade. The grandfather, Jimmy Reed Corrigan, was beaten and neglected as a child in Chicago in the 1890s, and lives a century without expressing emotions towards his son. The father, James William Corrigan, a charisma-less and misogynist bartender in Michigan, loses touch with his son Jimmy Corrigan, an agonisingly shy Chicago office worker. Son Jimmy is in his mid-30s but looks 60 and acts like a now bashful, now vicious 6 year old. He has never kissed a girl and phones his Mom every day until, one day out of the blue, he receives an awkward pally letter from his Pop after 30 years of silence. The aching stories of three generations of men intertwine in this examination of American history and homelife, fantasy and disappointment.

The title turns out to be ironic, highlighting the distance between reality and the perennially disappointed hopes or never-fulfilled sadistic fantasies of the Corrigans. The connection between these men, their hopes and reality rips apart repeatedly like a wound that will not heal, and the avenging force of the superhero is commuted into the unwarranted power of the patriarch. The youngest Jimmy, who reads superhero comics while eating his cereal every morning, has to learn over and over that Superman and all the other American superheroes live on the page, and that their real life counterparts are only dressed-up pretenders. Like the one who has a sordid one-night stand with his mother after some show, or the suicide in a Superman costume who jumps to his death from a skyscraper opposite Jimmy’s office, or the lying dads who wear T-shirts with the logo ‘Top Dad, No. 1 hero’.

Repeated failure; the lessons that are habitually retaught but never learnt; the relay of emotional mutilation from generation to generation; the recurrence of racial hatreds and miscommunications: these are the themes that bind Ware’s book and the weekly newspaper strip that was its first incarnation (run in Chicago’s New City from 1993(99 and intermittently serialised in Ware’s own periodical, The Acme Novelty Library). The most popular comic strips and cartoons are frequently based on repetition. Sometimes their characters undergo the same humiliations at the hands of the same antagonist – Tweety Pie versus Sylvester, Tom versus Jerry, Bugs Bunny versus Elmer Fudd, Road Runner versus Wile E. Coyote. Repetition is necessary in order for the scenario to default to zero, enabling the next circular instalment. Unlike Tom and Jerry and their flat mates, the Corrigans move in historical time but, just as in regular cartoons, the set up is predictable, the violence repetitive, handed down through the generations like a sturdy winter coat. The sons suffer, mete out emotional violence and display accident-proneness – a sign of dislocation from the world.

Men fall and hurt themselves throughout this story, and the son Jimmy hobbles around on a crutch, the one thing he dares lean on. Each Jimmy Corrigan is harmed by the proximity of his father, and equally by his distance. Parents are the Jimmys’ downfall. Comic book superheroes should be orphans – orphaned Billy Batson turns into ‘world’s mightiest mortal’ Captain Marvel, while orphaned Bruce Wayne avenges the death of his parents as Batman, and their abandonments confer both secret powers and the justification for compulsive (and therefore repetitive) revenge that the Jimmies do not have. Doomed to be victims, they have nothing up their sleeves.

Repetition inhabits the book’s very frames. Rather than comic strip tableaux which blast into focus action-packed moments of significance, here a banal image gets repeated, identically or with the smallest shifts, in order to express muteness, stuntedness and embarrassment. These dumb durations carry echoes of the metro-loneliness of Edward Hopper paintings. Inactions do not need the dynamic stellar climaxes of ‘WHAM!’, ‘POW!’, ‘ZAP!’. Peppering the silences is a sonic world of banality: Pop twanging a Coke can ringpull ‘pkpkpk’, Velcro ripping ‘shhhrik’. These are sounds from the synthetic modern world. The book parallels the transient plastic world of ‘Pam’s ‘Wagon Wheel’ and the ‘Stop ‘n’ Spend’ with the elegant, spindly and pastel shaded world of the turn of the 19th century. Grandfather Corrigan’s story of his brutal childhood in the 1890s is folded into the story of Jimmy meeting his Pop at the end of the 20th century. In both time-worlds everything and everyone is trapped inside black outlines and doused in pure washes of colour. Turn-of-the-century Chicago lingers in the mind perhaps because its look seeps out into the design of the book’s spine and into the painstakingly neat instructions, cutouts and excursus – Ware admits a penchant for the period 1890-1910. The book is a compendium of New World design styles. Ware says that the original look came from the advertising drawings of a depression-era Chicago cosmetics firm, where all the typography had been hand-done in brush and white ink. But there are also hints of the older language of Winsor McCay, whose elaborate comic strips and hand-drawn animations, such as Little Nemo in Slumberland from the first decade of the 20th century, likewise segue reality and dream in an urban wonderland. But while Little Nemo always wakes from his manic dreams, in Ware’s universe the transitions are less secure, the symbolisms woven magically into the fabric of reality.

Take his depiction of the urban wonderland of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World. Here was a record-breaking fairyland of lagoons and fountains and a shimmering White City made from plaster of paris that emulated marble, and, at nighttime, twinkled under the newly channeled energy of electricity. The fair lasted only six months, its evanescent structures fading into memory and urban myth, a fantastic moment, a bubble of promise floating awhile on the air, only to burst into nothingness. ‘On top of the world’, grandfather Jimmy is abandoned by his father at the fair. This nosedive foreshadows another, when, in a rare, touching moment, son Jimmy’s newly found stepsister Amy tells him she likes him, only for the unexpected happiness to be annihilated by the death of his newly found father, which Amy blames on Jimmy.

Chicago’s glorious exposition of 1893 was ephemeral, as are the moments of joy that flit by here, like the birdsong that young Jimmy tries to record. Ware knows the significance of transience – his story having originated in the week-by-week throwaway press – and its value has to be differently calibrated, not index-linked to eternity (though in this deluxe hardback edition, posterity crooks its index finger). As Ware notes in his definitions at the back of the book in a section called ‘Corrigenda’, reproducibility, in the context of art, renders a work valueless. Ware’s is a different practice to art, one based on reproduction rather than uniqueness, on design rather than sketching, and at one with his maniacal aim: ‘I want every drawing that I do to be stylistically as flat and dead as possible, as if it was killed on the page.’ This is not art but artfulness. The comic strip frame becomes crime scene awaiting forensics. The autopsy, one suspects, would reveal the causes of death to be entirely mundane.

Esther Leslie <eleslie AT>

Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth // Chris Ware // Random House/Jonathan Cape // 2001 // 380 pages // ISBN 0 224-06210-7 // £18.00.

Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory, and the Avant-Garde // Esther Leslie // Verso // August 2001 // ISBN 1859846122