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If this is the first you’re hearing of Jimmy Corrigan, don’t blame me for not having tried sooner. About four years ago, some of us arts guys at the Washington City Paper were bucking to get new comix. Out would be Matt Groening’s Toddler Parade, Steve Brodner’s Not-Quite-Outrageous Current Events Hyperbole, and Julius Knipl’s Lower East Side Egg Salad Sandwich and Funny Jobs. In would be Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, a beautifully drawn, delicately inked, giant-size sheet of urban ennui.
It never happened. Harboring an old-fashioned love of craft, Ware required color, and the powers that be weren’t paying for color on editorial pages in those days. Color for cig ads? Sure, the Marlboro Man’s paying. But color for the best alternative comic of the ’90s? Not a chance. Maybe the problem was that the strip first appeared in New City, a Chi-Town alt-weekly in competition with the Chicago Reader, whose ownership also owns CP. But I chalk up one of our biggest missed opportunities to rank parsimony.
The upside is that for under $30 (including tax) you can now acquire a Jimmy Corrigan omnibus and spend an afternoon catching up with Ware’s antihero. Jimmy is a Kafkaesque nobody, complete with a soul-destroying bureaucratic job and looming distant-father issues, plunked down in a clear-line universe that looks like a cross between Hergé and Charles Burns (or is it Chicago Imagist Roger Brown?). Jimmy’s a Superman-loving milquetoast who can’t get his mother, Estelle, to stop calling him at work from the Sunnyvale Courts Retirement Health Care Facility and who can’t get a woman outside of his daydreams; even the girl in the mailroom speaks crossly to him.
Ah, but as the interplanetary zoom sequence that opens the narrative implies, Jimmy is a child of the universe. Or at least of several generations of Corrigans who have crossed the Atlantic and scrambled up (and down and back up a little) the American ladder to make him the man he is today. His great-great-grandfather was an Irish doctor, back in the days when medicine and barbering weren’t so far removed; he immigrated to New York City and set up shop. He died while his son was fighting in the War Between the States. After Jimmy’s great-grandfather escaped the Battle of Shiloh by shooting off his own finger, he became a builder and glazier, moving to Chicago with his despairing mother in the wake of the 1871 fire and working on buildings for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. When his wife died in childbirth, he took out his grief on his son, Jimmy’s grandfather, another dreamy, downtrodden loser also named Jimmy Corrigan. Jimmy the Elder grew up to marry, sire a son (named James, but not called Jimmy), and lose his wife in a car accident. The father of Jimmy the Younger would grow up to leave his wife and young son and move to Michigan, where he would enjoy several years off the leash as a randy airport bartender before settling down with his second wife and her African-American adopted daughter. One year, after his wife has died, he sends Jimmy a ticket to meet him for Thanksgiving. Without telling his mother, Jimmy flies east.
His trip to meet the father he can’t remember is the book’s main story, but it is liberally interleaved with flashbacks to the early 1890s of his grandfather’s dismal childhood. The rest of the saga is caught in snippets throughout the book and laid out on the inside of the dust jacket, which unfolds into a magnificent 16-by-24-inch diagram that links scenes from the lives of five generations of Corrigans into a joyless visual synopsis. As always, the clarity of the drawing is deceptive. It takes about a half-hour to piece together the story from the chart, but Ware isn’t out to win a spot in Edward Tufte’s next book of pellucid information design.
Ware is a master of sequencing precise images into a tangled simulation of consciousness and memory. At times, it’s tempting to fault the cartoonist for his arrangement of panels on the page. Although he sometimes deploys tiny arrows as guideposts, it isn’t always easy to tell the proper sequence from the positions and proportions of the frames. On a single page, for instance, one pair of stacked squares is supposed to have the frames to the right intervene, while below, another vertically aligned pair is intended to depict consecutive moments. The trick is to read slowly. You can almost always tell from the often wordless contents of the frame what order was intended. Of course, by then, it may be too late—you may already have read the wrong one.
But it usually doesn’t matter. This isn’t an action comic; it’s a mood comic. Jimmy’s a thinker—even if all he thinks about is whether to call his mother back on his sad joke of a cherry-red hot-line-style dial phone. His mind is buzzing with anxieties and dreams; Ware lays them out in such a manner that we come to know what’s swarming around in Jimmy’s head. Our hero likes to mull things over, to think about why nothing’s happening in his life, to launch into brief, desperate fantasies of how everything could suddenly be great. His exit strategies involve such improbabilities as a cheerful, brightly bangled nurse slipping her hand into his trousers and postapocalyptic homesteading with his stepsister. (Don’t do it, Jimmy—incest! Your great-grandfather was her great-great-grandfather!)
Ware is exacting in what he gives away—and in how he paces it. He embeds us in Jimmy’s doldrums, slowing us down by making us watch a droplet of water collect on the edge of a window sash and then drop to the sill. He implicates our wishes in Jimmy’s fantasies by never showing the faces of Jimmy’s imaginary lovers (except his stepsister’s). Even the pickup Jimmy imagines for his swinging barkeep dad appears only as shadow. And Jimmy’s mother is shown clearly but once.
Ware also carefully controls the physical milieus of Jimmy fils and grand-père. The cartoonist may be sympathetic toward the beaux-arts equation of ornament with life (his generational chart even endows ornamental tracery with the power to impregnate), but to this Chicagoan, architecture is both our crowning glory and, especially in its backwash modernist manifestations, our prison. By frequently rendering the built and manufactured environment in schemes that approximate the unforeshortened, unperspectival axonometric projections of architectural drafting, Ware isolates his characters’ rounded—but two-dimensional—figures from their mathematical settings. From living room to coffee shop to cubicle, there is no place that Jimmy will fit in. Whether they are framing structures majestic or banal, the rigid orthogonals hold him fast in their cage.
Pictorial imaginings offer a way out for both character and reader, but always an illusory one. Ware includes ridiculously complex cut-and-paste paper toys that range from a 3-D Jimmy to a model house and barn (complete with horse, buggy, and Grandma’s coffin!) to a functioning zoetrope depicting Jimmy’s dreamland robot alter ego hobbling around with the aid of a crutch. Jimmy’s grandfather is similarly entranced by a magic lantern show of the Great Fire—well, not by the fire exactly:
The boy begins to imagine/The light from the little lamp flame/growing/like hair/through the lantern lens/and flowing indefinitely/out the window./A seamless stream of predictable pictures pointed at the moon/only occasionally cut/by the knife edge of a leaf/or a chimney/a bird/an
aircraft/or a man falling/
falling/falling/from a very tall building/Each successive sausage slice of light Revealing one earlier event of the evening’s entertainment/But still never quite getting to/The exact moment/That the lamp was lit/in the first place.
It doesn’t seem much of a stretch that a cartoonist as retro and historically attuned as Ware would be familiar with Peter Newell’s 1908 die-cut novelty The Hole Book, which follows a bullet on its path through a number of objects and situations before it is halted by some bad cake. But the aching lyricism of Ware’s sequence, toned in sepia and charcoal gray, stands in stark contrast with the boldness and dynamism of its likely precedent. The beam from Ware’s lantern, like his art, stretches into the past in a clear, calm, intermittently romantic quest to illuminate the present. I’ve long thought it somewhat un-American to be overly concerned with one’s ancestry. But Ware advances a persuasive demurrer by giving us a look at the kind of historical epic the most unassuming citizen—the Smartest Kid on Earth, even—has trailing behind him. CP