Friday, 6 July 2012

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Chris Ware)

For a few years either side of the millennium I drifted away from comics, meaning that I missed the rise of Chris Ware as possibly the most acclaimed living cartoonist.

I've come across brief examples of his strips in various anthologies (such as McSweeney's 13: The Comics Issue, which he edited), but until this week I'd never tackled his 380-page landmark work, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, which in 2001 became the first 'graphic novel' to win a major literary prize – the £10,000 Guardian First Book Award.

And even though I was familiar with his very distinctive illustration style, the emotional wallop of the book and its constant narrative invention left me breathless – and almost intimidated by the scale of its creator's talent and vision.

An outline of Jimmy Corrigan sounds fairly low-key: Jimmy, an awkward and isolated middle-aged office worker, is thrown into turmoil when his absent father contacts him out of the blue and invites him to visit for Thanksgiving. Interwoven with this, we also have the childhood recollections of Jimmy's grandfather, growing up in Chicago before and during the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

However, what propels the book into the stratosphere is Ware's incredible design-led cartooning style. Within a semi-rigid framework of largely static panels, each page weaves a blend of familiar 'cinematic' present-tense narrative and a variety of flashbacks and other stream-of-consciousness inserts, using the form to create effects that would be impossible in any medium other than comics (click to enlarge).

On occasion it also veers away from traditional sequential/narrative art altogether, not just becoming non-linear and non-diegetic, but creating diagrammatic pages that require a wholly different approach to reading them.

That leads to a degree of complexity that may prove a little hard to digest for readers who aren't conversant with the visual grammar of comics: poet Tom Paulin famously had a bit of a meltdown on the Late Review (BBC Two) when trying to deal with Jimmy Corrigan

However, for all this formal innovation, the book is far from just a graphic design showcase: in its calm and measured way, it's a timeless and heart-rending tale of the difficulties of childhood and the way people can find themselves disconnected from the world around them.  

The work isn't without flaws. It was originally serialised in Ware's Acme Novelty Library comic series between 1995 and 2000, and the author takes a while to realise fully his preferred style. Many of the early sections are too easily derailed by their creator's tireless invention and their characters' flights of fancy, including protracted dream sequences and other diversions.

But by the time we get into the main body of the story – particularly the sequences dealing with Jimmy's grandfather's reminiscences of his own childhood – the work absolutely sings.

As much as we can empathise with Jimmy's abandonment and loneliness, by the end of the book I found it hard to feel much more sympathy for his passive victimhood – especially when his altogether more vibrant half-sister Amy enters the story. 

However, the virtuosity of the narrative, both technical and emotional, makes it impossible to turn him away completely, and the reader is rewarded at the end with a coda that offers at least a glimmer of hope for Jimmy's future.

The serialised nature of Jimmy Corrigan means that it might lack the unity of form required to make it an unequivocal masterpiece, but the way in which Ware comes close to reinventing the medium makes it as near to a work of genius as I think I've come across in nearly 30 years of reading comics.

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