Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan, Or, The Smartest Kid On Earth

Reading comic artist Chris Ware casually is virtually impossible for reasons both technical and otherwise. For evidence, turn to a page about one-third into Jimmy Corrigan, Ware's first book-length work. A series of 12 panels represents various locations throughout the story's main setting: Waukosha, Michigan, a small city neglected by progress. One side of each panel depicts such landmarks as the local McDonald's or a neglected grocery store in Ware's trademark fashion, a style immediately recognizable for a clean, economical, evocative design that hearkens back to comics' golden age and the draftsmanship of a tough architectural school. On the other side, a voice borrowed from archaic advertisements describes each scene and yet doesn't, in one instance offering an elaborate description of a historic landmark before noting that a Dairy Queen now obscures it, in another offering a tribute to vinyl siding that twists toward a metaphor for mortality. That single page is something of a throwaway in the context of Jimmy Corrigan, which says much about Ware's almost frighteningly intense attention to detail, encyclopedic recall of lost corners of popular culture, and ability to use minimal details for maximum effect. Throughout the book, he applies these skills to a worldview as concerned with the futility of earthly struggles as a Calvinist sermon. In Jimmy Corrigan, futility dominates every aspect of the life of its thick-waisted, thin-haired title protagonist, a sort of worst-case everyman notable for his failure to rise to any occasion. Love eludes him, his cubicle-bound job leaves him unsatisfied, and his mother's nagging fills his life's few free minutes. Seeking meaning, he decides to visit the father who abandoned him shortly after birth, but he derives little satisfaction from the experiment. Flashing back across three generations of Corrigan men, Corrigan allows Ware to explore how history and family combine to conspire against one man's happiness. A casual reading might dismiss him as a fatalist, a nihilist, or an arch stylist, and maybe in the end he's all three. But the conviction, humor (however dark), and emotional power of Ware's creation makes easy dismissal impossible. Simplistic in its unrelenting disappointment with life, yet offering a rich, complex, and convincing justification for that disappointment, Corrigan ultimately reveals itself as a downcast masterpiece.


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