Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
By Chris Ware
In which Joel grapples with Chris Ware’s ginormous Jimmy Corrigan and everyone just kinda lets him get on it. Issues include: are comics supposed to be easy to read? Does Tom Paulin have a point? And which parts of your body exactly will reading this book damage?
I’ll be honest with you: I’m gonna recycle/lightly re-edit* the thing that I wrote a few years ago on the Islington Comic Forum blog because – hey – I think it’s pretty good (and also because I haven’t actually got around to re-reading the book yet so: these are actually the last thoughts I had about from the last time I read it so…).
*I used to be waaaaay into footnotes (thank you David Foster Wallace) so most of this is just going to be inserting the footnotes into the text. And well you know – how hard can that be?
(Is that cheating? I hope that’s not cheating).
Also: I should warn you now that – as first emails go – this is a bit of a monster: but then that’s kinda appropriate no? My main take away emotion/feeling from Jimmy Corrigan being – OH MY GOD IT’S ALL WAY TOO MUCH.
I mean – it’s not like when I first wrote the Islington Comic Forum post that I hadn’t read Jimmy Corrigan. (In fact – if you’re curious – this here is the very very first thing I ever wrote about Jimmy Corrigan which comes from all the way back when I wasn’t really that good at writing about stuff (and can you tell that I only managed to make it about two thirds through the book before I gave up?): “Tightly packed and dense with small details that go on to reveal emotional enormities Jimmy Corrigan is a comic book that requires a slow, attentive and careful reader. Loved by critics all over the world (the first (and so far only) comic to win the Guradian’s First Book Award) it follows the young Jimmy Corrigan as he makes his way in a big scary world beset on all sides by setbacks and defeat. Told with a unique style that sometimes ends up resembling intricate mechanical diagrams with various stages of life as the moving parts this is a comic book that is unafraid to take it’s time and roll out it’s pleasures and insights quietly. A monotonous undertaking for both it’s author and for those brave enough to scale it’s dizzying heights – it’s a comic that I guarantee will linger long inside your brain once it’s over (if you manage to finish it).”) It’s just that – well – Jimmy Corrigan most definitely not the sort of book that you can just pick up and read half-heartedly over the course of a few lunch-breaks.
I mean – comics are supposed to be easy to read right? And (if we’re going to try to be honest here) mostly pretty disposable – more like a TV show that will entertain you while it’s on – but won’t stick around that much in your head after it’s done. But Chris Ware – well – he’s not really interested at all in trying to hit the pleasure circuits at the front of your brain (which at this point in time in our media-saturated-age-yadda-yadda-yadda (Actual exclamation of surprise: after writing that I found this on the opening page (under: “New Pictorial Language Makes Marks. Good for Showing Stuff, Leaving out Big Words”): “It’s a media-saturated world where media saturates everything and you can think about anything other than media saturation all the time.” (Spooky!). I mean – I guess maybe I remember it from reading it the first time round – but seeing how that was over a year ago – it seems unlikely.) etc etc etc is pretty much easy picking) – he’s more interested in burrowing deeper and attempting to strike gold somewhere deep inside you.
Actually did I say “to read” pile? Strictly speaking I guess it was more: “to re-read up to the midway point and then read from there to the end” pile. In fact – strictly speaking: it’s even more muddled than that seeing how at the library I used to work in (shout out to North Library!) we have a copy of Acme Novelty Library 13 (or if you want the roman numerals: XIII) and (although I didn’t even make it to the end of that) I did dip in and read about halfway into it.
(So you know (if you didn’t know): Acme Novelty Library is a comic book series created by Chris Ware that tends to sell over 20,000 copies per issue (altho it only ever really manages one issue per year): Jimmy Corrigan originally appeared in serialized form in Acme Novelty Library 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14. = FACTS!)
So yeah the bit where he climbs on top of the building and hangs out with the Italian kid (“James! I am bringing you something today!”) wasn’t new to me… (Man – I wanted to know the name of the building that he climbs on top of and so (even tho I was still reading the book) I was googling stuff like “jimmy corrigan chicago worlds fair 1893 building” and stumbled upon this review in Publisher’s Weekly that (oh my god – how totally rude) gives away the climax like it’s part of the synopsis (“Planet of The Apes is a film about a bunch of astronauts who crash-land on Earth”): so BOOO to you Publisher’s Weekly and thanks a lot for spoiling the book for me (I mean – I guess not completely – I still enjoyed it at the end: but it did take away the shock of that big revealing moment – sigh). And also – damnit: I never managed to work out which building it even was. (sad face). Anyone else know?
(But then also – I mean: wow – why do I even care/ I dunno).
Whatever. All of which adds up to why my advised reading method for this book would be a monastery on top of some isolated wind-swept hill (somewhere in the middle of the Lake District) surrounded by candles and with a big old fashioned Sherlock-Holmes style magnifying glass grasped firmly in your hand.
(I was going to find some cool relaxing monk chant stuff with loads of reverb and recommend that as the ideal soundtrack – but – when it actually came down to it I found that the best accompaniment was actually some soothing Bach (to be specific: The Six Partitas as performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy): which I guess is how you can tell you’re reading something proper. (I did try Elliott Smith and Radiohead and even some Port Royal – but nothing else seemed to fit properly…).)
But then – why did I bother to put it up on here in the first place? Wouldn’t it have been better to leave it and write about some books that I had read? What’s so special about this Jimmy Corrigan kid anyway (apart from being the Smartest Kid on Earth obviously)?
Well: of course it depends on who exactly you’re talking to – but for many folks out there Jimmy Corrigan is one of the best comics ever written. For like seriously. I mean – maybe you weren’t there (or weren’t paying attention) but back when it came out it made such a splash that Dave Eggers (you know Dave Eggers right? The guy who founded McSweeny’s (you haven’t heard of it?) and the name that Miranda Sawyer drops below (the book she’s talking about is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius which I’ve got to admit I was reminded of too – when you hit those opening pages of notes and glowing review extracts: but yeah – whatever). If you haven’t heard fo McSweeney’s read this: Back From Yet Another Globetrotting Adventure, Indiana Jones Checks His Mail And Discovers That His Bid For Tenure Has Been Denied. (And yeah: for those that didn’t know – Chris Ware edited McSweeney’s 13 so there’s history there and if you like one then you’ll most probably like the other).) in The New York Times called it “Possibly the greatest achievement of the form, ever”
Plus – it won the Guardian First Book Award (“The consumer will note that these honours are generally only bestowed upon those authors who refuse to learn how to draw.”) which is how it ended up being spoken about on Newsnight Review…
I can’t remember how I know that it was on Newsnight Review (maybe I watched it when it happened?) – but obviously it was noteworthy for other people too – as far as I can tell there’s no version of it on youtube (for those of you who don’t know what Newsnight Review is I did find Adam and Joe’s totally excellent Toy Review which should tell you everything you need to know (Tom Tortoise = YES!)) but I did find on this website a transcript which I’ll put here now for the purposes of your entertainment (with thanks to BugPowder and Craig Naples! – Although I should point out that the presenter is Mark Lawson and not Dominic – but whatever):
Mark Lawson: “.. the X-Men and Ghost World were adapted from comic books and the mainstream acceptability of a form associated with children has now spread to the novel. [Cut away to silent footage of someone presenting an award. Chris Ware walks up to the mic and is clearly doing a very funny morose deadpan acceptance speech. Which we can’t hear] Last night the Guardian First Book Award was presented to a novel in the form of a comic strip, Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan The Smartest Kid On Earth”. [Shot of first few pages] About a middle aged man in Chicago whose comic book hero comes to life [shot of pages where Superman actor seduces Jimmy’s mum]. Although Art Spigelman’s Maus, a comic book about Auschwitz won the Pulitzer Prize in America nine years ago [shot of pretty rare looking archive hardback of Maus sitting on a table, then three whole panels of Maus]. This is the first time that the British literary awards have allowed such a broad definition of fiction. Starting a debate about whether the worlds of the Booker and The Beano can merge. [Three more fast shots of “Jimmy…”, then back to the studio.] Craig Brown, can a comic book be a novel?
Craig Brown: “Certainly, I thought Posy Simmonds’ “Gemma Bovery” was a complete masterpiece. It certainly should have won the Turner or the Booker or both. They certainly can. The only thing that slightly worries me about this book is that, and about Maus, is that people like giving prizes to gloomy… ahh.. comic novels.. ahh.. comic book book novels.. and actually I think the form works better with Tintin or Posy Simmonds, where it’s light and funny and breezy.”
Mark Lawson: “Tom Paulin, does it count for you as a novel?”
Tom Paulin: “The colours are dreadful, it’s like looking at a bottle of Domestos or Harpic or Ajax. Awful bleak colours, revolting to look at, it’s on it’s way to the Oxfam shop.”
Mark Lawson: “I understand why the judges went for this, Miranda, because the if you look at the kind of invention and structure there is in cinema and television and music. And the novel is still a very conventional form, and you understand why they’ve done this, but did this one work?”
Miranda Sawyer: “Well, I mean I haven’t read it, but well the thing it reminded me of was un eh Dave Eggers book, y’know, the det, the attention to detail, the kind of like little dedications, and, and, the kind of nerd boy attitude towards it, and I think that y’know obviously it’s not a novel, but it can definitely tell a story in the same way that “From Hell” told a really great story and it was eventually turned into a film.”
Mark Lawson: “What there are we judging, Craig, do you judge it on the pictures or the words. I mean, could the words be rubbish and the pictures carry it or…”
Craig Brown: “Well, I suspect with this book its the other way round. The pictures don’t particularly appeal to me, they’re they’re they. Especially the actual people, I don’t like those, while Posy’s people were so beautiful and there was movement, not much movement in these…”
Tom Paulin: “So ugly…”
Craig Brown: “I like what Miranda was saying, I like the obsessive quality.”
Miranda Sawyer: “I like the pictures, I’d like to stick up for them.”
Tom Paulin: “Disgusting look to it. Really horrible.”
Miranda Sawyer: “I disagree.”
(Oh: and Chris Ware obviously heard about it seeing how he puts the Tom Paulin quote (“The colours are dreadful, it’s like looking at a bottle of Domestos or Harpic or Ajax. Awful bleak colours, revolting to look at, it’s on it’s way to the Oxfam shop. Disgusting look to it. Really horrible.”) on his “Popular Press Easily Duped” page (I also like the LA Times Book Review quote: “Nearly impossible to read”).)
So: (finally! Here we go…) you open up the book and the first thing that greets you (if that’s the right word: maybe more like: looks at you coldly?) is a double-page spread of tiny little text at the bottom left hand corner on the far side it says: “General Instructions.” And you’re braver than me if there’s not a small part of you that shrinks a little (while another part let’s out a Scott-Bakula-style: “oh boy.”).
And – ha – there’s a white rectangle security tag on the last page too. Oh well. I sure hope it wasn’t covering up anything too important…
But don’t fret yet. Because if you take the plunge and start reading – well – it turns out that the water’s fine. And (yay) actually pretty funny in a dry academic McSweeney’s sort of way and in fact (oh how relevant) like it says right at the start: “…it was not the intention of the author of this publication to produce a work which would in any way be considered “difficult,” “obscure,” or even worse, “impenetrable.” – so that’s a good sign – right? Plus someone who’s able to sum up the entire history of literature as “the means by which to fashion all manner of falsehood and perjury.” has more than earnt themselves a few hours of my time (it’ll only take a few hours to read this whole book – right? Right?).
(Although I would like to point out that he’s flat out telling porkies when he says in “2. Ease of Use” that it’s possible to read during a “snack break” or elsewhere out and about. Trust me: this is a book that needs to be read at home in a your favourite comfy chair with a hot beverage sitting next to you: anything else just isn’t going to work… If you’re gonna do it right (and skipping over bits in this case doesn’t just feel like cheating – it practically feels like blasphemy) you’re going to need take it reeeaallly ssssllllooooooowww – yeah?)
Over the page from that is a diagram that I will happily admit made me feel daunted when I first looked at it (hell: it’s daunting every time I look at it): when the solar system is just one small (almost missable) component in a wider mechanism that stretches back in time and across continents and successive generations – well – I reckon it’s ok to feel a little scared. But if you take the time to delve in (and flip the book around) it’s really not so tough to make sense of. And (yay) there’s quite a few little jokes hidden in their too (I like the picture that goes in the photo album that goes in the bin).
And then (after that) we start with the book proper: in the endless expanse of space and then in the course of only a page (Chris Ware obviously warming us up for the perilous journey ahead) we twist and turn from reading left to right to flipping the book on it’s side (so that we’re approaching the Earth with America underneath us) to going right to left as we zoom into Chicago and the house where we’re just know we’re going to end up spending an awful lot of time (did I say this was only going to take a few hours? Hmmm. That may have been a little optimist..).
Except – oops. No. The house is gone only a few pages later. Damn.
(Although – wait – is it the same house from Building Stories?)
But wait. I mean – I said I was going to be honest – yeah? (Yeah). Well – then I’ll admit at this point that this wasn’t a book that I was partially looking forward to reading (again or rereading or whatever). Most of the time reading a comic – it’s something to look forward to: it’s a pleasure you know? Something to be done for fun (yay fun!). But this book – I dunno: it wasn’t quite that it felt like work: but it definitely felt more like something I had to do rather than something that I wanted to do. Like (I guess) a fisherman who knows that there’s a really big fish out there that kinda got away from him a while back and now (this time round) I was kinda determined to land it – take it home – and display it proudly on my mantelpiece (the mantlepiece being this blog I guess: “How big was it?” “Hell – this big.” etc). And so yeah – even tho there’s that stuff at the start and it’s pretty funny and stuff – once it starts: I dunno – there was a feeling like listening to the first few notes of a some jazz concept-album (jazz concept-double-album) or watching the opening credits for some obscure three hour experimental french film: a feeling of – how tough exactly is this going to be? And: what am I letting myself in for? (Is it too late to stop? Or is my seat-beat too firmly fastened?)But yeah – then the fun house doors swing open and it’s too late to leave. So.And yeah: being honest. When it starts – it is a bit of a drag. Like – it’s tough. And hard going. If most comic book reading is like a happy little bike ride across sunny plains – then Jimmy Corrigan is more like climbing a particularly steep mountain in bad weather. It’s not that every step is difficult – it’s just one step after another – just – uphill: but you can feel the strain and you can feel yourself working as you go up. Puff. Puff. Puff. Ok ok. Come on – you can do this. You can do this.My thoughts during all this? Well. First of all it makes a lot of sense that it got those awards and all that lovely praise from all those distinguished sources: because mostly the things that Jimmy Corrigan reminded me wasn’t other comics – but the kinda of late 20th Century / early 21st Century highbrow literary novels that tend to get so much love from things like the Booker Prize (and that mostly I tend to pretty much avoid). I mean – I don’t know if someone somewhere has written off a checklist of things a book needs to do if it wants to get some critical love and respect but – well – Chris Ware sure seems to hit a lot of the right notes (not that I think he did this in a calculated way – I mean: I don’t think it’s been written in a cynical way – far from it – but still): there’s the troubled childhood stuff, there’s the intermingling of dreams and reality, there’s lots of mundane day-to-day stuff that’s captured in excessive detail (I imagine if Jimmy Corrigan was a book with no pictures then would be pages and pages of “lyrically descriptive”passages: I mean check that bit where the kid describes the exact way his dad laughs), there’s some very authentic-seeming historical flashbacks which is the kinda of thing that always appeals to that Hilary Mantel crowd and it’s pretty much non-stop with the misery and isolation and loneliness and modern ennui that afflicts pretty much everyone everywhere living in cities and stuff…
In fact – well – if the Newsnight Review crowd had bothered to read the thing rather than get disgusted by how ugly they thought it looked (which – hey – it doesn’t: it’s actually all pretty lovely looking – so shut your face Tom Paulin) then it kinda seems like just the sort of thing that they’d normally go crazy for. Plus: there are some amazingly cool sentences scattered all around the book like bits of sticky toffee to chew over in your mind: there’s a description of a tooth falling out that goes: “An unexpected celery twist of flesh and the sharp edge in his mouth floats free.” And: “Listening to the heavy, stumbling descent of the six legged creature which has invaded his house.”(you might need the context to properly make sense of that one). Also: “swathed in the vast landscapes of my blanket and sheets.” (and reading that back – oh man – I just want to go to bed and snuggle myself in). Oh: and (not forgetting) – “An urge to confess is halted by a feminine whisper in his ear: “Shut up or I’ll kill you.” (I think I may have actually laughed out loud when I read that one for the first time).
But yeah back before that: my thinking was: urg. Really? Do we really need another book that does nothing but recreate the awkwardness and pain that comes from everyday living? Mostly I guess the stories that tend to appeal to me are (to put it bluntly) the ones that transcend – well – everything. And the ones that I find a bit of a drudgery to read and that I pretty much tend to avoid are the stories that rub your face in the sadness and despair. Because – isn’t it obvious? – (and try and hold back the tears) but life is sad enough – you know?
I think it was last year (yeah: pretty sure) but I read Joseph Heller’s second novel Something Happened (Catch 22 is one of my favourite books ever – and so I thought I would see what else he had to offer…) and although it’s amazingly written and goes deep into things like (I dunno) humanity and men and misery and loneliness and all the bitter ironies of life and etc etc etc: it isn’t really a book that I enjoyed reading and I don’t know if I would really recommend it. Yes: it’s amazingly put together and the workmanship is exquisite and all the rest – but man: it’s such a chore to get through: and what’s wrong with having a bit of entertainment mixed in with your intellectualism (did I mention already that my favourite comic is probably Scott Pilgrim?)? And – well: Jimmy Corrigan sure did remind me a lot of Something Happened.
So. Yeah. I guess I wasn’t really having a good time reading it. But come on: it’ll be great once you get to the top and can admire the view! And – look! look! look! – isn’t Chris Ware really clever! Look at all the clever stuff he does! Clever clever clever. You know: “Possibly the greatest achievement of the form, ever!” and so on. And so on.
And even tho it uses the repetition of certain images (Captain Crunch. Milk. Captain Crunch. Milk.) to make them feel like nails being hammered into your coffin and even tho there’s such grisly sequences as someone dropping a concrete block on their child’s head (“It hurts so much make it stop make it stop”) and sentences that will make you shudder with yukinesses (“He makes his usual weekly deposit.”) it also often blindsides you with a small little moment of beauty: bad example maybe – but there’s this bit (just one panel really) where James is pulling his horse through the snow that really reminded me of that painting that’s in the 1972 version of Solaris (it’s called Hunters in the Snow and it’s by Pieter Bruegel (although when I checked – the painting actually looks nothing like it – and instead of a horse it’s dogs and the people’s postures are different – but still – for whatever reason it set off the connection in my mind)). Better examples (maybe?): the way a bedroom can switches around from when you’re lying down to when you’re up and about, mustaches that seem to smile and someone saying ‘cocksucker’ in pictorial form (you’ll know it when you see it).
And so yeah: more climbing and more climbing. And then: it’s like hitting turbulence when it starts with the historical flashbacks and Chris Ware decides that having everything being tinny-tiny wasn’t difficult enough and so instead of using Comic Sans (or is it Comic Sans? I dunno – whatever it is that is the font that comics usually uses: you know the one I mean) it starts with the joined up handwriting. And I think that when I first saw that I was going to have to lean in even closer to be able to read this stupid thing I mean yeah – I was a little tempted to just pack up and call it a day (who needs this anyway? And in fact: I got pretty convinced that reading it was giving me a headache – literally: I mean – after the first hour I had to put the book aside and have a glass of water and a paracetamol: not to mention the crink in the neck it gave me from having to lean so far into it… I mean maybe someone should think about putting the same kinda of health warning label on the book that they give packet of cigarettes: WARNING READING JIMMY CORRIGAN CAN SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR BRAIN AND NECK?).
But of course there’s a but coming (you knew that there would be right?): because as much as a struggle as it was to read and although it deals out more punishment than any other comic out there (I mean – I guess what I’m saying is that you need some serious stamina and brute physical strength to be able to make it this far – so kids – don’t even think about trying this without proper adult supervision – ok?) there was a moment (or rather – a slow creeping of a moment: like a choir of angels that start singing in silence and then raise the volume so slowly that you don’t even notice that they’re there until it’s grown up all around you and engulfed you in this beautiful heavenly sound) when I realised that I had fallen completely under it’s spell and that I couldn’t stop reading it even if my hands were on fire: it was just like – well: there’s nothing else that’s really like a story when it worms it’s way into your head and then completely immerses all the boundaries between you and the book – so that it’s all there is: there’s no you, there’s no world, there’s no anything – there’s just the story and nothing else. And – well: when it happens – it’s bliss. It’s total bliss.
So: that was nice (you know: bliss being good and all).
And so yeah: I guess the point of all that is to say that – this is a book that I’d say you really need to stick with if you want to feel the effect of it (at least that is – if you’re anything like me). There’s no easy way in and little in the way of instant gratification. And those first two thirds (which should take you a good few hours to slog your way through) are tough: but I’d say that it’s worth it in the end and everything all kinda falls into place (and falls apart).
And even tho you know that if you ever meet Jimmy Corrigan in the flesh there would be all sorts of social awkwardness (he is after all: “A lonely emotionally-impaired human castaway.”) – and it’s kinda messed up how as a kid he has the face of an old man and as an old man he has a face like a kid – the book is a marvel in how it slowly opens him up and then gently lowers you into his mind. Until his defeats end up striking out at you (and so you know to prefer yourself: this is a book filled with a lot of defeat).
One of the best comics ever written? Well. Yeah. For what it is and how it works and for a certain type of person I can certainly understand why you’d want to hold up Jimmy Corrigan high as an example for how serious comics can get and how much they can do. For my slightly more peculiar tastes (which I guess mostly comes down to my big fat sweet tooth) I can think of other comics that I would recommend before this one – but still: it’s up there and if you’re drawing up a comics canon to represent the best that the medium has to offer and this book isn’t included – well – you’re probably doing something wrong.