||[Mar. 4th, 2008|02:09 pm]
100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)
#90 JIMMY CORRIGAN, THE SMARTEST KID ON EARTH – Chris Ware
“Most of the purchasers of this book, however, are likely sexually confident, attractive go-getters for whom grief is merely an abstraction, or, at worst, an annoyance treatable by expensive medication.”
Jimmy Corrigan opens with a bit of cheekiness straight from the Dave Eggers playbook – instructions for reading comics aimed at those unfamiliar with this apparently dying and irrelevant artform, written in Chris Ware’s self-deprecating authorial voice. The jokey instructions provide one last laugh, like a condemned man’s final cigarette, before beginning a story that’s a journey through other people’s misery where the only laughter is nervous or forced.
Jimmy’s no smartest kid on earth, but instead a hopeless manboy loser with no social skills to speak of who barely speaks himself. Most of the story centres on his reunion with his estranged father, seen in awkward and painfully truthful scenes broken by Jimmy’s fantasies of companionship and competence in which he’s a robot or a child genius or in love – each seeming just as impossible – as well as flashbacks to the complicated Corrigan family history.
Unusually, Ware uses space rather than lines for expression. The characters are uniformly rounded and blunt, while the layouts are imaginative and characterful. Jimmy’s loneliness makes him unable to take up more than about half a panel; he’s often surrounded by alienating emptiness and when he does share a panel with someone their face is usually obscured. The one exception is Jimmy’s father, whose clumsy attempts to belatedly bond with his grown-up son allow him to muscle his face into frame.
The subject matter isn’t cheerful and there are times where the casual depiction of people’s cruelty to outsiders can be excruciating and difficult to read, but like a good blues song it’s ultimately uplifting. The frank and powerful depiction of loneliness makes you want to reach out to someone as soon as you put it down; it’s a powerful reminder to value what you’ve got.