Williwaw's Reviews > Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
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's review
Jun 26, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: comics
I own a copy

This is possibly the saddest book that I have ever read. Sure, it is a "comic book," but don't let the format fool you into thinking that this is light reading. This is serious, disturbing stuff. It's not totally lacking in humor, but the prevailing themes are loss, rejection, death, crippling emotional and physical wounds, alienation, and dysfunctional family dynamics.

Chris Ware is a genius of panelology (albet, extremely rectilinear panelology) and color. He's also good at employing leitmotifs, which recur in memories, dreams, or even in the actual present (a couple of examples: Superman, and a miniature toy leaden horse, both of which morph in uncanny ways during dreams, daydreams, and memories).

Come to think of it, the whole book is extremely non-linear. The basic storyline concerns a trip that the adult Jimmy takes to visit his father for the first time. Jimmy was abandoned by his father, either during infancy or before he was born. He and "Dad" are planning to have Thanksgiving dinner together during this trip, but Jimmy abruptly returns home for reasons that you'll have to discover for yourself. That is the basic "plot."

Upon this simple framework, Ware weaves the complicated fabric of Jimmy's memories, family history, daydreams, and fantasies. (Warning: there are plenty of disturbing sexual fantasies and incidents in this book, so you might not want to give it to your 9 year old son or daughter.)

Perhaps strangest of all, much of the book is devoted to the childhood of Jimmy's grandfather (at least, I think it's the grandfather), who was also abandoned by his own father at the Columbian Exposition (an extravagant "World's Fair" event in Chicago, 1893). Grandpa's Pa, a cruel bastard, takes nine-year-old Grandpa to a panoramic perch overlooking the city. The excursion is supposed to be a "birthday present," (a trip to the Fair) but in actuality, great-gramps has planned on dumping his kid off there in advance.

Most kids are terrified of abandonment, so you'd think that Ware would address this. Imagine that you are a child, brought by your father to the top of a large building. From a precipitous perch, you look over the city of Chicago. When you turn around, you realize that you are alone. You have been abandoned.

You would probably flip out. The terror would probably be compounded by the vertiginous, wide open space. But Ware stops here and fast forwards to the present. It turns out that Grandpa has been telling this childhood story to his adoptive grand-daughter, who is working on a family history project for school. Grandpa simply explains, in matter-of-fact fashion, that this is how he came to be brought up in an orphanage.

Perhaps Ware pulls out of the grandfather's story so abruptly because it strengthens the emotional disengagement of the narrative. We see so many painful things in this book, but for the most part, we are left to imagine the emotional impact for ourselves. Maybe this was a deliberate tactic. In a way, it makes the book more powerful. There is absolutely no psycho-babble in this book.

The first time I read this book, I had recently finished "The Devil in the White City," which is a True Crime/History book that focuses on the Columbian Exposition of 1893. It definitely made Jimmy Corrigan an even more interesting read!

One final warning: reading this book can be a logistical challenge, especially if you are the wrong side of 40+. The lettering is often so tiny that it's barely readable, and the flow from panel to panel can get somewhat complicated. So you need to have a high tolerance for the comic-book format and some good reading glasses. Also, this is not a quick read. Plan on spending about 5 hours on this.
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