Written over the course of five years (and appearing as a short strip that steadily accrued into the beautifully designed half-sized telephone directory it is today), Chris Ware’s ambitious and elaborate examination of the relationship between a father and a son (between the men in a family over the course of a hundred years or more) is without doubt broad in scope, elegant, wry, charming, funny, captivating and sad. It is also as likely to deter people from reading other graphic novels as it is likely to win converts to this (still!) much derided art form.
You plunge into Jimmy Corrigan – the Smartest Kid in the World the instant you pick up the book – tiny print informs you of the number of your particular copy (58,463), how it came to make its way from hardback to paperback, how the book came to be printed (in Japan), how it came to be abandoned, how in need of rescue all of Ware’s books are etc etc. You turn the page and – wowzer! Page after page of extremely tiny print (if you’ve seen Terry Zwigoff’s legendary Crumb – think about the notebooks written by Crumb’s loopy brothers; if you haven’t seen Crumb, imagine the smallest font size in the world and then imagine a whole lot of print – yr head dizzy yet?!?): print that fulfils much of what Egger’s introduction to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius did: in other words, it lets you know that you are in fact reading A GRAPHIC NOVEL, that GRAPHIC NOVELS are still WIDELY DERIDED by people like Tom Paulin before going on to give you simple guidelines and tests to ensure you are fully capable of starting this book which marries WORDS and PICTURES to dizzying effect . . .
Don’t be distracted though, for Jimmy’s story is not one of post-modern chicanery (or at least – not solely one of post-modern chicanery). First, however: understand this: with Jimmy Corrigan – the Smartest Kid in the World (perhaps more than any other graphic novel it’s been my good / bad fortune to read) you have to treat the story and the art separately, and then you have to treat them both together. This is demanding stuff so.
The story: Jimmy Corrigan is a fat, balding, lonely man who is constantly pestered by his mother and given to daydreams involving Superman, Peggy from the Office and others (such as his inbred white trash nonexistent twin). One day, out of the blue, he receives an air ticket from his father – after nothing for years and years. Jimmy flies out to meet up and stay with his stranger father (without telling his mother, of course), has his car stolen, is run over, and – crucially, just doesn’t bond with the loudmouthed and occasionally jerky bar owning father he sees. Along the way, we are introduced to Jimmy’s grandfather and great grandfather (it’s the turn of the 20th century, Jimmy’s grandfather is a little boy, Jimmy’s great grandfather is a mean old bastard, Jimmy’s grandmother is dying, it’s the World’s Fair and there is a girl he likes but doesn’t really understand). All of which . . .
All of which is told is a striking, distinct, apparently simple set of pastel shades and clearly designated blocks of tone and shift that – occasionally proves to be somewhat frustrating because – if we’re being honest here – Ware’s a literary writer, with little regard for linearity and – occasionally – a similar disregard for clueing the reader in on just what is happening (the grandfather / great grandfather are introduced without fanfare and – it isn’t until we are gifted a page of RECAP that the information regarding JUST WHO THE HELL THEY ARE!?! is made clear). The unfolding of the plot is intricate, too – often (especially on first reading) you’ll find yourself flicking back to recover some accidental detail you missed (the plane tickets Jimmy is sent by his father passed me by) but –
ALL OF THIS IS FOR THE MOST PART A GOOD THING
Because what you learn reading Jimmy Corrigan – the Smartest Kid in the World is this: Do not hurry! Take your time! Kick back! Enjoy yourself! It gets so you hit the end of the book, and flick right back to the beginning. I’m on my third time through now and – the riches that exist beyond the art (and the art is wild, at times, and exhilarating) – the riches that exist beyond the art take time to reveal themselves but – Ware is an interesting artist and Jimmy Corrigan – the Smartest Kid in the World is an interesting book.
Any Cop?: Not the greatest graphic novel in the world, certainly (ah the chattering classes and their love of hyperbole) – but very very good all the same!!