Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
Hopefully, the Pulitzer Prize that Art Spiegelman won in 1992 for his grim, hard-bitten graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor's Tale, has by now settled the debate over whether comics can qualify as literature. But if that weren't enough, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth will dispatch any lingering doubts. This subtle masterwork, finally out in paperback after three years in cloth, brings everything to the cause--characters so rich you're tempted to pinch their flesh, dialogue that sounds like it was overheard, and a story line that gives more than it demands--all rendered in expert lines and with a sumptuous, subdued palette of colors. It's enough to make you wonder why they even bother to make books with words anymore.
The beauty, as in most things, rests in its simplicity. The plot tracks the histories of three men in the Corrigan family, all named James, and after meeting the most recent generation--the titular Jimmy--you'll all but dread meeting the rest. A cubicle-dwelling milquetoast in Chicago, Jimmy receives a letter in the mail one day from his long-absent father, which generates a series of childhood memories and what-if fantasies carried out in a sequence of small-frame vignettes. As Jimmy travels to meet his father, the reader is then taken on a jitney ride through extended Corrigan family history, dating back to Jimmy's grandfather's own abandonment, on the grounds of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, no less. In keeping with graphic-novel tradition, everyone involved is poor, bitter, and miserable, but their dissatisfaction is not mere atmospheric ennui; it's a legacy, passed down from father to son, and it's not without the promise of redemption.
What really carries the day through all this, though, is Ware's use of the page. Instead of lining up panels in comic-book style, he uses frames of varying sizes all on the same spread, stacking them in clusters, columns, and rows to suit his needs. In one passage, the panicky scenarios that race through Jimmy's mind when he's awakened by a phone call are carried out in a barrage of tiny boxes, as if flashing before your own eyes; in another, the dour atmosphere of the Columbian Exposition is set in a wordless, full-page illustration of the White City. No prose necessary. The imagery is downright cinematic.
Which is why the power of the writing itself is such a surprise. Sure, there are a few clunkers, like when the eldest Corrigan learns that his mother died while giving birth to him: "But what a cruel irony for a child to suffer--that my beginning was the cause of her end!" Yet there are also plenty of long, languorous recitations that ring truer than you would hope, as when great-grandfather James struggles to regain the day he was left behind: "Some recollections," he says, "remain as fresh as the moment they were minted." Tender in its honesty, devilish in its subtlety, Jimmy Corrigan more than earns its rank as Maus' successor. The bar is higher.