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'Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth'

A not-so-comic comic book

Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" features the intermingled stories of four generations of Corrigans, with similar themes running through their lives. To see more of "Jimmy Corrigan," click here  

In this story:

A letter and a plane ticket

Inky little worlds

The 'Emily Dickinson of comics'

'Almost unprecedented' production challenges

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

NEW YORK (CNN) -- It is unlike any comic book you have ever seen.

It looks, from its faux embossed leather cover, like an old-fashioned family album. And in a way, that is what it is: Inside are 380 pages of hand-drawn pictures, a cartoon portrait of four generations of the fictional Corrigan family.

"Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" (Pantheon, 2000) is a newly published "graphic novel" by cartoonist Chris Ware. Ware outlines, in thousands of small squares and rectangles, the story of Jimmy Corrigan, a hapless Everyman who works in a boxy cubicle and lives a boxed-in life.

Jimmy is "a lonely, emotionally impaired human castaway." There are clues to how he came to be that way in flashback panels that show his childhood -- and the troubled childhoods of Jimmy's father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, not in that order. A careful reading of the interconnected stories reveals a long genealogical line of abandonment and disappointment, regret and paralyzing isolation.



And a careful reading is necessary: "Jimmy Corrigan" is not a linear story. The narrative is out of chronological order -- looking at the book is like finding 100 years of photographs in random bundles in a box. Pictures telling Jimmy's sad-sack story are suddenly followed by pictures telling the sorry story of his grandfather, also named Jimmy.

"Panels will unfold into these weird loops -- you can't really tell where a story begins and ends," said Bill Wrigley, a Columbia University art history student who stood in line for nearly an hour at a recent book signing to get Ware's inscription in his copy of "Jimmy Corrigan." "But it's engaging."

A letter and a plane ticket

The main part of the story is set in 1980s Chicago. The book's title character gets a letter and plane ticket from the father he's never known, inviting him to come visit for Thanksgiving.

Their star-crossed reunion is rendered in a succession of poignant scenes. Jimmy and his newly met Dad sit on the couch in awkward silence, with nothing to say and so much unsaid. Jimmy's dad, feebly trying to make up for a lifetime of missed breakfasts, fries some bacon in a skillet, then arranges the bacon strips on Jimmy's plate so they spell "HI."

Chris Ware uses comic strip techniques to tell a decidedly non-comic tale in "Jimmy Corrigan"  

The entire breakfast sequence is vividly evoked -- down to the "tsss, tlink, tink" that Ware uses to convey the sound of a metal fork turning frying bacon in a skillet.

Chris Ware drew from his own life experience for the scene.

"Like Jimmy, I never knew my father," said Ware, a pale 32-year-old man who is so soft-spoken that a tape recorder inches away cannot pick up his words. "Over the years, I tried to envision him, to imagine him. I'd seen photographs of him, but they were years old -- I had no idea what he looked like. And then he called me up one day."

Ware was 29 years old, and more than halfway through the writing of the book, when he first met his own father. Their meeting, too, was tentative and awkward -- and tinged with anger. "I was probably a little hostile," said Ware. "There were so many regrets ..."

His father died a short time later. "I added it all up once -- the few meetings we had, the few times we talked on the phone," said Ware. "In total, I knew my father for just about five hours."

Many of the other scenes in the book are from Ware's memory as much as his imagination. ("I'm not good at creating things out of thin air," he said.)

The book contains several accounts of schoolyard cruelty that will be painfully familiar to anyone who, as a child, was the butthead or the dork, the shortest or the skinniest, the last picked for kickball or the first target in dodgeball.

"As a kid, I was, shall we say, not the favored one," said Ware, who grew up bullied in Omaha, Nebraska, then San Antonio, Texas. "Kids were threatening to kill me all the time. I ate lunch by myself. I had some friends I talked to on the weekends -- but they wouldn't talk to me at school. And I wasn't good at games -- I was about as physical as an inert gas."

Glenn Becker and Ursula O'Steen look over their copy of "Jimmy Corrigan" at a Manhattan book signing by the author, Chris Ware. Ware's signatures to his fans are elegant, precise and personal  

Inky little worlds

Ware took refuge in drawing -- in penning inky little friends for himself, inky little worlds.

"Drawing was the only way I had of distinguishing myself, of trying to impress people -- impress people with my one pathetic ability," he said, with a rueful laugh. "There's nothing less impressive than a scrawny kid with poofy hair, drawing superheroes."

Ware came through it all with an enduring empathy for the ridiculed, the awkward, the maladept -- an empathy incised into every page of the book. In one small panel, Ware draws Jimmy Corrigan fantasizing a simple stroll, arm around the sketchy outline of a non-existent girlfriend. Yearning and wistfulness and heartache, all in one square inch.

Many of Ware's drawings are smaller than that: The characters and neat lettering in his panels are often eye-strainingly tiny. (This reader needed a strong light and a magnifying glass to see all the details and read every last word.)

"I don't actually draw them that small -- the original drawings are about double the size you see in the book," said Ware. "But I have them reduced to a very small image. Smaller makes for a more compact world, a little magical world."

And, said Ware, "Making the images small helps draw the reader in."

Those who do peer at the drawings see peerless draftsmanship. Ware's skill with a rapidograph pen and a three-hair brush makes his work among the "finest" of fine art.

"I studied painting and the fine arts, and the only thing as beautiful as this is Islamic miniatures," said Ursula O'Steen, an artist and web designer who was also among the throng of admiring fans at Ware's Manhattan book-signing last week.

Other fans compare Ware's drawings to Egyptian hieroglyphs or Maya glyphs: They combine letters and pictures to communicate ideas. "The pictures are ideograms -- drawn words, if that makes any sense," said Ware. "The pictures tell the story -- I'm a terrible writer."

The 'Emily Dickinson of comics'

He isn't. In the book, he writes this observation on the nature of memory: "One's memory, however, likes to play tricks after years of cold storage. Some recollections remain as fresh as the moment they were minted, while others seem to crumble into bits, dusting their neighbors with a contaminating rot of uncertainty."


Over a picture of little Jimmy turning out the light before bed, Ware writes: "Another night's length of this boy's bedside light is snipped."

The poet J.D. McClatchey, an admirer of Ware's work, calls him the "Emily Dickinson of comics."

Is Ware conscious of the poetic nature of much of his writing? Does he read poetry? "No -- I'm a complete rube," he said. "I tried so hard to read poetry and I just couldn't.

"Strange, because comics are the visual equivalent of poetry: You're using imagery, in a limited space."

The compact imagery, the compacted plot and subplots, make "Jimmy Corrigan" more akin to a novel by Faulkner or Dickens than to "The Adventures of Spiderman." The book is not a quick read. Skim a page and you'll miss a tiny delight -- a Thumbelina landscape; a postage-stamp still-life; an entire treatise, in Lilliputian letters, on vinyl siding as a metaphor for life.

It took Ware seven years to do the book's scenes and sequences -- most of which initially appeared in his Jimmy Corrigan comic strips and comic books, published in Ware's "Acme Novelty Library" and sold in comic book and specialty stores. It not only takes time to draw such meticulous detail, but to research it: Ware says he can spend hours researching an image for a single frame or panel.

He collects and uses real objects as models; he draws from history books and from photographs. To get just the right look for the segment in the book where Jimmy goes to a small town in Michigan to meet his father, Ware went to a small Wisconsin town and took snapshots of the diner, the burger place, the gas station.

He worked from old photographs of 1890s Chicago for the stunning architectural drawings that illustrate the novel-within-a novel about Jimmy's grandfather. "Turn of the century -- I prefer things from that era," said Ware. "The style then seemed to have more respect for the viewer. What was presented was something handmade, something crafted with care and skill."

'Almost unprecedented' production challenges

Ware said he is inexpressibly grateful that his publisher, Pantheon (a division of Random House), employed such care and skill in producing the finished book, and managed to price it at $27.50 -- half what it might have cost, according to art director Chip Kidd, who championed the book's publication.

Kidd called the production challenges of Jimmy Corrigan "almost unprecedented." "It's 380 pages of incredibly intricate, technical information," said Kidd.

The color printing was adjusted repeatedly -- Ware's choice of colors is as precise as his lines. Most cartoonists use the colors of kindergarten crayons; Ware uses the shades in the Crayola Big Box -- Aquamarine, Goldenrod, Burnt Umber. "I wanted every page to have an emotional warmth to it," said Ware. "And warmth from the color, not the expressivity of the line, necessarily."

The page galleys were proofed repeatedly. The book's remarkable jacket, which unfolds to a 24"x 16" blueprint of the multiple Jimmy Corrigan storylines, was proofed five times. "It's complex," admitted Ware, who did the proofing himself. "It's kind of like a Web page, smashed down."

The book had a first printing of 25,000 -- and has sold well enough to warrant a second printing. Movie and television studios have taken notice. "There's been interest," said Ware, about making Jimmy Corrigan into an animated series or film.

Ware is wary. "I can't imagine not doing all the work on it myself," he said. "I'd have to really come to hate it first, before I could turn it over to anyone else."

There has also been interest in a published sequel to "Jimmy Corrigan," based on the book's ending scenes, in which Jimmy meets a new woman co-worker who seems just as lonely as he is, just as desperate for friendship.

But Chris Ware has moved on: He's working on a new serialized story, set in the 1970s, about a boy named Rusty Brown who grows up to be a toy collector.

The last page of the Jimmy Corrigan contains two words: "The End," written in florid script. Like everything else about Chris Ware's work, the words are exact. "I'll never draw him again," said Ware. "At least, that's how I feel right now."

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Review: 'The Sandman: The Dream Hunters'
December 23, 1999

Chris Ware resources
Fantagraphics: Chris Ware
Chris Ware Virtual Exposition
Pantheon (Random House)

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