I stumbled upon Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth during frantic last-minute prep for the upcoming UX Book Club LA meet – Graphic Novel A-Go-Go.
I picked up C. Ware’s book because, seeing that our book club topic is graphical storytelling, Jimmy Corrigan is packed with hundreds if not thousands of obsessively drawn interactions. Moreover the path through the novel (perhaps technically a novella, with 43,000 some odd words) is not linear, making the graphic interactions all the more important. But be careful, some of these interactions may be red herrings…
Anyhow, here are a few observations that I offer up as a form of DECODER that may or may not help others find their way through this lonely and somewhat disturbing story.
There is a narrative thread and something of a character arc in Jimmy Corrigan, but like a woman’s hair found pressed between the leaves of an old book, this thread may be tangled and difficult to be sure to whom it belongs. But one of the keys to Jimmy Corrigan seems to be a woman’s red hair. Follow it. At least it’s something to grasp.
Just when you feel that you’ve lost the grasp of the narrative thread, which is not hard to do seeing that several of the main characters resemble each other, dress alike and have the same name yet are separated by time, the author steps in with a helping hand, offering up expository charts, diagrams and “voice over.” But – as is carefully explained in one of the passages of exposition provided by the author – the Exposition itself was largely a sham, made up of cheap, lightweight materials (cf. comics).
Midway through the novel, the expository voice suddenly shifts to first person – apparently the memories of James Corrigan the elder to his adoptive granddaughter. There is a clarity and honesty to this narrative that is refreshing and helps orient the reader at the same time that the illustrations are telling a different story. In the midst of this narrative it is revealed that James Corrigan and his father are liars. How much can we trust a narrative told by someone with the habit of telling lies for self-preservation?
Sequence, the movement of the storyline from frame to frame, from left to right, is the most consistent tool for wayfinding within Jimmy Corrigan. There are times when the sequence shifts from top to bottom or even reverses itself from right to left and sometimes traverses the edges of a central image. These are but momentary stumbles, often explained with helpful arrows or other visual cues, and then the familiar comic-book style of sequence resumes.
…and yet, when Amy and Jimmy look at family photos together Amy admits that she needs to put the photos in order. The stories they tell are out of sequence. And ultimately, so is the story of Jimmy Corrigan.
The most reliable narrative clue in Jimmy Corrigan seems to be color. Rust and neutral tones predominate the book, punctuated by green and peach…both significant to the storyline. But from what I can tell there are two colors that serve as “truth tellers.” These are:
Blue seems to be the color of FACT in Jimmy Corrigan. It appears in genealogical diagrams, memories that appear connected to truth, banners and assembly diagrams for the elaborate papercraft structures embedded in the book.
Red seems to be the color of VITALITY. The color red stands out in the Superman mask, the red bird, the red telephone that connects Jimmy to his judgmental mother and of course it is the color of the red-haired girl who runs throughout the book. Ultimately though it is a color associated with Amy. I believe that following the color red gets you to the core of the story.
About four fifths of the way through the book comes a moment of truth. Amy is in the hospital waiting for news about her father. She is also waiting to meet Jimmy, wondering what he might look like. She is wearing a red jacket. Behind her, on the wall is a reproduction of Paul Cezanne’s still life “Peaches” from the Detroit Museum of Fine Art.
But this is a fabrication. The picture on the wall is actually an excerpt from Cezanne’s painting Still Life with Plate of Cherries part of the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But why the ruse? It’s not like there is a shortage of peaches in Cezanne’s work.
I have a feeling that Chris Ware is giving us a little clue here that the peach – as important as it seems to be to the story, is actually the red herring. It seems to me that Ware is telling us here that the story is not just the narrative, nor about the characters – in short not about any kind of pictographic symbolism that you might expect to find in a comic book. The point of combing through 380 pages of four-color comic book art is not to understand but to experience a larger mosaic of the world the characters live in.
Paul Cezanne, a terrible draftsman, nonetheless considered himself to be a visual architect, putting together not just a painting but a complex structure of meaning. He once said,
Pure drawing is an abstraction. Drawing and color are not distinct, everything in nature is colored.
And that, I think, is the key to experiencing Jimmy Corrigan.