Graphic dissidence

May 14, 2003 at 12:00 am

Open the book. Turn the page. Turn the book horizontal so the Earth draws closer to us — then there’s a city, just awakening, wiping the nighttime from its eyes. We’re introduced to a little boy fashioning a red mask and pressing it to his face excitedly. His mother is taking him to the “Classic Car Show.” There he’ll meet his favorite superhero: Superman. (No, not that Superman. This one has a receding hairline and wears a red mask — just like the one the little boy has just made — and seems to have tissue paper for muscles.) Superman will take them out to dinner and sleep with the little boy’s mother before evening’s end.

The next morning, she walks into the kitchen, clutching the flaps of her robe — faceless, as she always is in this book. The little boy is bending over a bowl of cereal, beaming widely and blinking owlishly behind his little mask. Knowing that his mother is looking for Superman, he relays this message: “Mom! He said to tell you he had a real good time!”

So begins Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, an often funny and surprisingly moving graphic novel by Chris Ware. As we flash forward some 30 years, we find that Corrigan
isn’t very assertive or smart. He’s 36, balding, has a crummy job in a crummy little cubbyhole and a pushy mother who calls him all the time.

“Mom, please don’t call me at work,” he pleads, even when he isn’t at work. Though he lives alone, it’s obvious he’s had trouble moving out of range of his mother’s probing radar. His life has become the equivalent of badly produced techno: nothing but loops, predictable, from chorus to fadeout. He’s in love with someone who hates him. He thinks of sex and gets bad advice on the subject: “Never tell ’em you like ’em until you’ve ‘done’ ’em.”

So Jimmy, at the opening of the graphic novel, seems an unlikely subject for 400 pages plus. Do we really want to know this guy? Do we really want to invest our precious time in a comic strip that seems to run on infinitely?

Then he gets a letter in the mail at work. “Dear Son,” it reads, “I think it’s time we fellas get to know each other, what do you say?” This seemingly innocent letter cranks the plot into motion, inviting Jimmy into a world he’s never known. Surprisingly, he takes the bait.

He meets his 103-year-old grandfather (a man regarded affectionately and quite reverentially as “the oldest man in town”), who has very few words to say to Jimmy upon their first meeting, and Amy, the “good cook” African-American sister he never knew existed. Jimmy’s father — a widower — is a wisecracking, extremely likable character who enjoys making strips of bacon spell out words like “Hi.”

A simple family reunion, right? Seen it before? Not like this. In less capable hands, this little slice of life would be a rather droll exercise in futility or, worse, predictable and ineffectual. The characters who populate the novel are grotesques: archetypal, disgusting, the sort who would make Dickens smile.

When Jimmy’s dad gets into a car accident and slips into a coma, the whole family has to pull together in unexpected ways. How do the sister and grandfather embrace this stranger who has walked into their lives — as an intruder or as family? The graphic novel probes the definition of family and why it affects us so much as individuals on a quest for the “perfect family” structure, leading often to ruin and disillusionment. It’s been 30 years since Jimmy last saw his father, and we’re taken along with him on a journey that forever changes his life. This is done, quite skillfully, behind a stream of musical effects, merging the complex and the intuitive in a relentless illustrative swing.

Ware has an “ear” for “graphic music.” His panels “swing” in weird and unexpected ways — using multiple time signatures with odd syncopated rhythms and the “walking bass line” spontaneity of improvisation. In a postscript entitled “Corrigenda,” Ware writes that Jimmy Corrigan “was planned as an improvisatory exercise” and when the author improvises over the complex structure of his own panel arrangements, he’s brilliant and innovative. His world convincingly mirrors our own. But when he riffs on Joyce and Proust, the mirror fogs up like he’s suddenly gone to reading sheet music to impress the potential elitist who may be reading the book, plunging us, sadly, into graphic dissidence.

So Chris Ware may just be the Wynton Marsalis of the graphic storytelling medium. Like Wynton, the question will be whether he’ll settle into his critically acclaimed body of work or push for something higher. I hope the latter. His book, despite its obvious wink at mainstream academia, is worth your time and money.

It will make you feel, laugh and think. It might even enrage or confuse you, but I dare anyone to feel anything but loss and sadness when the last panel’s gone.

Cornelius A. Fortune is a Detroit-based writer of fiction. E-mail [email protected].