Jimmy Corrigan and the Smartest Deconstruction of the Superhero in the World

When dealing with 20th-century novels, James Joyce’s Ulysses is arguably the most significant work in terms of its influence on writers who would follow in the modern and postmodern traditions. In like fashion, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is to comics as Joyce is to conventional literature—and I use the term “conventional” in the loosest sense of the word in relation to Joyce. While Art Spiegelman’s landmark novel Maus is without a doubt the work that all comics scholars and critics can point “outsiders” to as an example of the very best the medium has produced, I believe Ware understood the significance of Spiegelman’s work by pushing comics even further into serious academic territory with his genre-busting superhero story. Equally important is the stylistic approach Ware employed that few other creators did up to this point, and I believe, no other creator did half so well prior to Jimmy Corrigan. Like Ulysses, however, I make no attempt to take upon myself the Herculean task of tackling this work in its entirety; instead, it my aim to explore two small details of this monumental masterpiece of early comics literature: The content of the first six pages and the stylistic approach used in this span of the novel.

If one considers the most popular and well-known field of comics—the superhero genre—one can find the ways Ware critiques and deconstructs this trope as well. During the Golden Age of Comics[1], readers encountered a young Kansan discovers he is no like other boys as he can run faster than a speeding bullet, clear buildings in a single bound, and outdo anyone in a contest of strength—thus, Superman was introduced to the world. Billy Batson discovered the wizard who would teach him how to transform into the super-powered hero, Captain Marvel making good on nearly every boyhood fantasy of being empowered and able to surpass both mom and dad! Fast forward twenty years and a young teen is bit by a radioactive spider who imbues him with the proportionate strength of an arachnid while yet another boy has radioactive materials dumped on him that, while blinding him, also provide him with other super-sensory powers. The trope of the comic book superhero was one that often incorporated young, ordinary boys (or young adults) who happened upon their powers in an extraordinary fashion to become extraordinary persons. In just the first six pages, however, the reader encounters a very different treatment of both the superhero and the main protagonist’s origin story.

Like so many superheroes before him[2], Jimmy is without a father and faces an overbearing mother who does not seem to share his sense of high-flying imagination. Not only does she fail to understand his juvenile attempts at flight: “Stop sticking your arm out there – what are you doing, anyway?” (Ware), but she isn’t even an integral part of his world as her dialogue is placed outside of the panel, away from the thoughts and actions of young Jimmy. As Ware asks: “…when you have all the tools of visual art at your disposal, then why put words in balloons?” (Ware, qtd. in Groth 16:1). Clearly, there is an interest in underscoring the emotional separation between the mother and son through physically placing her dialogue outside of the panels and in the gutter.

Upon arriving at the car show, it becomes clear that hot rods, muscle cars, and girls are of no interest to Jimmy—he is here to see his hero, Super-Man. One cannot help but notice the word “pussy” on a sign tucked away in the bottom right corner of the panel depicting the car show, and how Jimmy is clearly not paying it any attention. In the following panel, he clearly ignores the scantily clad women handling a large tool on the poster, despite the fact there is a second sign with a large arrow pointing to this sexually suggestive picture—one that most readers will not fail to miss out on. Jimmy next asks himself: “Where is it?” and while we see that he is looking for the meet and greet with his hero, this question is suggestive of the real quest this “hero” will face throughout the novel as he searches for meaning and a place in the world. Just as the younger Jimmy fails to recognize the sexual, albeit crude, images around him, so too does the older Jimmy struggle to recognize and respond to the women in his adult life—hardly befitting a superhero such as the playboy Bruce Wayne. Even the bumbling Clark Kent and down-on-his-luck Peter Parker manage to secure the bombshells in their lives; however, there is no explicit indication this happens for Jimmy until the final three pages with the introduction of Tammy.

Upon meeting Super-Man, Jimmy is awestruck, and yet readers cannot help but notice from the empty chairs, disinterested listeners, graying hair, sweaty forehead, and general frumpy presentation that this is no actual super man. This notion is reinforced in the predatory nature of this “hero” when Mrs. Corrigan’s breast protrudes from the panel and quickly catches Super-Man’s eye. The direction quickly moves from a washed up actor with a fried chicken leg in his secret belt to a pretty questionable guy angling for a sexual hookup through manipulating Jimmy’s adoration of the hero character. Jimmy and his mother are treated to fine dining at what appears to be a roadside truck stop. Instead of Jimmy being mentored by his hero, he worriedly listens in his bed as Super-Man moves in on his mother. The next morning, Jimmy encounters the actor in his kitchen as he attempts to slip off without having to speak to the woman with whom he just finished having sex—a pretty scathing play on Superman’s regular “Up, up, and away!” Jimmy’s forlorn expression and the way he hangs his head down suggests some understanding that his hero is not only a fake but that he is not a good person[3]. Further, it reinforces the fact he is rejected not only by his father but also by his childhood hero in favor of something else—in this case sex with his mother. As the skeevy actor heads out the door, however, he hands Jimmy his mask telling him “you deserve it!” Like a good sidekick, Jimmy—filled with false purpose—gleefully delivers the message to his mom that “he said to tell you he had a real good time!” One cannot help but feel pity for Jimmy and his mother at being treated so shoddily by someone who made a living as a superhero. Ware’s deconstruction of how superheroes are portrayed raises a truly difficult question of whether or not unchecked belief in superheroes opens us to being manipulated and used.

The content of Jimmy Corrigan is not the only thing that marks the text as highly postmodern in nature. Ware sets himself to breaking the traditional linear narrative like a modern-day Faulkner and delivers a melancholic story of a boy who failed to launch in a way that comics had never seen before. Gene Kannenberg refers to this as “creating complimentary, co-existing narratives,” (313) and we see these in the three trajectories Ware presents in Jimmy Corrigan—that of young Jimmy, middle-aged Jimmy, and Jimmy’s grandfather as a young boy—and readers must explore them as they occur asynchronously throughout the hundreds of pages. An early precursor to postmodernism, William Faulkner experimented heavily with breaking linear narratives and multiple viewpoints in his Southern literature masterpiece, As I Lay Dying, and other writers such as Toni Morrison[4] or filmmakers such as Quentin Tarrantino[5] would pick this style up and carry forward in their works. Chris Ware takes this stylistic approach and uses it to great effect in weaving these three narratives together underscoring the sense of loss, hopelessness, melancholy, and general sense of not belonging that each Corrigan experiences in that stage of his respective life. In this light, he pushes the boundaries of co-existing narratives he initially began exploring in “Thrilling Adventure Stories” by moving from two to three distinct story arcs in Jimmy Corrigan (313). The result is a somewhat depressing—but hopefully sympathetic—view on the Corrigan family line of men. And this begins right at the very onset of the story as we meet young Jimmy, but are moved forward to the present within the span of seven panels on the sixth page.

Not only is Ware’s use of broken narrative postmodern in nature and revolutionary for comics, but also his layout and panel composition is equally important in understanding his deconstruction of the superhero. The opening splash page is only that of space, and one can almost hear William Shatner’s voice echoing: “Space, the final frontier…” as the growing expectation of the reader encountering something epic. This is confirmed on the next page when the reader has a view of the planet earth—as if we are somewhere in the world beyond looking down upon the planet in isolation. A voice bubble shouts: “Jimmy!” and something seems strange. The view focuses in on the next panel as the reader begins the descent to earth and the reading experience becomes truly strange as Ware tilts the next four panels completely sideways. He is both literally and figuratively going to the origin trope we know as comic readers know on its end. This is reinforced as the rest of the layouts for the following three and a half pages are tilted 90 degrees. In fact, the reader is aware the origin is over and time is shifting to the present when Ware resets the layouts to align in the horizontal setup he initially began with. Additionally, he implements a similar style with the focus on the building as he did with the planet; yet, there is also the implication of a far less epic and far greater domestic scope with this new image. And this is quite telling to the reader about the “heights” the young hero has soared since his encounter with Super-Man. Instead of exploring the green and blue planet on the first page, it appears the hero is confined to a slowly digressing, mundane, urban world.

Overall, Chris Ware applies postmodern notions to his craft and effectively—and painfully—deconstructs contemporary notions of the superhero trope as he explores real world struggles real men and women face. He turns our preconceived notions of what heroes look like, how they behave, and the challenges they face sideways and this forces readers to look at these long-held beliefs differently. Further, Jimmy Corrigan takes a hard look at the way people pursue comfort in “mass produced entertainment or the acquisition of material goods” and yet discover that these “panaceas are ultimately revealed to be merely powerless placebos” (Kannenberg 315). The result is an exceptionally complex comic that collects a work that demonstrates how well comics can not only stand under critical literary scrutiny but also actively participate in the dialogue of literary theory.

Works Cited

Groth, Gary. “Understanding Chris Ware’s Comics [interview].” The Comics Journal 200. (December 1997): 118-71. Print.

Kannenberg, Jr., Gene. “The Comics of Chris Ware.” A Comics Studies Reader. Eds. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 2009. 306-324. Print.

Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York, Pantheon, 2009. Print.

[1] The Golden Age is traditionally believed to have taken place between 1938 and 1955, beginning with the arrival of Superman in Action Comics #1 and ending with the arrival of the new Flash (Barry Allen) in Showcase Comics #4 in March of 1956.

[2] Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed when he’s a boy; Clark Kent is an orphan Kryptonian adopted by the Kents; Peter Parker is adopted by his Aunt May after his parents’ death; Matt Murdock is left alone after his father is murdered by the mob, and the list goes on!

[3] It is worth noting that later in the novel—during one of the newspaper-like sequence—that Jimmy fantasizes about Super-Man killing himself the following day in a sort of revenge dream.

[4] See Beloved (1987).

[5] See Pulp Fiction (1994).

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

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