Hell is Other People:

Superheroes, Outsiders, and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan

Chris Ware’s seminal graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth is a masterwork wherein Ware chronicles the struggles of main character, Jimmy, as he navigates through life, eventually meeting his estranged father for the first time, while themes of history (familial and otherwise), race, and loneliness are also explored through flashbacks, fantasies, and vignettes within the greater plot. Ware is also concerned with the motif of the superhero, a supremely emblematic figure and genre in the comic book medium that is appropriated by the writer / artist for a number of vignettes, defining the superhero through a number of different approaches. Aging television actor, suicidal jumper, and even child cradling man of flight are all represented at different points in the plot. Very often, critics and scholars come to Ware’s novel and find the writer / artist to be continuing the tradition of the alternative comic scene’s movement to elevate the medium past its presumed history as childish reading material filled with low brow comedic skits or never ending, no substance superhero sagas. For example, In his review of Jimmy Corrigan in the New York Times, Dave Eggers includes the illustrative subtitle, “Comic books move beyond superheroes to the world of literature” and further asserts that the comics produced by creators such as Ware demand that critics and the public alike expand their understanding of the medium past these inflexible concepts that have led to its being so often and unfairly disregarded as “literary fiction’s halfwit cousin” (Eggers) and into serious considerations.

Likewise, websites devoted to comic book studies and scholarly considerations of Chris Ware’s output have seen this same trend throughout the career of the writer / artist. Sequart Organization has published some of these meditations, such as the article, “Jimmy Corrigan and the Smartest Deconstruction of the Superhero in the World,” wherein Forrest Helvie surmises that Ware is critical of the superhero character / genre and “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” (Helvie). The interpretation that Ware is critical of the superhero and wishes to deconstruct, or even dismantle, this character type is the focal point of many scholarly studies and contemplations of the creator’s body of work, though especially in regard to Jimmy Corrigan.

In “Masked Fathers: Jimmy Corrigan and the Superheroic Legacy,” Jacob Brogan discusses how mainstream figures acknowledge the superhero genre as the central figure in the history and contemporary existence of comics—an acknowledgement that, he asserts, is problematic for Ware, who he sees as expressing this frustration throughout Corrigan. In particular, Brogan deliberates on how the status of comics in the public consciousness as an “immature medium” based on the domineering presence the superhero causes Ware to be so critical of the trope in this novel.

This perception of comics as being an “immature” or “shameful” medium for both a creator and reader to be a part of is also explored in Daniel Worden’s article, “the Shameful Art,” in which Worden also looks to discover what exactly has led to this opinion and how creators reconcile with said opinion. Daniel M. Ball attempts to explain how comic creators handle the perception of their medium in “Chris Ware’s Failures.” Ball attributes the critical, often self-deprecating nature that permeates Ware’s comics, as well as his public persona, to the tradition in American literature of an author distinguishing their work as being literarily and intellectually significant by obscuring themselves from the popularity of the mass-market audience. This tradition in practice comes in examples such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s proud claim to the title of “obscurest man in American letters” (47), which allowed him to locate his work seriously within the literary canon, separate from literature accepted by the mass-market. Ware wishes to do the same by appropriating this antiquated tradition.

For the critics discussed, in addition to many others, Chris Ware makes his grief with the superhero evident throughout his body of work. In the case of Jimmy Corrigan, Ware includes vignettes featuring this character type in order to subvert and deconstruct it. However, these vignettes, while indeed subversive, do not necessarily indicate that Ware believes the superhero is completely at fault in the hindering of comics or that it is totally unviable as a genre of comic books. A lingering sense of mysticism for the superhero before reality interrupts fantasy always pervades these scenes. That mysticism does not read as a commentary on the disappointment of the superhero character, of the worthless nature of its genre. Rather, these scenes reveal a reverence for the superhero. Ware is demonstrating how outside forces participate in the downfall of the superhero figure.

The superhero is the most enduring and successful character type and genre in the comic book industry. The term ‘mainstream comics’ can be defined as superheroes. Since the genre’s inception in 1938 with DC Comics’s introduction of the now innately recognized character of Superman in Action Comics #1, the superhero as always remained in the forefront of any conversation about comics, thus standing, for many, as the flagship creation of the medium. Creators in the alternative comic scene reject such representative positioning, popularity, and presence as most enduring genre in comics and consistently in their work. As Charles Hatfield suggests in Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, the writers and artists working in this scene at its inception were “determined to push back the thematic horizons of the form — and to avoid the colorful yet diversionary byways of familiar market genres such as the superhero” (3). In the past, said creators have resisted this genre out of a need to establish comics as being able to offer more than the childish content generally seen in superhero stories around the time of its creation and continued presence well into the ‘50s, ‘60s, etc.

In more recent memory, public and even critical appreciation has risen for the superhero within the collective American pop-cultural mind, gaining recognition as a valuable source of entertainment capable of crossing over into other forms of media such as film and television and a topic rich for mining by media critics. Yet it is still rejected by the creators in the alternative scene who are often displeased with what is considered to be “romanticizing what was at bottom a bluntly commercial and exploitative business, one that, with rare exceptions, produced work of flickering quality and slight ambition — eager, perhaps, but fitful and prone to burnout, despite its occasional incandescent bursts” (Hatfield, 10). Creators in the alternative scene also bemoan appropriation of the direct market (comic book and hobby shops) by the mainstream comic companies in addition to the perceived artistic bankruptcy of these entities. The direct market was a system of distribution that was born out of the Underground Comix and alternative comics movements, after all, but it is now used to sell mainstream comics almost exclusively. Alternative comic creators and mass market creators influenced by this scene (e.g. Frank Miller, Alan Moore, etc.) are now, more than ever, keenly working to elevate the medium to true literary significance. The authors of the aforementioned critical reviews and academic articles suggest that Jimmy Corrigan is demonstrative of this adamant rejection of superheroes, which is a fundamental failure to recognize that while Ware does indeed embrace the alternative scene’s philosophies of educating the public concerning comics’ literary potential, he demonstrates esteem for the genre despite its limitations.

As Hatfield asserts, the alternative comic scene was born out of a concentrated effort by creators identifying with this movement to push the envelope of storytelling in comics as far as they can with the intention of distinguishing their work from mainstream comics and elevating the medium to new literary statuses. Chris Ware expresses these sensibilities but also demonstrates that he does not do so in contention with the superhero genre but with public perceptions of the medium. There are several instances where Ware illuminates what standards he wishes to hold comics to, where he believes the medium should be located in the literary canon, and what has held it back from achieving this status within McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13 (a literary publication guest edited by the comics creator that is dedicated to the discussion of comics and which is examined in much of the scholarly efforts concerning Ware). For example, Jacob Brogan suggests that “while he acknowledges the role superheroes play in his work, he is critical of the way these figures characterize perceptions of his chosen medium” (14) based on comments made by Ware in the publication. Perception is not equated with truth, for Ware, though. Perception means public perception — a skewed perception.

In one of the most memorable quotes of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13 (memorable enough, even, to also be included in Brogan’s article) Ware surmises, “comics are the only art form that many ‘normal’ people still arrive at expecting a specific emotional reaction (laughter) or a specific content (superheroes)” (14). In this respect, Ware is actually divulging a renouncement and lamenting of these preconceived notions of the nature of comics and the individuals who Ware identifies as “normal’ people”; the public consciousness who condition their understanding of comics to conform to outdated and flawed ideas about what their content is, that they’re only stories for children filled with either worthless comedy or superheroes. Ware finds these outsiders responsible for the entrapment of comics and keeping the medium from growing past what it once was, as well as not truly recognizing the distinct talent displayed in the works that have arrived in the industry over the last few decades. These talents have initiated change in the medium’s literary perception only to see it take several steps back when the public reintroduces superheroes to the conversation. However, while Ware certainly exhibits disdain and contempt for these outsiders during these passages, much of his work outside of this novel suggests that he believes there to be a benefit to claiming ownership of this public perception to disarm it.

In his article, “Shameful Art,” Daniel Worden explores how and why Ware and other contributors to this volume of McSweeney’s claim ownership over the shame that often permeates the public opinion of comics, an ownership that connects with David M. Ball’s theory on why Ware often infuses his work and public persona with failure in his article, “Chris Ware’s Failures.” While comics are referred to as a “textual form increasingly recognized as the cutting edge of contemporary visual and literary culture” (Worden, 892), Ware and his peers are incredibly fixated on displaying the shame surrounding the medium everywhere in this issue of McSweeney’s, even its form. For example, a nameplate located in the beginning of the issue that reads, “Your name here. / (or, perhaps, the name of someone you’d like to insult by suggesting they actually own a comic book)” (891), which evokes the notion that there is something shameful with being involved with comics in any way. This is a symptom of the flawed perceptions that public consciousness has burdened the medium with. There is also a deeper understanding, though. Specifically that one can claim ownership over this volume and its contents for themselves by placing his or her name in this prime location, thus establishing themselves as independent from the surveyors assigning shame, which is considered by Worden to be “a way of claiming comics as a distinct art form with a distinct history. In deploying that distinction, the anthology seeks to shift comics’ shameful status to the level of a cultivated taste” (894), typical of how Ware distinguishes his work from the mainstream.

According to David M. Ball, in “Chris Ware’s Failures,” these claims of ownership are indeed Ware’s attempts at separating his and other alternative comics from mainstream comics. He appropriates the tradition of emphasizing failure that was enacted by authors such as Melville and Hawthorne who did so during a time of a growing mass-market audience for literature that was seen by some as something to clearly define one’s work away from. It was believed that doing so would proclaim serious literary significance to an intellectual crowd. This is an idea that Ball calls “failure-as-success” (47), suggesting that there is literary value in failure, or, more suitably, failure to find a place among works popular with this newly established “leisure” reading audience. Similarly, Ware is producing comics in a time of increasing attention being paid to comics, specifically mainstream superhero comics, thanks to merchandising and adaptations in other forms of media, so he assumes this literary tradition in order to distinguish alternative comics, or “comics-as-literature,” and mainstream comics, or “comics-as-commodities” (58). However, it is important to make the distinction between what exactly Chris Ware is protesting. It is not the mainstream comics themselves, but the attention being paid to them by an audience that simply consumes without deeper thought or understanding, just as Melville and Hawthorne were primarily unhappy with the audience that was finding literature. This establishes a foundation to the idea that Ware is concerned with deconstructing the presence of outsiders that have found superheroes rather than the superheroes themselves in Jimmy Corrigan. Outsiders, for Ware, being a collective of outside, mainstream forces that co-op the superhero and absorb it.

To be concluded…

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Jesse Berberich is a playwright and media critic born and raised in New York City. He is the curator of Disreputable Cinema, a monthly series at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY that presents cult classics and hidden gems of every genre. His criticism and other writings have appeared in the print publications G-Fan Magazine, Drive-In Asylum, and Revisions: a Journal on Writing at Queens College. He received his MFA degree from Queens College, with his thesis play, Monster Kids, having been recently performed at the famous INTAR Theatre.

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