Hell is Other People:

Superheroes, Outsiders, and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Part 2

Previously, I explored the themes of Chris Ware’s landmark graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth — specifically the role and function of the superhero in this piece and even beyond in Ware’s other works. Most critical and academic analyses of Jimmy Corrigan reads Ware’s opinion of the superhero as being deeply negative; a shadow cast over comics that keeps the medium from being elevated past its perceived immaturity, which is a concern that thematically runs through the work of Ware’s contemporaries in the alternative and independent comic book scenes. However, perceived immaturity is the right turn of phrase for Ware, it seems. He demonstrates within Jimmy Corrigan that the superhero is not the shadow over comics. It is the mainstream — outsiders far removed from the medium — that absorbs the superhero genre into the pop culture consciousness, promotes its downfall, and stifles the art form of comics.

In a number of his comics, Chris Ware expresses many of the sensibilities that Charles Hatfield presents in his book, such as producing comics that are distinct from the mainstream while also exhibiting a desire to appropriate from the mainstream in order to establish his ideas about comics, demonstrate how the medium and the superhero genre are devalued by outsiders, and reclaim the medium from harmful public opinion. Hatfield talks of the appropriation of the direct market created by the Underground Comix and alternative comic scenes by the mainstream companies who pushed the superhero into a role of financial supporter for these shops, something that the alternative creators have reacted to in their work, specifically by releasing comics that are fundamentally different than their mainstream counterparts both in content (which, for alternative comics is almost always autobiographically in some way) and even form. Ware’s work echoes this convention of creating comics that are separate from the mainstream and autobiographical in nature. However, Ware also assumes conventions and tropes from superhero / mainstream comics to make his commentary on the mass-market’s appropriation of superheroes. This is immediately demonstrated within the opening pages of Jimmy Corrigan. These six pages have been considered to be a “different treatment of both the superhero and the main protagonist’s origin story” (Helvie), and, indeed, these pages do read as the traditional formula by which a superhero was created in the genre’s past, specifically in the absence of a father in Jimmy’s life and the loss of an idol, the superhero, a figure of great importance in his life.

Conveying the story of a young Jimmy meeting his hero, “the Super-Man,” the page is constructed of eighteen small panels that carry a sense of captivation for this figure, who is always the central figure in the small panels he appears in. This sensation actually belongs to Jimmy, who is completely engrossed with this theoretically larger-than-life character.  This prominence is disrupted by the appearance of Jimmy’s mother, though, which is the moment of change in Jimmy’s perception of his hero, whose attention is immediately diverted from the young boy to this woman’s breasts.  After this coarse demonstration, the interaction over the next five panels becomes less and less about Jimmy and his hero and more about his mother and his hero. It is also becoming apparent, to Jimmy, that “the Super-Man” is not behaving how he should or how he imagined he would, specifically when he starts flirting with his mother in front of him. By doing this, “the Super-Man” is evolving, or more suitably, devolving. This devolution occurs as Ware moves “the Super-Man” between this group of panels, taking him from sitting at eye level with Jimmy and being clearly distinguishable and having him standing with his face out of the panel by the end of the conversation with Jimmy’s mother. These transitions indicate that Jimmy can no longer recognize “the Super-Man” as a reassuring or protective character. He has now turned into a faceless adult towering over him just as his mother is depicted. So, in addition to already being fatherless, this one representation of good and happiness in Jimmy’s life has surrendered to carnal goals and disappointed the young boy. This is the death of the father / father-figure / idol that inspires the ordinary man or woman to become the extraordinary hero in superhero comics; only, for Jimmy, it simply acts as the precursor to a lifetime of such disappointments, such deaths.

With the inclusion of the significant detail of the “Super-Man” actor giving his mask to Jimmy on the last page of this “origin story,” Ware separates Jimmy Corrigan from the theory advanced by critics and scholars such as Jacob Brogan claiming that throughout the novel Ware is commenting on the superhero’s domineering presence in the comic book medium. The morning after sleeping with Jimmy’s mother, the actor gathers his belongings to make as silent an exit as possible. Before leaving, he briefly speaks to a noticeably dejected Jimmy and gives him the mask to his superhero costume, a gift which revives the young boy’s enthusiasm. This passage has often been analyzed to be a negative reflection of the superhero. For example, in his article for Sequart, Forrest Helvie asserts that “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” (Helvie), which only emphasizes the negative implications of the actor’s role in this passage. Likewise, in “Masked Fathers,” Brogan discusses in great length the correlations he sees between fatherhood and superheroes and Jimmy and the comic book medium. Basically, for Brogan, superhero comics are to alternative comics as Jimmy’s father / father-figure is to Jimmy, and he analyzes the scene in which the actor gives his mask as a gift as a display of asserting ownership and even dominance over Jimmy and leaves him with an identity that is fundamentally flawed and contributes to the advent of a masculine self-identity “constituted through a reflection that is never fully his own” (19), a self-identity that traps Jimmy in a perpetual state of isolated adolescence, which allows him to “satisfy his longings only through his masochistic fantasy life” (20). Brogan suggests that instances such as giving the gift of fantastical identity and any other points in the novel where ownership of Jimmy is claimed by a father-figure (superhero) is a demonstration of Jimmy being unable to become more than what he has been since childhood, and, thus, a representation of comics, a medium which Ware sees as unable to move past this supposed “aspirational horizon” (20) that is the superhero genre. Jimmy is trapped into being inferior by his father-figures just as comics are trapped by the medium’s own.

However, by so completely associating superheroes with Jimmy’s father figures, these conclusions ignore the implications of the superhero as being distinctly detached from fatherhood. When “the Super-Man” television actor gives Jimmy his mask the morning after spending the night, Jimmy’s enthusiasm represents a schism occurring between the actor playing “the Super-Man” and the fantasy that is the actual superhero Jimmy idolizes. Jimmy’s faith in the man before is not being falsely and maliciously reestablished, it is his faith in a character that was his hero, a character to idolize and believe in, that is being reaffirmed by this meaningless and hollow gesture, which is exactly what the actor probably believes it to be, as well. So, rather than this being a demonstration of ownership or “father’s law” that Brogan and others have seen, this scene is demonstrative of Jimmy finding a connection again with the fantasy that initially made him so happy. Thus, this scene can be seen as Ware’s metaphor for an alternative comic creator, such as himself, who recognizes the distinction between what the superhero is in the eye of the public pop culture outside and what the superhero is and can be within the comics medium and to creators. Following this logic suggests, then, that Ware is imbuing the novel with a sense of longing to reconnect with a fantasy — a fantasy that has potential and can be believed in sincerely. This is epitomized in the final pages of the novel. Juxtaposed with an elegant rendering of “the end,” Jimmy is cradled by “the Super-Man” as they fly through a snowy scene. Jimmy’s hero is delivered to him, and there is a harmony to the illustration, conveying the harmony that Ware wishes to instill in comics between the alternative and the mainstream, which is only achieved through mutual understanding and acceptance. Strictly reading the image as is, this synergy is embodied by the superhero’s flight, being able to live up to the potential of its name, as he travels with Jimmy over a simple yet limitless backdrop of possibilities, the symbol of the growing worth of alternative comics. Such an illustration should not be possible considering the way in which “the Super-Man” failed Jimmy in the opening “origin story” of the novel, though.

What is important to consider about “the Super-Man” in the episode that begins the graphic novel is that he is the figure responsible for this metaphorical death of the superhero. Ware places the responsibility of the perception of comics on outside interference. This idea is represented by this fake “Super-Man.” The man that Jimmy meets is not the actual hero as Jimmy knows him to be. The man he meets is very noticeably a man dressed as a hero, but is also, specifically, a television actor, a symbol of the pop culture that seizes the superhero from comics and redistributes it back out to the public with all its flaws and stereotypes accentuated, such as the simplistic, cheap-looking costume and lack of depth to character. By including these elements, Ware is observing and reacting to the ways in which the pop-culturally inclined minds of the Western world parade the superhero as the “face” of comics while also diminishing the medium’s potential for literary greatness by forcing the perception that the actor playing “the Super-Man” is reinforcing a trend that will reoccur shortly after in the novel.

One of the most profound events in Jimmy Corrigan is the scene in which a costume clad character jumps and falls to his death, and its aftermath, demonstrating much of Chris Ware’s philosophies on superheroes and the public perception of comics. Within the pages of this death scene, Ware has Jimmy notice the man atop a building waving. After Jimmy waves back, he witnesses the man’s death, looking on with concern while the eyewitnesses on the street gawk at the corpse, some individuals staring for several panels. Once the fascination passes and everyone finishes considering this fallen man, they move on with their days, and the police, an ambulance, or anyone who could conceivably help aren’t called for hours. The corpse is simply left to lie in the street and rain until it gets dark and an ambulance finally arrives to gather the man’s remains. However, as Brogan reiterates in “Masked Fathers,” this suicidal superman is revealed a few short pages later to neither be the actual “Super-Man” or even the actor who played “the Super-Man” on television, a character of great importance for Jimmy. He was simply a man dressed as a superhero who died. Brogan identifies this detail as Ware expressing failure to demean the superhero. He also associates it with the “oneiric climate of the superhero” (17), the superhero story trope of framing one entire issue around a significant change in a hero that is completely divergent from their nature (e.g. Superman being cruel to Jimmy Olsen) only to reveal that it all took place in a dream or in some alternative universe that does not reflect the actual world in which the hero lives. This is a questionable statement to make considering that this trope has long since been abandoned by the mainstream companies in the industry, and Chris Ware, being a mindful creator of both the medium’s history and present (as Brogan himself considers him to be) would not likely illustrate a scene structured to debase a genre that could so immediately be debased itself. The argument is also questionable because it doesn’t fully consider two very important components of the scene(s) in question: the identity of the man and Jimmy’s reaction to his death.

Consider Jimmy’s facial expressions during both the death of the faux-superhero and the realization that he is not, in any sense, who he claimed to be by being dressed in such a way. When Jimmy first notices the man waving, Jimmy appears happier and more animated than in the preceding panels suggesting an enduring admiration for this character type after years of disappointment in his life, specifically less than ideal experiences with other such figures. The concern illustrated after the masked man falls to his death evokes the apprehension a comic book creator like Ware experiences as they witness the state of the medium and its public perception. In this respect, committing suicide in the middle of the day is no coincidence. Doing so draws the attention of a public that does not care enough to do anything other than observe without any real connection to the severity of this man having fallen to his death. This is a representation of a public that is quick to observe the comic book medium through the superhero genre before disregarding the rest that comics have to offer and moving on from the medium altogether, treating it as a novelty of sorts amongst literary discussion.

Pages later, the emptiness of Jimmy’s expression as he reads the news of the suicide speaks volumes to the idea that Ware laments the outside interference that he believes plagues the medium of comics. The inauthentic jumper who takes the superhero mantle for himself before committing suicide, the idle onlookers who do not care, the writer of the newspaper article whose piece evokes a tongue-in-cheek sarcastic tone that completely devalues the seriousness of the situation are all outsiders — outsiders who deflate Jimmy in the novel, but who are also employed by Ware to explore how public opinion and discourse can deflate the superhero genre and comics in general (and often does). The man in a costume dying as the superhero, and the man in a costume who slept with Jimmy’s mother both tarnish and fail as the superhero. These are pretenders who take art, who take something very special to Jimmy Corrigan, and ruin it—much like constant saturation of the market of superhero adaptations and reboots thereof tarnish the superhero little by little with each new iteration. Marvel Studios may say they are capturing the magic of the Marvel Universe, but for some (or even many) it seems that the magic is being stolen for the sake of turning a profit. Corporations disguise themselves with superheroes to push their own agendas. We are all Jimmy Corrigan in this sense. This is a condemnation of the appropriation of sequential art made years before the MCU was even a twinkle in the eye of Mickey Mouse and his friends over in Disneyland.

Ultimately, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth is a graphic novel wherein Chris Ware illustrates the standards to which he holds comics while, in turn, exploring and reconciling with the superhero, a figure and genre that has been a nemesis to the independent and alternative comic scenes. Ware never reinforces that narrative, though. Instead, he establishes the collective pop-cultural mind as the antagonists in his novel who wish to absorb and exploit the superhero. Ware certainly deconstructs the superhero, but always quantifies that deconstruction in very particular ways. The “Super-Man” actor who sleeps with Jimmy’s mother, the suicide jumper — these embodiments of the outsider, a domineering presence in the novel that Ware has act out the malicious infringement on the world of comics.

Ware also recognizes the simple sad truth that the mainstream and pop culture public consciousness is, more often than not, an obstruction — an obstruction keeping the comics medium from reaching the aforementioned final and (in this author’s opinion) most-beautifully composed page: the illustration of the Super-Man — the REAL Super-Man — cradling young Jimmy Corrigan as they fly away together. The imagery is breathtaking and inspires a sense of harmony between reality and the unobtainable fantasy of superhero comics, as well as the fantasy of harmony between mainstream and alternative comics free from the outsiders, which is, perhaps, equally as unobtainable.

Works Cited

Ball, David M. “Chris Ware’s Failures.” The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking. Ed. David M. Ball and Martha B. Kuhlman. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2010. 45-61. Print.

Brogan, Jacob. “Masked Fathers: Jimmy Corrigan and the Superheroic Legacy.” The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking. Ed. David M. Ball and Martha B. Kuhlman. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2010. 14-27. Print.

Eggers, Dave. “After Wham! Pow! Shazam!” Rev. of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, by Dave Eggers. New York Times 26 Nov. 2000.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. 1st ed. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Print.

Helvie, Forrest. “Jimmy Corrigan and Smartest Deconstruction of the Superhero in the World.” Sequart Organization. 12 Apr 2012.

Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. New York. Pantheon Books, 2003.

Worden, Daniel. “The Shameful Art.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 2006. Pp 891-917. Print.

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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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