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Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
Written and illustrated by Chris Ware
Published by Pantheon Books

The ACME Novelty Library from Fantagraphics Books has been one of the most critically acclaimed comics to come along in years, but I never read an issue before cracking this book open. After reading it, I wanted them all, and then some.

By the time I had heard ACME was worth checking out, quite a few issues had been published, and everything I saw of it hinted at an off-putting complexity and impenetrable strangeness. Ware even admits on the inside front cover that one of his fears is that his work could be called "impenetrable." Having now read a good portion of it, I have to say it isn't, really, but to the casual observer, it certainly appears that way.

Every strangely shaped issue (each different from every other) featured bizarre diagrams, advertisements and paper constructs. It's not a traditional comic book by any stretch of the imagination, but here in what are quickly becoming my middle years, I am getting pretty sick of traditional comic books anyway, so, bring it on.

This Jimmy Corrigan hardcover collects most of the Jimmy Corrigan stories from ACME, and as such, the narrative is somewhat straightforward, and perhaps easier to follow than the individual issues seemed to suggest. The good news, really, is that the story is worthy of the sometimes considerable effort it takes to absorb it all.

Chris Ware's pages demonstrate an obsessive devotion to detail, with tiny print and minutiae that a casual reader could easily miss, or worse, dismiss. The style is deceptively clear-looking however. My wife, looking at the book, commented that it seemed unusually easy to read. Speaking as someone who has been reading comic books since before Nixon resigned, I have to say, there were times I was utterly unsure where I was supposed to look next. This, it turns out, is a key part of Ware's storytelling strategy and devastatingly effective at controlling pace and mood.

This is one of the best-looking presentations of a comics story you're ever likely to see. The hefty book (over 300 pages) is printed on sturdy white paper, which enhances the effect of Ware's vibrant, naturalistic colours. I'm not kidding when I say virtually every page is a work of art unto itself, entirely suitable for framing. The saga contained within these gorgeous pages is sprawling and dense; it will take you hours, or days, to read, and longer still to fully absorb. And years to bask in the glow of one of the most affecting graphic novels yet created.

The dustcover folds out to reveal yet another of Ware's obsessive cut-out devices. I cannot imagine many readers will be willing to slice up the dustcover of a nearly thirty dollar book, but I am led to understand there is a small base of Ware fans that is devoted to constructing the devices Ware presents; supposedly, if one follows the directions to the letter, each one is a genuine, workable creation. Call it a value-added feature of an already extraordinary project.

Back to the main attraction, though. The story, essentially, is one of Jimmy Corrigan's mid-life first meeting with the man who fathered him. Jimmy is an adult, but is emotionally crippled and terrified of virtually everything. He seems to want nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and yet seems most happy when he is left alone to ruminate on his own existential misery.

Deathly afraid his domineering mother will discover he has decided to meet his father for the first time, Jimmy travels to meet him on Thanksgiving. His father is crude and (sorry!) impenetrable to Jimmy. And yet, undeniably, he reaches out as best he can to his long-lost son. What follows is the unfolding revelation of the greater details of Jimmy's life, spidering out into the distant reaches of the previous century.

The various eras give Ware a chance to exercise his obvious love of antiquated styles and standards, and highlight the sense that the entire Corrigan family is doomed to a kind of festering mediocrity, with occasional, agonizing hints that things can get better, if one can connect some way; some way that seems to be obvious to everyone but Jimmy.

The tale, despite frequent fantasy and dream sequences, has a visceral reality to it that resonates strongly with my own experience. Most families are dirty, messy things if you look closely enough. The secrets, both profound and ludicrous, weigh upon us with undue gravity that threatens to crush us. Just as Jimmy begins to make contact with his own history, for the first time almost close enough to touch a truth not filtered through his mother, tragedy strikes. His father is seriously injured in a car accident. It is a ridiculous, completely realistic moment, the kind it's almost impossible to avoid if one is human, and Ware depicts it in agonizing detail.

This tale is fiction, but much of it is semi-biographical in nature, and Ware has used his demons to call up a convincing portrait of a tragic little man and his stumbling efforts to become something more. It is, by turns, an exasperating and exhilarating tale, that hints at the depths of human desperation and the heights of our aspirations. The final message is one of hope, however small, and the final lesson, in my mind, is as simple as this: Don't let this happen to your family. Grade: 5/5

-- Alan David Doane



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