I've been reluctant to mention that I have an essay in the newly-published The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking. In my imagination, the collection gathers fourteen paeans to the indisputable brilliance of Ware's comics along with my piece on the middlebrow conservatism of his anthologies for McSweeney's and the Best American Comics series. My essay is a more developed, more thoroughly researched approach to some of the arguments I've made on this blog in the past and I'm very proud of it, but until I actually see the book and its no doubt measured and judicious works of criticism I can't help but feel like the guy who came to the party just so he could drop a turd in the punch bowl.
Teaching Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth for my class was a welcome reminder that I can really enjoy Ware when he's producing his own work instead of curating his tired canon of alternative comics.
Not that his work is exactly divorced from that canon. Jimmy Corrigan begins as a fairly typical example of the sullen, snarky, defensive style that characterized the leading alternative comics of the 1990s. The impotent fantasies that lampoon popular genres, the portrait of Jimmy as comics nerd manchild--these are the relics of an alternative comics culture obsessed with defining itself against the genres that, at the time, still dominated the view of comics in the general public (to say nothing of the shelf space in the direct market). Ware was already outgrowing these elements as he wrote Jimmy Corrigan and it's a relief to see them disappear as his interests turn to the more compelling material of the extended Corrigan family, although Jimmy himself never quite clicks for me. At best he's a cipher to build a fascinating story around, but his interior life is too stunted to fascinate. While Jimmy Corrigan grows into a graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan stubbornly remains an alt-comics shlub to the end.
But he does have his moments. His richest fantasy, from a classroom point of view, is the one where he notices the price sticker on his father's generic coffee table and imagines him renting and furnishing the equally generic apartment as part of an elaborate scheme to lure unsuspecting fatherless men to their deaths. It's the only fantasy to go beyond the Oedipal dramas of his awkward reunion, diagnosing something deeply wrong not just with Jimmy's life but with his world.
It's a world whose artifacts are devoid of personal craftsmanship, whose makers are even more anonymous than their consumers. Whose buildings have lost the ornamentation and the scale that once indicated they were meant to be viewed and inhabited by humans. Whose postcards, if anyone bothered to make them, would have to show gas stations and stretches of asphalt. Whose logos and brand names fake a lost community, and fake it badly: Food Towne. Burger Kuntry. Pam's Wagon Wheel, "Since 1977." (In a story that has to be set sometime in the early 80s!) It might as well be designed by a serial killer. It would make more sense.
The flashbacks to 1892-1893 and the World's Columbian Exposition offer some respite, but Ware--bravely fighting against every aesthetic proclivity he has ever had--doesn't allow himself to cloak the past in nostalgia. Idyllic visions of a handmade past are compromised not just by the endemic prejudice (our first images are from a racist magic lantern slideshow, followed soon after by William Corrigan's carefully aimed but barely audible racial vulgarity) or by James Corrigan's emotional isolation but by the first stirrings of the depersonalized mass production that Ware deplores in the present. The World's Columbian Exposition might look like the apex of 19th century culture but it carries the beginnings of the 20th--its grand neoclassical buildings are made of cheap staff, its high-minded statues of the Union soldier freeing the slave are lined up in rows in the workshops, and the early motion picture technology in the Zoopraxographical Hall is only going to lead to those movies Jimmy says he watches but can't describe.
The highly personal, semi-autobiographical focus of Jimmy Corrigan never quite edges out the national, historical story that's unfolding in the background and in the maps and diagrams that punctuate the comic so explosively. At its best, in the flashbacks, the personal traumas become a means of accessing the national and historical traumas whose traces are felt, imperceptibly but powerfully, in the Corrigan family. But if the Jimmy scenes in the present seem less connected, less a part of this saga of the building of the nation, that's part of the commentary too.
I've always preferred James to Jimmy, and this rereading confirmed why. His dilemmas seem so much more serious--even when they aren't, initially--than his grandson's, partially because we feel sympathy for a lonely child who suffers in silence but scorn for an adult who reacts the same way. It helps that James is more emotionally open to readers. The narration attached to his story is so much more eloquent, verbally and visually, than the blunt conjunctions that guide us through Jimmy's story that we can't help but get a better sense of his turmoil. It's possible I have recently become a sucker for little wide-eyed bald-headed guys, but this picture always gets to me:
So much more recognizable, more sympathetic than the thirty-six-year-old man who can't work up the courage to speak to his family. Or women. Or anybody.
If I've said very little about the actual teaching of Jimmy Corrigan thus far, that's because most of the classes were exercises in exploring the different areas I've sounded out here. The students followed their standard pattern of initial frustration followed by growing fascination, one I've learned to anticipate in my lectures; I'm glad we didn't tackle this book first. We began with detailed close readings of a few early graphics (the diagram of comics reading on the inside front cover, the diagram tracing the history of the picture in Jimmy's drawer, and of course Superman's plunge, one of the simplest and most important pages in the book), talking about how to read Ware's comics before moving on to the more important and rewarding question of why they're worth reading. Our class found plenty of different ways of reading them--psychoanalytic, formalist, historicist--all of them paying off with insights not just into Ware's work but the worlds he describes. Despite the snow week I was able to preserve an extra day for this book, and not a minute of it was wasted. In fact, I probably could have added another day just to discuss the design and material history of all the different incarnations of this story (although we got a lot of mileage out of looking at the hardcover dustjacket and contrasting the hardcover's ending with the paperback's epilogue). This book will be staying on the syllabus for a long time.
I hope these classes, and this post, have done their own small part to clean out the punch bowl.