Amid abstraction’s renaissance, technology’s overabundance, and sensation’s shock, an art viewer may be parched for good, quality narrative — approachable, sustainable narrative that can be digested with all the color and ennui any red-blooded artsy kid has grown to demand from this world. Please let us sit down for a minute, we wish, and hear a story; do not make us pick it out of the chaotic scramble of a show. Tell it to us. But of course, being the true artsy kids that we are, we do not want to be bored with point A-to-point B tales. Give it to us in the true drama we crave.
Fret not — Chris Ware has been here all this time, devising and scheming the twisted experiences of Jimmy Corrigan, “The Smartest Kid on Earth,” who inhabits his Acme Novelty Library comic books. The key to reading the Corrigan series is knowing that each of the at least three Jimmy Corrigans inhabits a different time and will, one assumes, father the next generation at some point.
Ware’s latest installment, My New Novelty Library, Autumn 1999 (Fantagraphics, $10.95), picks up the tale of the first known Corrigan as his life continues its subtly hellish descent under the shadows of the 1892 World’s Fair in Chicago. The death of a grandmother, the stern abuse of his Civil War-vet father, fantastic dreams of dying horses, skid-row boarding house taunts, and his own inner confusion regarding his developing racism and subsequent self-hatred coalesce in young Corrigan to further the alienation that has been present throughout Ware’s series.
Readers of Ware’s Novelty Library comics know of his blatant destruction of linear time to develop a world that seems to lack hope in its continuously unpredictable, though still mundane, flux. For example, one issue tells the story of a contemporary Corrigan, the grandson of the 1892 World’s Fair “Living Flag” participant, as he works in his cubicle and makes a ‘zine in the hopes of winning a co-worker’s adoration. In the next issue, we see young Jimmy searching the grass for his lost tooth while the sounds of his dying grandma fill the air and a horse walks through the upstairs hall of the 19th-century house.
Many open themes exist in Ware’s comics: alienation, obviously, because each Corrigan is abandoned by a parent. Issues with his father are also a driving aspect: Corrigan either does not know his father, his father is a foul s.o.b., or both. And then there is the trepidation regarding women and Corrigan’s general bad luck with and subsequent fear of them. Among all of this, which is never slapped in the reader’s face but exists as a strong foundation, are minor occurrences and characters who underscore Jimmy’s life: Grandma, who is dying throughout the series; God, who manifests as a portly Superman character and possesses an amazing depth of cruel arrogance; and Mom, who is idealized to an unattainable level.
Sad Jimmy Corrigan stands as the tiniest bit of all of us who have had low days. He may not be a universal, but he is certainly someone with whom we can relate. And although most of us have never experienced the bad luck Jimmy endures, we can feel pity and a rush of solidarity whenever he gets hit by a bus or feels shockingly exposed under the cheery lights of a chain restaurant when nothing at that moment could possibly matter to him.
Visually, Ware’s panels are gorgeous. Lush colors accentuate details and shadows, and his characters are expressive with the tiniest changes in line. Time exists within the books through the changing architecture, dress, and societal attitudes, and these landscape changes mark time’s passing without the need of a narrator. For instance, the reader can see time by observing the construction of the World’s Fair buildings, which loom over the neighborhood. Space is also a constant; some pages are one large scene that has been fragmented around Corrigan’s activities, and stepping back from the page reveals the sublimely usual, and large, world in which he lives. And the books hold more than the convoluted story intended: Ware tirelessly imparts details to flesh out his Acme “library,” inserting false advertisements, short comics depicting his insecurities regarding his creativity (he sometimes shows himself as the pudgy God/Superman character), or frames dedicated to Rusty Brown, the nerdy comic book collector who many of us comic book readers fear lives within us.
Ware’s illustrative genius (a term not used lightly) rests in his ability to convey true silence within a panel. It is not merely the absence of language; it is the color, the expression of the scene that presents an inner quietude, as if the whole horrible world has stopped along with Corrigan’s heart. And it is usually the following scene, where we see the world’s activity continue, regardless of Corrigan, where we feel that heart break. Again.