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Spotlight on: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

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Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

This graphic novel is absolutely the most depressing thing I have ever read. With that title, one would think the subject would be some childhood fantasies, but what is unexpected is that these are the fantasies of a lonely, ineffectual wretch of a man. In Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware tells the story of three generations of neglectful fathers (each learning their lessons too late) and their effects on their children.

Jimmy's father (heretofore absent from his life) sends him a letter inviting that they get to know each other. The meeting that ensue are full of tragedy and I had to keep myself from reading Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth for too long because I would become terribly morose from reading the story. Yet I was powerless to keep myself from returning to it yet again. That is a testament to the storytelling power of Chris Ware, who relates his sad tale through the format of illustrated frames like are found in comic books, but have since become known as "graphic novels" to avoid the "childish" connotations inherent in that moniker.

Ware's drawing style in Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is phenomenal. He manages, with as few lines as possible, to display each character's life right on his or her facial expressions. His design is marvelous as well; changing periods seems to come easy for him, giving each era a different look and feel, so that when the story changes (each boy character — all named "Jimmy" — looks the same in each one), you can tell instantly where you are.

Only near the end is there any relief from the weight of depression. When modern Jimmy finally breaks into tears, I felt as if his weight had been lifted from me. And the ending itself is a hopeful one, if only tangentially so. Jimmy Corrigan is a truly moving read and I'll be thinking about it for some time to come. If you yourself are lonely, depressed, or feel pressed upon by overbearing parents, you'd best stay away from this. I think only people whose lives are fairly together could withstand the absolute mess and discomfort contained in Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. That's a warning. But all in all I think this is a story that is somewhat universal; it's just that some of us found a way out of it and Jimmy seems to wallow in it.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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