Jimmy Corrigan is full of recurring symbols, some of which are more easily decoded than others. There was one image in Jimmy Corrigan that kept bugging me because I just could not wrap my head around what it meant. That was the image of the metal man. It was not until I began to look at the other symbols that operate in conjunction with it that I was able to make some sort of sense out of it.
The main symbol that it is connected to is the crutch. In the metal man sequence there is the full-grown metal man and what you might call the metal child. The metal child rolls out of bed and plops down the stairs to discover a single crutch as his birthday present. It is after this sequence that in the actual ‘reality’ of the story we find Jimmy with a sprained ankle and using a crutch. Also, between the end of the metal man sequence and the beginning of the next is one of the paper cutout projects that is supposed to end up as a zoetrope. The moving image that this zoetrope is supposed to depict is a metal man walking with a crutch. Through these connections it is clear that the presence of the crutch is to stand in for the metal man in the reality of the story.
The first few frames of the metal man sequence show Jimmy, as the metal man, confronting a tearful and overemotional imagined version of his father. The metal Jimmy’s reaction seems to be a mixture of discomfort and disdain. It seems to me that the image of the metal man represents Jimmy’s inability to connect emotionally with other people, thus the hard cold exterior. This also conjures up an association with the tin man from The Wizard of Oz, who had no heart.
Transferring the meaning of the symbol to the crutch, Jimmy’s emotional and social ineptitude is a figurative crutch as well, often keeping him from saying or doing the things that he wants to. The other place that we see a crutch in the book is when the father in the flashbacks to the 1890s is laid up with his leg in a cast. While this character does not carry the crutch around for the rest of the book, this association marks him as another character that is unable to connect emotionally with other people. We see this in his interaction with the widow, whom he had had a relationship with, and in his cold treatment of his son. The difference between this character and Jimmy, however, is that where Jimmy reacts by regressing into a fantasy world, the father reacts by lashing out physically.
Another way to interpret the metal man image is to see it as a literal ‘man of steel’. The connection with Superman and his repeated imagery as a distorted father figure suggests perhaps the source of Jimmy’s emotional detachment. Also, Superman’s broader image as an ideal of American masculinity, then associated with emotional distance and repression is perhaps saying something about how men in American society are expected to deal with their emotions.