Revision 2: Fathers and Super-Man in Jimmy Corrigan
What do we expect out of our favorite superheroes? Generally and most obviously, we expect them to have super powers. We also expect them to be noble, to stand up for what is right and condemn what is wrong. But perhaps most importantly, we expect them to be there to save the day when needed.
It could easily be argued that many of the same traits that we expect to see superheroes display in comic books and in movies are oftentimes expected out of a group of people in real life: fathers. In his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware examines this notion regarding fathers by juxtaposing the main character’s interactions with and thoughts about his long-lost father who abandoned him as a child with Jimmy Corrigan’s idealistic view about probably the most famous of all superheroes: Super-Man. By doing this, Ware forces the reader to question any preconceived ideas he or she had about the role of family, especially the importance of the father-son relationship.
The graphic novel begins and ends with contrasting images of Super-Man, which provides a frame for the several hundred pages in between that are filled with stories about Jimmy’s relationship to his father and his father’s own similar parental issues. The opening scene shows Jimmy as a young boy, with his mother taking him to a car show to meet an actor dressed up as his hero, Super-Man. But as Forrest Helvie points out in his essay “Jimmy Corrigan and Smartest Deconstruction of Superhero in the World”, the scene as Ware meant for the reader to see it is much different than how Jimmy views it:
“Upon meeting Super-Man, Jimmy is awestruck, and yet readers cannot help but notice from the empty chairs, disinterested listeners, graying hair, sweaty forehead, and general frumpy presentation that this is no actual super man” (Helvie).
This “Super-Man” then uses Jimmy’s adoration for him to his advantage, flirting with Jimmy’s mother and taking them out to dinner before finally seducing her into having sex with him. Jimmy wakes up the next morning and encounters the actor—dressed normally and obviously not Super-Man—trying to sneak out. But the actor surprises Jimmy by presenting him with his superhero mask, which Jimmy gleefully shows to his mother when she wakes up as he relays the message that the actor asked him to tell his mom: that “Super-Man” had a real good time.
This scene sets the stage for the entire book by beginning a theme of male role-model figures not living up to the expectations set for them by young boys, with Ware proving that even “Super-Man” is capable of tricking and walking out on an adoring child.
Later in Jimmy Corrigan, when Ware’s protagonist finally meets his father that he never knew, Jimmy attempts to repeat his father’s action by walking out on him. Following a brief and awkward conversation with his dad about a Chicago poster, his clean clothes and bacon, Jimmy sits on the couch and waits for his dad to shower. Then, when his mind begins to wander, Jimmy questions what the hell he is doing in agreeing to suddenly hang out with the man who left him fatherless for most of his life. He sees a $19.95 price tag on the table and envisions his dad buying the cheap Chicago poster to try to impress Jimmy. This thought leads him to thinking maybe his dad rented this apartment for a short period of time in an attempt to lure Jimmy back into his life. Then he even imagines his father sneaking up behind him and stabbing him in the neck, the most disturbing image of the three and one that shows in gruesome fashion the mental pain that Jimmy felt by living a life knowing that his father, figuratively, stabbed him in the back. These thoughts all leave Jimmy confused, sitting on the couch and not knowing what he should do. Then his father’s apartment phone rings and a girl’s voice leave a message to “dad”, which means that Jimmy suddenly realizes he has a half-sister that he never knew existed. Feeling even more betrayed, Jimmy panics and leaves the apartment, seemingly walking out of his dad’s life forever like his father had once done to him. But Jimmy fails in staying away from his father for long; he gets hit by a truck (he even briefly imagines the driver to be Super-Man, with Ware again displaying the mental damage caused by male role models like fathers and superheroes in a very graphic physical form) and his dad quickly shows up to rush him to the hospital to see if Jimmy is alright.
In the essay “Masked Fathers: Jimmy Corrigan and the Superheroic Legacy” by Jacob Brogan, which appears in David M. Ball and Martha B. Kuhlman’s book “Comics of Chris Ware”, Brogan examines what Ware’s intentions were in a scene where Jimmy’s father, who walked out on his son at a young age, is suddenly quick to tell others that Jimmy is his son and that he will take care of him:
“The moment is at first striking for the willingness of Jimmy’s father to claim the boy he abandoned, offering the possibility of reconciliation in and through crisis. This…suggests a more positive understanding of the…mirroring of the father and the superhero” (Brogan 21).
So does this mean that Ware intended this scene to show the positive impact a father can have in a son’s life? Well, no. Remember that Jimmy was running away from his father when the truck hit him, meaning he really did not want his dad to reenter his life. And as Brogan points out, if you look closely, Jimmy’s hallucination of the truck driver as Super-Man can also be seen as Jimmy’s father wearing a mask and hovering over him. Here Ware makes a much more complex rhetorical argument about the role a father can play in a son’s life. In one image—the frame of Jimmy’s dad standing over his son, wearing a Super-Man mask moments after Jimmy was literally and figuratively hit by a truck—Ware displays all of the possible roles a father can fit into when it comes to his son. A father can be a superhero, arriving just in time to help his son up when he has harshly fallen. A father can be a masked man, living anonymously and not influencing his son’s life in any truly positive ways. And, again figuratively, a father can be the guy who just hit his son with a truck, leaving his son on his back and wondering what to do with the rest of his life.
Further examples of each type of father continue to appear throughout the book, which ends with another ambiguous image of Super-Man. On the last page, Super-Man is flying through the snowy sky carrying Jimmy, but where is he carrying him to? This finale can either be read as Super-Man helping Jimmy to safety as any quality superhero or dad should do, or it can be read as the masked superhero carrying Jimmy high into the air so that he can drop to his death, an idea which is furthered by Jimmy’s distinctly suicidal thoughts towards the end of the story. This is yet another example of the continuous ambiguity of the various effects that a male role-model figure can have on a young boy which appears frequently throughout Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. Brogan also notices this fact, pointing out that the constant references to superheroes and fathers shows that the two figures are undoubtedly connected in Ware’s eyes, although it is hard to decipher which is more important or better:
“This effect has a disruptive consequence of its own, making it perpetually unclear whether it is the father who is the model for the superhero, or the superhero who is the model for the father. Throughout the novel…associations between these two figures ping-pong back and forth” (Brogan 18).
But regardless of what kind of family situation each respective reader grew up with, Ware doesn’t want the reader to view Jimmy’s tale as a standalone story; he wants the reader to view Jimmy Corrigan as an opportunity to look inwards, to help understand one’s own personal and family issues. Ware’s sometimes-serious, sometimes-sarcastic reading guide on the inside cover proves that he believes that everyone must deal with difficulties in life at some point, and that this book could provide an opportunity to comprehend one’s own problems in a different fashion by realizing that everyone must, at some point or another, deal with these issues. In the section discussing “Role,” Ware writes, in a completely sarcastic tone, the following:
“Most of the purchasers of this book, however, are likely sexually confident, attractive go-getters for whom grief is merely an abstraction, or, at worst, an annoyance treatable by expensive medication. Hence, they are hoping to find something which will briefly titillate or amuse them, fashionably enhance their ‘look,’ or add to their ‘nowness,’ and they have certainly made the right choice, for the comic strip medium which it employs holds no hope of ever expressing anything but the meanest and most shallow sentiments” (Ware).
This is Ware being thoroughly critical of anyone who might view the scene of young Jimmy receiving the mask from the Super-Man actor at the beginning as comical, or see the part where Jimmy runs away from his dad’s apartment only to be hit by a truck as exciting, or look at the last page of Super-Man flying Jimmy through the snow as simply a well-drawn final picture. Every scene, every frame is much more than that. It is a representation of not only Jimmy’s long battle to find understanding within himself, but also of every reader’s similar inner battles. Through his sometimes complicated and always multifaceted drawings, Ware forces the reader to examine himself or herself, suggesting that we all have similar problems to Jimmy Corrigan on some level—none of us are perfect physically and certainly not emotionally. This graphic novel is not something that should be used to look cool, which is important to realize when reading scenes throughout Jimmy Corrigan.
Rather, it should be used as a guide to understanding life.
Brogan, Jacob. The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking. Comp. David M. Ball and Martha B. Kuhlman. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2010. Print.
Helvie, Forrest. "Jimmy Corrigan and Smartest Deconstruction of the Superhero in the World." Sequart Research & Literacy Organization. N.p., 12 Apr. 2012. Web. 26 Mar. 2013.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.