Friday, March 29, 2013

Revision #2 Symbolism in Jimmy Corrigan

Jimmy Corrigan by F.C. Ware is the first graphic novel that I have ever read. Obviously, the imagery is something that stands out as very unique addition to the text of the story.  One very important piece of imagery that I noticed was very early in the book, on about the fifth page in fact, when a young Jimmy sits at the table eating breakfast wearing his newly acquired Superman mask with a smile on his face and says, “Mom! He said to tell you he had a real good time!” I saw this as a great way to understand Jimmy better as a character.

Jimmy seems to be a very lonely child. He has an incredibly overprotective and overbearing mother, but no father, and one might assume, little to no friends. I think one of the focuses of this book is about the relationships that Jimmy has (or doesn’t have) with the people in his life. My understanding of the use of the Superman imagery, which appears multiple times throughout the book, was as sort of an imaginary friend for Jimmy. Jimmy meets (the actor that plays) Superman and is very excited. Just when his mom pulls him away moments before he is able to get an autograph, Superman calls Jimmy his partner and sort of gets him out of trouble with his mom. The actor that plays Superman stays the night with Jimmy’s mom (which the young Jimmy doesn’t fully understand) but before he leaves, has a little chat with Jimmy and gives him his authentic Superman mask. That moment is when I think Jimmy is happiest in the whole book. To have someone consider him an equal, if only superficially by calling him partner, and giving him a gift, was a very positive (while short lived) relationship that Jimmy has experienced, and at least through my reading of Jimmy Corrigan, will experience. The gift that the actor left serves as a reminder of the brief encounter that Jimmy had with him that he associates with the positive relationships he has in the future.

In Jimmy’s adult life, he is still very alone. This is probably somewhat his own fault – he has a coworker that sits across from him that he never acknowledges – but nevertheless still has a glaring lack of relationships outside of his mother, now in a nursing home. This changes when Jimmy gets a letter from his father that says he wants to finally meet and get to know him. Jimmy makes the trip to go meet his father and goes on what could be considered an adventure by his standards. The superman imagery keeps popping up while on this trip. Most obviously, when Jimmy gets hit by the truck, he sees the man that comes over to help him with a Superman mask on. Additionally, I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into it, but the nurse that helps him at the hospital has red and blue bracelets on. When Superman is shown in the book, he wears a blue and red suit, so I think that these colors are also paired together to represent Superman, rather than Jimmy seeing the person in a mask. In both of these encounters, Jimmy is getting helped or “saved” by a Superman character and it might remind him of the positive experience he had when meeting Superman as a child. This imagery of red and blue really stands out from the normally bland colors in the story when he is alone or with his father which I think reinforces the idea that Superman represents the positive relationships in his life as opposed to the awkward and estranged relationship he has with his father.

The mask also serves as an obvious metaphor for hiding. Jimmy seems to hide from his true feelings and desires by daydreaming about everything. He goes into his own world, as Superman, and acts out in his mind what he would do if he had that kind of power. He knows that he doesn’t actually have the bravery to accomplish those actions but in his mind he powerful to act out fantasies such as killing his dad or sleeping with the attractive nurse from the clinic. I think that one of the reasons that Jimmy is hiding is because he doesn’t know how to have a proper relationship, especially with women. Jimmy is constantly shying away from actual relationships and human interaction and can be seen when Jimmy only calls his mother and lies about his trip to her, when he shies away from talking with Peggy, or even when he is with his dad, just generally avoiding him and only responding to his questions and statements with very short answers. The mask is a way for Jimmy to assume a different identity and not really confront his problems. Even at the end of the book, after he has been rejected by his sister and goes back to work, Jimmy imagines himself to be jumping off of the roof of the building (effectively committing suicide) much like the Superman character from the beginning of the book. I’m not convinced that Jimmy even has the willpower (courage seems like a bad word here) to go through with the act of committing suicide. I am not a psychologist and have never been depressed but even if Jimmy has a fantasy about killing himself, I don’t think he would follow through with any action. Jimmy is a character that really lacks in taking action throughout the entire book. I imagined the ending to not be a clear resolution (as horrible as suicide is) but rather as a key crossroads for Jimmy. He can either take the experiences of the past few days with his father, grandfather, and sister and learn from them so he doesn’t have to hide his true self from the new girl at work, or he can continue his rather pathetic life how it always has been. 

Something else that stands out in Jimmy Corrigan, because most of the illustrations are very gray and dull, is Chris Ware’s use of color. Color Symbolism in Hausa Literature by Pauline M. Ryan shows what certain colors in the Hausa language (most speakers being found in Niger and Nigeria) are representative of and I think in many cases this can be applied to Jimmy Corrigan. The primary colors in Ryan’s article in the Journal of Anthropological Research are white, black, and red. [2] In general, white represents “both positive and socially desirable qualities, or harmless things such as nonpoisonous snakes.” [2] Black is a contrast to white, representing “both negative and socially undesirable qualities, or harmful things.” [2] Finally, red is much more ambiguous of a color and can “denote the powerful, either personal or spiritual” and its meaning often depends on the context. [2] One possible way I thought this applied was in the contrast early on in the book when the background of the pages starts off as black and then switches to white. Coupled with the fact that the Superman character wears a lot of red, this part could signify that it was a powerful event in Jimmy’s life that ultimately led to his social struggles. Its transition to white after this scene could signify the change to Jimmy’s harmless life, and maybe even as a sign that the events in current times might lead to positive changes in his social life. A common outfit of Jimmy’s is a white shirt with a black vest over top of it. In Hausa literature, the pairing of black and white is used to represent themes of good and evil and is seen directly in the translation of a Hausa expression, “literally white is the reverse of black.” [2] This could be used to represent the different sides of Jimmy. Deep down I think he is pretty harmless, backed up by the fact that Jimmy rarely takes action on anything and sticks to daydreaming. He does have, however, a pretty messed up mind that is very socially negative and quite harmful. Among others, he daydreams about killing his father, fantasies that completely sexualize women, and committing suicide. If he acted on any of these fantasies or vocalized them to anybody, he would be completely ostracized from society. This conflict between good and evil within themselves is something that I think everyone can identify with and makes Jimmy a great character because at least on some levels he is very relatable. Another article by Elizabeth Caspari, Color Symbolism: Eranos Excerpts, gives a bit of a stronger definition of the color red in African culture which I think applies to Jimmy Corrigan. Among other things, it lists red as representative of “activity, excitation, wonder and fear.” [3] Often in the book in times of transition or activity, we see some sort of red object. The red bird seen in many panels is shown when transitioning between different time periods. The red apple and bow on the basket when Jimmy is on the plane could signify the wonder and fear of his anticipation of meeting his father for the first time.

The use of specific and repeated images, as well as the use of specific colors can tell us a lot about the meaning of Jimmy Corrigan. This imagery has painted a clear picture of Jimmy as a confused and odd, but mostly well-intentioned human being, representative of a struggle that many go through in their daily lives.

Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.
Ryan, Pauline. “Color Symbolism in Hausa Literature.” Journal of Anthropological Research. 32.2 (1976): 141-160.
Caspari, Elizabeth. “Color Symbolism: Eranos Excerpts.” The Arts in Psychotherapy. 12.3 (1985): 206-208.

1 comment:

Adam said...

The beginning doesn't break any extensive new ground vs. the original, as I remember it. I very much like the point that Jimmy is happy at the moment when he receives the mask in a way that he never exceeds through the book (you might be able to argue that there are very brief moments with Amy that might rival it, although certainly the childhood happiness is straightforward in a way that those moments with Amy aren't).

By the third paragraph, it's clear that you're summarizing too much for a short revision. There's nothing wrong with a shorter revision, and summarization can be a valuable tool - but if you're going to keep it short, you really need to emphasize the argument throughout. There are certainly *ideas* here, or moments of argument, but the overall argument is quite unclear.

I think the extended discussion of the mask is promising, but what you're basically doing is compressing a whole essay into a paragraph. This is more a summary of an argument than the argument itself - which would possibly invoke research, and would definitely say something more detailed about how the idea of the mask comes back throughout the text, even if it isn't physically present.

The long paragraph on color symbolism is, frankly, bizarre. Bizarre isn't bad, necessarily - while I really wanted to see some justification for applying African culture to Jimmy Corrigan in this way (this is a substantial hurdle for me, which I haven't gotten over), I still think your discussion of the vest, for instance, was at least interesting. So it's problematic that you apply African symbolism to this text without explanation, but it's much more problematic that this discussion serves no larger argument. You needed to figure out a way to integrate the superhero argument with the color symbolism argument, while better justifying the latter.

Overall: There are at least three distinct essays here. The first is pedestrian but has some level of detail. The second (on the mask) is a good idea, but underdeveloped. The third (on color symbolism) is a weird stretch, but one that might pan out with more work. The fundamental problem is that you're doing lots of different things, rather than making one true argument, in which all of the pieces work together.