Isolation Represented Through Images
Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan Smartest Kid on Earth creates a unique reading experience, as the story is told in a comic book style, using a blend of both pictures and words to get his message across. His use of images requires a certain amount of interaction from the reader, as they must interpret the scenes they are shown, and the movement between panels is implied rather than explicitly stated. With the relationships between characters, this implied movement becomes even more important as the reader has to read the character’s body language to know how the characters are feeling, which may be in direct contrast with what they are actually saying. Jimmy Corrigan comes across as a shy, sensitive, and awkward man in Ware’s novel, unable to directly confront or look at other characters. Ware utilizes body language and the lack of any face-to-face conversations Jimmy has to show how isolated Jimmy is from other people, especially with women: by never showing the reader the women’s faces, and sometimes not even showing their full body, Ware shows the reader just how strongly estranged Jimmy feels from women.
Ware’s story bounces around from Jimmy Corrigan’s life to his grandfather’s life quite frequently, also jumping between the ages of childhood and adulthood. While that creates a difficult story line to follow, the relationship Jimmy has with other people appears to be not as complicated. Jimmy Corrigan is an awkward guy who does not speak much, not really knowing what to do in social situations, especially those involving women. When Jimmy is flying to visit his father, he wakes up on the plane to the flight attendant asking whether he would like something to eat [i]. After he orders the meat biscuit this woman points out how bad that probably is for Jimmy. Here Ware creates a classic example of getting stuck next to an obnoxious person on the plane, for this woman is rude, nosy, and a bit of a know-it-all, a character that most people have encountered at some point in their life and can easily relate to. By giving the reader this relatable character, the attention can be focused back on Jimmy and how he deals with this woman. He never looks directly at her when speaking to her (panel 3), but also when she this woman reveals private details about her life, “I wish my DAD was in a nursing home though, he’s a jerk! He like, hits my mom all the time,” Jimmy simply looks at her through the corner of his eye, not truly reacting the statement – a statement whose sole purpose appears to be to get a reaction out of Jimmy (panel 7). He does not look this woman in the eye, and when he glances over at her after she makes such a shocking claim, she stops midsentence to say: “are you looking at my breasts?” to which Jimmy coughs and replies, “W-what…? N-No… Am I… NO…” which while being quite a vehement reaction, the pauses lead show just how awkwardly the line was delivered (panels 8-9). Here too Ware invites the reader to take an active role in interpreting whether Jimmy was just glancing at the woman because she said something shocking, or whether Jimmy was truly looking at her chest. The visual is unclear as to what exactly happened, and it is the reader’s job to figure out if the pauses in Jimmy’s reply are natural or exaggerated because he was overcompensating for getting caught. Here Ware enforces again the importance of body language and how different ways of reading it could lead to quite different scenarios.
Jimmy’s slumped shoulders and avoiding eye contact show us just how shy and uncomfortable he is in social situations. His lack of direct eye contact with any character in the book reinforces such. His relationship with women in particular is even more pronounced and fumbling than others. Jimmy has very little confidence and does not understand how to interact with women. The woman on the plane is a very aggressive in-your-face character, which Ware portrays by her sentences containing many bolded words and asking confronting questions while simultaneously revealing quite a bit about her home life. Jimmy’s awkward, fumbling style of speaking can be seen after the woman comments on the fruit basket he has at his feet: “W-what…? Oh—this? N-No… This is for my… Dad…” says Jimmy, stumbling through his words, showing the reader just how uncomfortable he really is with social interaction, especially that with a woman (panel 3). Throughout this entire scene, the reader never once gets to see the woman’s face, only parts of her body and the back of her head. By deliberately leaving out the face, Ware creates a sense of isolation between the reader and this woman. Since we have no descriptions of these people and are judging them and the situations on body language, leaving out the faces is a very deliberate choice Ware makes: he does not want the reader to get this other character’s reaction to Jimmy. The reader is forced to interpret these scenes based solely on how Jimmy reacts, without focusing on these other characters at all, which shows how unimportant they truly are to the story.
Ware’s novel creates a unique experience, requiring a more active audience to interpret the story told through the medium of a comic book. As there are very few textual descriptions, the visual aspect of the novel becomes even more important, and the reader must pay close attention to body language to find out what is being expressly stated and what is being implied in each interaction. At the end of the page mentioned before (after Jimmy’s interaction with the woman sitting next to him on the plane) Jimmy can be seen hunched forward in his seat grabbing onto his arms, looking very overwhelmed, showing how much he does not like talking to people, and how even one conversation with a woman can exhaust and overwhelm him. Through this, Ware manages to convey Jimmy Corrigan as a shy, bumbling man uncomfortable talking to people, especially women. Ware takes the sense of isolation the reader feels between Jimmy and other characters a step further by refusing to show their faces, one of the main body parts that would allow the reader to see how others truly react to Jimmy. The power that Ware holds allows him to manipulate the story, leaving the reader with a sense of just how isolated the main character, Jimmy, truly is from those around him.
[i] Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Book, 1998. Print.