Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware sets itself apart from other comic books by being so concerned with capturing the felt life of a normal guy, opposed to the super-hero comics that focus on the exorbitant adventures of the extremely gifted. One of those gifts often given to imagined heroes is flight – perhaps no other comic book super-hero image is more enduring that Superman: his arms extended, his chest puffed out, citizens below staring up at the lively figure. Chris Ware inverts this image entirely in a two-frame scene from the eyes of Jimmy Corrigan – in which a Superman-like figure leaps to his death from a six-story building.
The image is beautiful and sad at the same time. A closer look at the details of the image (no text appears on the page) illustrate several themes that Ware explores throughout Jimmy Corrigan: isolation, the journey through life, connection to other people, even sexual desires – all present in the image.
First, it’s worth pointing out that when viewed out of context, this image is everything that Jimmy Corrigan is not. From one frame to the next, Superman is alive and then he is dead. That’s the same way it works for all of us. (We are born) we are alive and then we are dead. But this view is incredibly binary, and reductive of the power that life holds over all of us. Jimmy Corrigan tells in beautiful detail all of the banal relationships, experiences, dreams, anxieties that the main character goes through on his path through the medium of life.
So putting this image into the context of the novel – in which Jimmy met a Superman-actor early in his life, the mystery surrounding the note that Jimmy just received (are those two, the actor and the note’s author, one in the same?) – explains the narrative importance that this scene has to the book.
But this scene is so powerful on its own that we don’t even need to go beyond the page to see its thematic importance.
Only Jimmy saw the Superman leaping from the roof of the building. Everyone on the ground only saw his body once it hit the ground. This difference in perspective helps to explain some of the choices that Ware makes in Jimmy Corrigan. In a world of imposed isolation (such as ours) sometimes we don’t understand anyone’s story except our own. But sometimes, when we know someone truly, we have a better understanding of where he/she comes from. In this image no one on the ground knows that the Superman lifts his arms in the first frame, looking like he’s ready to take flight. This makes us question if it’s even a suicide, or a delusion, or some of both. No one knows except for Jimmy and Chris Ware and the Superman.
Just like the reader gets nothing of the fall, there are no gory details of what would likely happen to a man who just fell 6 stories to his death. No classic THUMP! or WHAM! from the comic books, and no realistic splintered bones, exploded skull, blood pools. Instead, this death is much more personal. There are witnesses on the ground, who turn to look when the body hits the ground, but a couple of frames later they are all gone, and the body remains. The building that the Superman jumps from and every other one in sight is completely empty.
On the inner cover of Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware discusses his dilemma:
As such, the thinking person should have to conclude that, in general, the seeking of emotional empathy in art is essentially a fool-hardy pursuit, better left to the intellectually weak, or the ugly, for they have nothing else with which to occupy themselves. Besides, it is unsightly to feel sorry for oneself, and such “unfortunate times” eventually pass, anyway, and if they don’t, then mercifully, for the rest of us at least, suicide is, of course, an option.
Ware seems to emphasize (through irony) his position as a “thinking person” opposed to the “intellectually weak.” And through this image, too, Ware strikes the difficult balance between using his art to empathetically portray the suicide of a character (itself an all-too-common-easy-way-out literary tactic) from a position of delicacy and mercy. Ware continues this attempt throughout Jimmy Corrigan – to take back the art of everyday existence from the “intellectually weak” who would be tempted to spend pages on the flailing fall, the gawking words of the people on the ground, the continued distraction of the event that this man’s death became.
The Superman is the only person in color in the scene. This is his personal choice, and Ware respects that. Suicide doesn’t affect everyone, thankfully. But when it happens, the experience lingers and colors life with a darker shade. I don’t think the theme is finished in Jimmy Corrigan – but I can’t think of a much better handling of the sensitive subject in any of my literary history.