Chris Ware’s well received graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth has won numerous awards, including being recognized by Times Magazine “as one of the top 10 English language graphic novels ever written.” A good portion of Jimmy Corrigan lies within character relationships and character development rather than the actual plotline itself. Jimmy Corrigan innately is a difficult piece to read. Of course it did not receive such high honors without good reason; Chris Ware takes full advantage of the comic book themed novel by using illustrative nature to enhance the reader’s understanding. The reader is assisted by thousands of colored panels and figures that when read quickly in sequence, provide a convincing illusion of life and movement. Chris Ware’s use of color narrates the novel in a deeper way than words could ever accomplish.
Jimmy Corrigan tells the emotional tale of a socially isolated, middle aged man, Jimmy Corrigan, who had grown up with an overbearing mother and an absentee father. He constantly depends on his vivid imagination consisting of his alter ego character the Smartest Kid on Earth, to escape from his grim reality. Chris Ware strategically selects the colors used in each scene to convey certain moods and emotions of the novel. In the opening story lines and the ones pertaining to Jimmy Corrigan’s present day, brighter colors are apparent throughout the background and backdrops. Bright colors are incorporated in the panels where Jimmy’s idol, Superman appears. When he reads the letter written by his father inviting him out to visit during the Thanksgiving break, the panels are full of light greens and blues. Jimmy’s emotions are of course skeptical but mostly this color pattern shows his excitement and interest of finally meeting his father. The light and easy going vibe can be felt within the warm earth tones when Jimmy’s grandfather presents him with breakfast, bacon arranged on the plate to form “HI”. This is an attempt of peace and/or a type of truce from the grumpy old man.
The first thing you notice is the thick lines Ware’s uses to outline each panel. Another upfront observation is the consistent use of opaque colors. Every color is a soft palette, resembling a pastel family which gives the illustrations an understated feel. This color palette fits the story well seeing how the plot is drab and depressing. Ware does an exceptional job of allowing the shades of the illustrations to set the mood of the novel. The colors also do justice of bringing the audience into Jimmy Corrigan’s world and his mind state.
Certain panels and sections are often given a specific hue to set the tone of the scene. It’s amazing how our moods can change dramatically all due to a slight shift of a few colors across a page. Consequently, this can lead to a haunting question; do the colors compliment and/or exaggerate the sadness of the novel or is Jimmy Corrigan’s life really that depressing? The use of soft, pastel colors throughout the novel was strategically chosen. This bland color palette allows the audience to decide for themselves how they would like to interpret the story. The freedom to choose the direction of the story allows the audience to feel a part of Jimmy’s adventure, rather than just an outsider looking in. This is an important observation within Jimmy Corrigan. Ware illustrates Jimmy Corrigan in a way that comes off inviting to his audience. For example, Jimmy’s wardrobe; a black vest, white shirt, and slacks creates a persona who the audience can connect with. It may be true that Jimmy differs from the average reader based on how we see ourselves personally, but he is someone who has characteristics that the readers can relate to. Jimmy is an ordinary guy or doesn’t have any special or interesting facts to bring to the table. He is no hero, not changing the world or even leaving his impact on the world. But for some reason, this is the exact type of character that readers are attached to. What makes the life of a lonely depressing man seem the least bit entertaining? Perhaps it is because most people can relate to being in a similar situation. Maybe not as long as Jimmy or even as drastic as Jimmy but sure enough they have been there. Feeling lonely and depressed are situations where people can relate to. They know how it feels to not be wanted or unloved, and because of this others tend to root for the underdog, the character down on his yet the audience still hopes his luck or fortune will turn around for the best. This type of character is not a stranger to the entertainment world, characters like Cinderella and Charlie Brown are exceptional examples of characters struggling to get through a tough situation but somehow find a way to keep going. Like most, they are searching for something more out of life, and for Jimmy that motivation stems from finally getting an opportunity to reconnect with his father. The audience quietly cheers for these characters hoping they find what they are desperately searching for; sometimes they are successful, at other times they are not but it always makes a great plot line.
Jimmy recounting his grandfather’s story is typically depicted in duller colors such as grays, dark purples, dark blues and browns. These darker colors reflect the bleak moments the grandfather has had with his heartless father. Ware’s writing style, combined with the colors often creates a key map that guides the reader throughout the story. Dull colors correlate to sad, somber moments while light colors show hopes and positivity. The reader can always turn to these simple hints for assistance, seeing how comprehending Jimmy Corrigan requires more effort from the average reader.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth can be interpreted in a handful of different ways. For some, their efforts strive toward the fundamental reward of decoding Ware’s mystery. For others, the read is more about the emotional connection they form with the characters. Jimmy may not be a character. He’s shy, meek and lives through his imagination due to his unsatisfying life, something that many people can speak about. Luckily for us, Ware disguises the bleak and dreary lives of Jimmy and his grandfather with vivid imagery and comical narration. The Chicago Tribune stated, "Jimmy Corrigan pushes the form of comics into an unexpected formal and emotional territory." Each scene is responsible for telling its own story and Chris Ware capitalized on how images and colors can provide a deeper insight in a story.
Amongst the dull shades, it is worth acknowledging the use of the color red. Unlike the other colors, red is a bright and powerful color that captures the reader’s attention. For the most part the color red was used for sound effects and onomatopoeias. Phrases like “Smack” and “Slam” were emphasized and jumped off the page due to the bright hue. It may be a subtle hint but this writing technique is one of many Ware uses throughout the novel to highlight certain sections; possible for their importance. An interesting scene where the color red is most obvious is a stray of panels where Jimmy is speaking on the phone. It’s a known fact that Jimmy struggles with human interaction (even via speaking on the telephone) so the red phone comes off alarming. Ware purposely chose the color red for the phone to show the discomfort Jimmy feels while speaking to others on the phone. The giant red speech bubble that reads “RING” as Jimmy reluctantly approaches the phone gives off the vibe of how much he does not want to answer the phone. Whether it is his overbearing mother or an awkward conversation with Peggy, nothing positive ever comes from Jimmy answering the phone; hence it being colored red. Red’s connotation is rarely linked with positivity.
Color can be defined as the property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way the object reflects or emits light. The key part of this definition is “producing different sensations on the eye”, suggesting that colors are not subjective. One’s attitude about the color yellow could be completely different from another persons’. Chris Ware took a risk and hoped that his color selection would be the precursor for the tone of his novel. Fortunately, his big gamble paid off expediently. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth was narrated not only by its unconventional text but more importantly by the colored images.