Physically Close yet Emotionally Isolated
Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan Smartest Kid on Earth is a graphic novel. As a result, it creates an unusual reading experience. Ware utilizes this combination of words and images to tell the story of Jimmy Corrigan, a shy, sensitive, and awkward man who is unable to confront or sometimes even look directly at others. Jimmy’s character is emotionally stunted, socially awkward, and sexually immature, leaving him unable to connect with characters, which then causes interactions with them to be awkward and fumbling. Jimmy’s interactions with women, even completely normal interactions, are sexually charged and usually involve a fantasy for Jimmy: he is unable to talk to most women without each scene containing a sexual undercurrent that only Jimmy is aware of. Jimmy’s repressed sexuality becomes even more pronounced as we see that though Jimmy has sexual fantasies with women, his shyness is so crippling that it leaves him unable to interact with them on even a basic level. By comparing the scenes in which Jimmy interacts with women to scenes with Jimmy’s father, I will show that it is not just women that Jimmy has difficulty interacting with, his shyness even makes it difficult to connect with his own father.
When Jimmy is flying to meet his father for the first time, 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, we are able to compare how Jimmy deals with this woman to how we would. Jimmy never looks directly at her when speaking to her (panel 3), but also when this woman reveals private details about her life (panel 7), 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. 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…” (panels 8-9) which while being quite a vehement reaction, the pauses lead show just how awkwardly the line was delivered. 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. Jimmy’s repressed sexuality leads me to believe that Jimmy is not intentionally looking at the woman’s breast, but since he is so emotionally stunted, he cannot help glancing there.
Jimmy’s interactions with others involve him stuttering and silent, usually allowing the other person to fill the silence he creates. However, this does not mean that he wants to be left alone; he just does not know how to talk to people. After meeting his father for the first time, the two of them stop to grab a bite to eat on the way home from the airport. The woman working behind the counter messes up Jimmy’s father’s order and he offers to go get the right thing for his father (panel 3). When he goes up to the counter, however, Jimmy is awkward and lets the woman do most of the talking (panels 7-14). When she double charges him, he does not even speak up more than a slight disagreement, which he even gives in to after a quiet “No… Uh...” (panel 15) on his part to indicate that she was wrong. We see hearts around Jimmy’s head at one point as he looks at the cashier, indicating interest, followed by a panel showing the woman bent over to get a burger patty out of the fridge to defrost (panels 8-9). The image of the woman bent over is meant to represent what Jimmy sees, and shows us that he is checking her out, and yet he does not make any attempt to actually talk to her beyond responding to her. In the whole interaction with the cashier, Jimmy is seen saying only saying about five words, not actually talking to the woman so much as reacting and responding to her. This is a clear demonstration that though he is interested in this woman he is unable to communicate with her; he is not even able to tell her that she is charging him for the same burger twice.
Jimmy’s inability to connect with others extends over to his interactions with his father as well. Though Jimmy has just recently met his father for the first time, he is unable to communicate with him, and most of the scenes involving the two of them are uncomfortable and one-sided. In one particular scene back at Jimmy’s fathers house, Jimmy’s father invites Jimmy to sit next to him. Jimmy is reluctant to sit down next to his father, and though he longs for a father figure and he wanted to meet his father, he still holds back from joining his father on the couch. His reluctance becomes apparent when Jimmy bites his nails and looks uncertainly at his father; it takes a goading from his father, “C’mon… I won’t bite!” (panels 5-7) to make Jimmy finally join his father on the couch. Jimmy clearly wants to meet his father, as is evident in his flying out to see him, and yet he is still reluctant to join him on the couch. Here Jimmy is held back by himself, he does not know how to be connected and close to people because he is so emotionally stunted. When Jimmy finally does join his father on the couch, his father puts his arm around Jimmy in a scene that is extremely awkward (panel 9). Jimmy is clearly uncomfortable with this physical contact, unable to not only connect with his father emotionally, but physically as well.
The emotional detachment that Jimmy faces is perhaps not something that he always suffered from, but is a product of his childhood. Ware does not give us much to go on for this idea, since the book skips over most of Jimmy’s childhood. In her piece “A not-so-comic comic book” CNN writer Beth Nissen states, “A careful reading of the interconnected stories reveals a long genealogical line of abandonment and disappointment, regret and paralyzing isolation,” (Nissen) referring to the storylines of Jimmy’s grandfather and great-grandfather that are scattered throughout the novel. Nissen implies that because Ware does not directly tell us why Jimmy is so emotionally stunted, he instead uses the stories of Jimmy’s ancestors to imply a long line of abandonment that can be related back to Jimmy’s own problems. While I find this answer unsatisfying, some might find it helpful when trying to understand Jimmy. Nissen goes on to note: “many of the [other] scenes in the book are from Ware's memory as much as his imagination,” (Nissen) which seems to me a much more satisfying answer. As Ware relates directly to the character of Jimmy, he feels that it is merely enough for readers to understand who he is, and not as important for us to know why he is that way. Jimmy’s character is someone we are meant to root for, someone who we want to succeed, even if we know that he won’t. This emotional attachment to Jimmy allows us to feel his failure, and that is something we can relate to; it is something that Ware does not need to explain. His understanding of Jimmy’s situation allows him to create “yearning and wistfulness and heartache, all in one square inch” (Nissen).
Jimmy Corrigan’s life demonstrates how disconnected one’s desires can be from reality. Though Jimmy constantly longs to connect with those around him, he is held back by his shyness. Ware creates this emotionally stunted character in such a way that he touches on our own sense of pity. I found Jimmy becoming someone I was rooting for unconsciously to succeed in his quest for a successful relationship. At first it appears that Jimmy is unable to interact with women because he is sexually repressed, however by looking at his relationship with his father, a relationship lacking the sexual aspect, we see that Jimmy lacks the ability to connect with people on a basic level. Ware’s shy, sensitive, and awkward Jimmy is a character easily connected with as he continues to seek out interactions even though he does not know what he is doing. Jimmy’s relentless attempts to successfully interact with others through near-constant rejection make him a character pitiable and yet at the same time very relatable: something for which Ware hoped.
Nissen, Beth. "'Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth' A Not-so-comic Comic Book." CNN. Cable News Network, 3 Oct. 2000. Web. 08 Nov. 2013. <http://edition.cnn.com/2000/books/news/10/03/chris.ware/>.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth. Seattle, WA. Fantagraphics Book, 1998. Print.