Friday, December 13, 2013

Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth: Coloring Outside the Lines

A great American artist by the name of Georgia O’Keeffe once said “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.[1] As one of America’s greatest artists of the twentieth century, O’Keeffe’s canvasses introduced a new dynamic to art; emotion. She was most commonly known for her overpowering flower canvasses and her sill life portraits where she mixed human emotion with her drawings. Her unique use of rich color and texture transformed her art into still life landscapes with sensuous representations of real life. Her work was known to be filled with wild energy, precision and intimacy which were rare concepts in the early 1920’s.
Many studies, scientifically and non-scientifically have been carried out attempting to link color to emotion. The correlation between categories of color and emotion has been referred to as “synesthesia of color and emotion.[2] The idea of synesthesia of color and emotion is that each color is linked to certain emotions. Research has been conducted to measure the physiological responses to color by means of various tests including galvanic skin response, blood pressure, heart rate, respiration rate and eye blinking frequency. The previous listed studies are highly supported by the hypothesis that long wave-length colors (orange, yellow, red, etc.) result with higher levels of arousal than short wave-length colors (green, blue, etc.) Experimental studies have generally concluded that warmer colors, more specifically reds, are more stimulating than blues and greens. This idea was put into action when the Blackfriar Bridge in London was repainted green to cover its original black color. In result, London’s suicide rate dropped 34% after the color change. The color green is known to be the most restful color on the human eye; it has been claimed to hold healing power in that it can soothe pain.
A more scientific way to explore the connection between color and emotion is to introduce the topic of color therapy. Color therapy is motivated by the fact that physiologic functions respond to certain colors. [3] When light enters the body (usually through the eyes or skin) it travels neurological pathways until it reaches the pineal glands. These tiny in size but enormous in significance glands are responsible for the daily rhythms of life. A few functions of the pineal glands include influencing sexual development, causes sleepiness, releasing melatonin, interacting with the nervous system and regulating endocrine functions. The endocrine system is especially relevant when it comes to emotions because it secretes hormones into the bloodstream contacting nerve tracts that control an organism’s psychological and behavioral activities. Different colors emit various wavelength frequencies which in return causes different effects on physical and psychological functions.  This therefore, supports the color theory and its link to how colors effect our emotions and feelings.
O’Keeffe’s quote holistically embodies Chris Ware’s well received graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth. Her refreshing concept of combining art with emotional feelings opened a flush gate for artists of all kind. It is almost as if she anticipated others to run with her new concept and luckily Chris Ware was up for the challenge. Chris Ware chose a comic book theme, an unconventional storytelling technique to tell the tale of an isolated, middle aged man named Jimmy Corrigan. The novel follows as the reader is introduced to his mediocre life, family upbringing the constant reoccurring themes that have impactful meanings in his life and character building. 
Ware capitalized on the comic book themed novel by using color conscious illustrative nature to enhance the reader’s understanding. The reader is assisted by thousands of colored panels with limited words that when read quickly in sequence, provide a convincing illusion of life and movement.  Chris Ware’s use of color narrates the novel in such a multi-layered way that the use of words is almost obsolete, relating to how Georgia O’Keeffe felt about her paintings.
The impact of color strikes the reader initially when Ware strategically selects black as the background for the first couple of pages (the rest of the novel is accompanied by an off white background. In the Western culture black is the color that does not reflect or emit light in any part of the visible spectrum. It absorbs all frequencies of light. Black is also the color that westerners were to funerals, signifying death and mourning. Often, villains are dressed in black costumes to signify evil. The opening pages with the black background withhold critical information about Jimmy’s childhood. Jimmy attends a car show with his mother and they meet his childhood idol, Superman. A couple scenes highlight one of the ongoing themes directly, Jimmy’s issue with femininity and associating with females in general. The panels show Jimmy’s idol sexually touching his mother while he watches. Superman’s sexual actions toward Jimmy’s mother set an inappropriate and skewed vision for women and sex and general for the young child. Also, the fact that Jimmy’s mother allowed such actions to occur in front of her child also shows the type of parenting Jimmy had in his childhood.  Children exposed to sexual images before they can fully understand the concept are left with ever lasting impressions. Unfortunately, these impressions will most likely influence the child’s behavior and responsiveness towards sex. The panels illustrate Superman winking as he comes in contact with Jimmy’s mother’s breast, his hand on her lower back and him leaving her bedroom early the next morning. Jimmy was present or within earshot of all these encounters, setting an inappropriate tone for how a young boy should be introduced to sex. The significance of these panels accompanied by a black background is vital for future interpretation. The color black is known to absorb light; in Jimmy’s case the light represents a few symbols. First, the absorbed light can be seen as his pure innocence to women and sex as a little boy. Second, how he views his mother has been affected by her relations with his childhood idol. His perception of how to receive women sexually and in general is seriously affected by the sexual content he has witnessed. The black background in these scenes demonstrates a death of Jimmy’s innocent childhood. Instead of his mother protecting him, her actions paralyzed his understanding of all sexual experiences with women. Right from the beginning the colors are narrating the story and providing insightful details that are necessary to comprehend the plotline. The black background is setting a tone, the reader is already feeling sympathetic for Jimmy Corrigan just a few pages into the story.
Another observation at the opening of the novel is the constant usage of thick, dark lines that outline each panel. It is also worth noting the consistent use of opaque colors in various scenes as well as in the backdrop for most of the story. The reader is often faced a color in a soft palette, resembling a pastel family giving the illustrations an understated feel. This color palette is ideal for this story seeing how the plot is drab and depressing. Where 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.
Color is a prominent and resonant visual feature. This classifies color as an inducing visual cue for persuasive purposes such as identity and meaning. The most common use of identifying a color to a specific object is product color. Color is one of the few visual elements that consumers must perceive and ultimately recognize in order to relate it to its product. Studies show that color can either enhance or diminish the brand by aiding identification and positive associations. This explains why numerous companies associate their brand with a specific color year after year. A prime example of color consistently corresponding to a brand is the vivid red color for Coca Cola. The color red is usually associated with adjectives like power, strength, energy, love and passion. It also has high visibility that naturally forces the eye to stop and pay attention, making it a perfect selection for a product. If used the correct way, color can be influential in determining how an audience accepts and receives it. Chris Ware utilizes this theory in Jimmy Corrigan.
Aware that red brings text and images to the foreground, Ware outlined the onomatopoeias in red bringing the words to life. The bright red text redirects the reader’s attention to the word, emphasizing that it has purpose. Words like “Beep”, “Slam” and “Tap” can be interpreted as sounds, adding another dimension to the novel. Used as an accent color it stimulates people to make quick decisions similar to how cars abruptly stop when they approach a stop sign or a red light. The color red can also be linked to danger and determination. This explains the thought behind choosing red for Jimmy’s telephone; the person on the other end is jarring, loud, in your face just like the color. The telephone is only one form of communication and since its red this describes Jimmy’s feelings toward communication in general. The red phone is trying to convey his fear of speaking to others; this explains why he lives a simple, isolated life. [4] Jimmy’s relationship with his mother has proven to be cold and disconnected from the beginning and unfortunately their relationship remains this way throughout the story. His mother is overbearing and pestering about every aspect of his life. No one looks forward to constantly being diminished, especially when the harassing is coming from a person who should be providing and protecting. The color of the telephone is Ware’s outreach tool towards the audience. This experiment shows that pictures do not always need to be followed by words for explanation. By applying a strong, well defined color to a situation where Jimmy feels uncomfortable, Ware can clearly transmit Jimmy’s uneasiness to his audience.
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 an intriguing 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. If Ware wants the reader to pay attention to a certain object or panel, he has a pattern of making that specific moment obvious. Whether it is the color or the repetition of its appearance throughout the story.
“Pure drawing is an abstraction. Drawing and color are not distinct, everything in nature is colored.” ~ Paul Cezanne’s still life “Peaches” from the Detroit Museum of Fine Art. [5] Cezanne said it best, color is everywhere and it always has a meaning. He considered himself to be a visual architect, creating not just paintings but a complex structure of meaning. An example of this is featured towards the end of the novel. As Jimmy’s sister, Amy sits in the hospital waiting room to hear about the status of their father, she sits under a painting by Paul Cezanne’s still life “Peaches”. [6] The painting is present in a few different angles as Amy imagines Jimmy’s appearance. [7] Once Jimmy enters the waiting room to join her, the painting goes blank. [8] There are two important interpretations within the waiting room scene. The peach makes several appearances throughout Jimmy Corrigan. It represents new life, growth, new beginnings, etc. The blue sketches of Amy and Jimmy daydreaming about the other’s appearance includes another meaning as well. In this situation the color blue represents facts, past events, history told by their elders, stories passed down from previous generations, etc. Paul Cezanne’s painting “Peaches” goes blank as Jimmy enters the room because it is redundant for the peach (representing hope and new beginnings) to be associated with old news (preconceived notions of each other’s appearance). It is also worth noting that race is not brought up while Amy and Jimmy anticipate meeting each other. The lack of direction encourages the reader to choose their own path until the truth is revealed later on. At this point Ware is hinting that his message is larger than the characters and the narrative as a whole. Yes, he cleverly uses pictographic symbolism which is commonly used in comic books but that is not his sole purpose. Ware insists that his readers not only understand the narrative but experience the larger mosaic that the characters live in.
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. The shifts of color from panel to panel tell its own story. Gloomier colors like grays and dark browns are used in panels of negativity, doubt and unfamiliarity. Examples include when Jimmy’s childhood idol, Superman, jumps and falls down a multi storied building and when Jimmy speaks with his father on the phone for the first time. Lighter tones are introduced when new stories and new beginnings are on the horizon; the background of Amy and Jimmy’s first encountering is a combination of a light tan and light pink.
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”, [9] suggesting that colors are subjective. Ware is welcoming his readers to participate in his experience, the Jimmy Corrigan experience. Interpretation is subjective; there is no denying this fact. But with the addition of color, the intended meanings are geared towards a more specific identity. Leatrice Eiseman, a renowned expert in psychology and the emotion of color has the sole task of selecting the color of the year, influencing fashion and design around the world. Color is a form of energy that everyone relates and responds to. Few have gained the skill to appreciate its sensitivity and sensibility that connect the mind, soul and spirit to the colors that our eyes see. Chris Ware’s work in Jimmy Corrigan clarifies the fuzzy connection between what the eyes see, how the mind thinks and what the heart feels. The strong presence of color in this graphic novel as an extra pair of reading glasses, it clarifies sections of the story while leaving everlasting emotions on its readers.

Works Cited:

[2] Color and Emotion - A Study on the Affective Judgment of Color  Across Media and in Relation to Visual Stimuli