Thursday, December 12, 2013

Jimmy's Relatable Resilience

Jimmy's Relatable Resilience
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Who hasn’t heard this phrase at one point in their life? For Jimmy Corrigan, from Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth, this might as well be his life motto. Jimmy spends his entire life striving to have a successful human interaction, yet constantly fails. Despite this failure, he picks himself up and tries again. His relentlessness inspires me as a reader to root for him, to hope that eventually he will succeed and find happiness. I could attribute this to my own empathetic nature; because I truly do want the people around me to be successful, but part of it is in Jimmy himself. There is something about Jimmy Corrigan that instills a sense of camaraderie – that makes me want to root for him, and in this essay I will try to find out what it is. I believe it’s Jimmy’s refusal to give up, the cast of characters surrounding him, and his awkwardness in social situations because of his lack of a father figure that make him so relatable and makes me want him to succeed.
The character that Ware has created has a touch of something that causes me, and others, to be on his side. What is it in his nature that allows us to sympathize with him? It is something that is not specific to just Jimmy; both Charlie Brown and Dilbert are similar characters always striving to succeed while facing near constant failure. Could it be the cast of characters that each character finds himself surrounded by?  Dilbert and Charlie Brown both have a cast of characters that juxtapose them, showcasing the character flaws they have.
Both Charlie Brown has characters around them that emphasize their positive traits. In Charlie Brown, almost all the other characters seem to put him down, making the audience even more sympathetic towards his plight. In the first comic that Charles Schultz printed of the Peanuts shows Charlie Brown running by, followed by a friend saying, “Good ol’ Charlie Brown… How I hate him!” (Schultz) even though Charlie has done nothing to this boy.[1]  This creates an instant connection with this poor boy that is constantly picked on by others, for he clearly does not deserve this kind of animosity. It started when the comics first came out, but can be seen throughout them. When Lucy pulls her first football gag on Charlie Brown, we again see that there was nothing from Charlie Brown that warranted such an action from Lucy, yet she still pull the football from under him.[2] Lucy’s actions make us pity Charlie Brown; they serve the dual purpose of showing us how patient and kind Charlie Brown is for not really getting made at Lucy, and show how pitiable Charlie Brown truly is, for he does not stand up for himself. Other kids are constantly picking on Charlie Brown.
Charlie Brown’s lack of reaction to Lucy show just how easy going of a character he is. Dilbert is the same way, surrounded by these negative characters that show just how patient and kind Dilbert is. In the first Dilbert comic strip, created by Scott Adams, we see Dogbert talking down to Dilbert, which becomes a constant for the comic strips.[3] Dilbert is always a diligent worker who becomes relatable because of the way the characters around him treat him. Dogbert constantly puts Dilbert down, and yet he still continues his business and tries to work around him. This effort to ignore the negative comments he hears makes Dilbert admirable. In another comic strip, Dilbert makes a comment about dating himself, to which Dogbert responds, “well, it’s not as if anyone else would date you.”[4] By surrounding both Charlie Brown and Dilbert with these negative characters that are always bullying them, their positive attitude becomes even more important, as it appears in the face of adversity.
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).
Perhaps that is the key to making these characters so relatable. In his article, “Charlie Brown,” Brian Maye writes about what makes Charlie Brown such a likable character. Maye says about Charlie Brown:
A thoughtful, polite boy, we loved him because we knew he would never fulfil his aspirations, never win the baseball game or the heart of the little red-haired girl; we also knew he would never manage to kick the football the malicious Lucy was holding or fly a kite successfully. But he never gave up and we admired his determination to triumph over adversity.
Here Maye notices that it is Charlie Brown’s nature that is part of what makes him so likable, and so timeless. Though he always fails, his resilience and the way he never gives up allow readers to cheer for him, and countless people to relate to him. It is because others constantly try to bring him down, and fail, that we root for him to succeed. He refuses to let other get him down, and that makes him inspirational.
Jimmy Corrigan represents the same concept in Ware’s novel. He constantly tries to achieve that which he fails at: successful social interaction. 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.[5] 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[6]. 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.
This closeness that Jimmy’s father tries to offer up showcases a difference between Dilbert and Charlie Brown. The most important people in Jimmy’s life do not want to put him down; they simply want him to succeed. After Jimmy’s father gets into a car accident, he goes to stay with his sister, Amy. Jimmy has a mental breakdown where he admits what he yearns for most: people to like him.[7] Jimmy reveals here how desperately he craves human interaction; he just wants people to like him. This basic desire is something that everyone can relate to, and Ware knows this. He deliberately makes Jimmy’s quest something most people share, so that we can root for him to have someone who likes him, we want Jimmy to make a friend. His ability to break down and open up to Amy like this shows an extreme break through. Jimmy is finally able to communicate with someone plainly, and by crying he creates an emotional connection with Amy, something he desperately desires and she responds to. Though he is still shy and awkward, Amy tells him that his grandfather and her like him, and so he has not completely failed.
This support that Jimmy finds separates him Charlie Brown and Dilbert. Amy sees Jimmy crying and moves in to comfort him.[8] She responds to Jimmy by saying, “we like you,” (panel 9), referring to their grandfather and herself. This represents the first time we see one of Jimmy’s attempts to emotionally connect to someone succeed, and seems like a breakthrough. After an emotionally wrought scene the reward is great, for both Jimmy and the reader. I felt like this was the first step on the road to Jimmy’s final success in his own interactions with people around him. Unlike in the Charlie Brown or Dilbert comics, Amy supports Jimmy and tries to make him feel better, not worse. Whereas the characters in both Charlie Brown and Dilbert serve as contrasts to show the main characters strengths through their own flaws, Jimmy is the one with flaws, while Amy knows how to respond accordingly. Jimmy becomes the one we connect with because he needs to be comforted by someone else, which is a feeling we can recognize and understand.
This leads to perhaps the most heart-wrenching scene in the novel. The morning after Jimmy spends the night at Amy’s place with their grandfather, Amy and Jimmy head to the hospital to check on their father. It is there that they discover their father has died in the night, and though they tried contacting Amy, the doctors were unable to reach her to give them the news. Upon hearing this, Amy starts to shake violently and Jimmy, in an attempt to offer up some comfort for her, reaches out to take his hand. [9] Amy physically recoils from Jimmy, and lashes out, shoving him away from her. Jimmy is hustled from the room and the hospital when a misunderstanding causes him to end up in a taxi leaving the hospital, and Amy, behind. Thus, the failed interaction with Amy is the final contact Jimmy has with her. As heartbreaking as it is, Jimmy’s situation is still relatable. The feeling of estrangement and loss that Jimmy feels after he has a successful interaction followed by such a negative one shows just how up and down life really is. Though the novel ends on a hopeful note, Ware makes a pointed statement when he includes Amy’s rejection of Jimmy: not every attempt is successful.
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. Even though Jimmy lacks the characters that put him down constantly, such as can be seen in Dilbert and Charlie Brown, it is life itself that constantly puts him down. Jimmy’s resilience and desire to get up and keep trying to have a successful social interaction make him a character that is easy to root for; someone I genuinely want to see succeed.

Works Cited
Maye, Brian. "Charlie Brown." Irish Times 27 April 2002, City Edition 51. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
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.




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