An Examination of James and Jimmy Corrigan’s Mutual Development throughout
Jimmy Corrigan: The smartest Kid on Earth
In Jimmy Corrigan: The smartest Kid on Earth, the final transition between James Corrigan’s childhood timeline and Jimmy’s adult timeline finds James standing at the top of The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, one of the centerpieces of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Standing atop this intersection of the old and new, James is abandoned by his father, leaving him to face the coming revolutions alone – a state of being that he is quite used to already. Even with all the epochal changes – electricity’s proliferation, an emerging architecture, a rethinking of the world’s cities – foreshadowed in that park in Chicago, James Corrigan still ends up by himself, abandoned and ostracized by society at large. This dichotomy of progress – the personal progress of James (or, as we will see, the lack thereof) and the country’s current status as compared with the potential highlighted at the World’s Fair – is rooted in the relationships that shaped both James, Jimmy and the American people at the turn of the twentieth century.
Jimmy Corrigan’s first few frames offer an immense ‘zoom-in’ from the cold reaches of space onto Jimmy’s childhood home just outside Chicago. Loneliness, then, is present in the story from the first page on and only continues to grow as the story progresses in those early pages. The first ‘shot’ of Jimmy that we get is of him putting on a mask, an action that encapsulates his absolute desire for attention, or even just acknowledgement, and juxtaposes it with his absolute anonymity to others, a theme that will be drawn on throughout the story.
The first few scenes of the novel serve to set-up the novel’s main plot, which involves Jimmy meeting his father for the first time. After spending just five pages on Jimmy’s childhood, the novel uses the growth of Chicago – the childhood house is neglected and torn down - as a transition to Jimmy’s adult life where not much has changed for Jimmy. He still survives on the periphery of human contact, seemingly unable to break out from his mother’s overbearingness. Receiving a letter from his dad, a man he never knew, he is invited out to Waukosha, Michigan – a small, any-town suburb – for the weekend. The next series of scenes, showing Jimmy’s preparations and travel, continue to highlight Jimmy’s social awkwardness and ineptitude in everyday situations.
Two of the most telling scenes in this section are the two dream sequences that Jimmy experiences getting ready for and on the flight to Michigan. The first one sees Jimmy as a robot,[i] an apt metaphor for his lack of human interaction – literally imagining himself as a non-human entity, though one with all the emotional needs of the people he struggles to interact with. The dream’s plot revolves around adult-robot-Jimmy searching for and finding a young-child-robot-Jimmy – mirroring his real-life dilemma. The next dream takes place on a farm in rural America during the period before the Great depression. Jimmy is seen as his current-day self interacting with the period-characters of his dream-family. He, unlike in his actual childhood, has an older-brother and an abusive father. The dream turns violent, and Jimmy witnesses his father beat up his brother on the edge of the family’s peach farm. The story then resumes as Jimmy wakes up on the plane. The transition frame between the dream and real-life shows Jimmy as a robot with a bird perched on his head and a branch from a peach-tree. In a not-too-subtle gesture, Chris Ware gives the reader an explicit diagram of the different motifs to watch for throughout the novel. Of the two we have encountered already, the robot stems from Jimmy’s unconscious portrayal of himself, while the peach, as we will see later, will come from deeply repressed sexuality.
As the story unfolds, the main narrative is continuously interrupted, often for extended periods of time, to focus on the childhood of Jimmy’s grandfather, James Corrigan. The majority of James’ story is centered on the year 1893, and his experience with the World’s Columbian Exposition. James’ family life seems reminiscent of the farm-dream that Jimmy had, and his family dynamic is opposite that of Jimmy’s – an abusive father instead of an overbearing mother. Throughout this section, James’ representation graphically recalls Jimmy’s appearance, and many of the mannerisms and character traits seen in Jimmy are present in James. We can even go as far as to say that James is supposed to represent, at least thematically, Jimmy’s childhood.
This literary choice lets us read the book as a profound statement on the idea of progress, namely that it is both exponentially quick, going from the World’s Fair to the modern-day Chicago, and almost non-existent – major similarities exist between James and Jimmy; progress in this one happens so slowly, it can be said to not happen at all. Chris Ware, by telling the story of Jimmy through three generations of male characters lets the reader focus on how difficult it is to see change on a personal level even though the world around them becomes unrecognizable throughout the course of a lifetime. This idea – that Ware is trying to show how progress is relative to the timeframe you are studying – relies on the interactions and similarities between James and Jimmy, while placing their lives in the context of the World’s Fair and its effect on the country.
James Corrigan is introduced as the son of a moderately successful Chicago glazier, William Corrigan. The city of Chicago is finishing up work on the ‘White City’ of the World’s Fair, and James and his father are staying at his grandmother’s house for the time being. In these early scenes, we see James as an obedient child, one who never learned how to interact with others due to his abusive and controlling father. James is unable to confront his father, though he does often has violent fantasies involving his dad as a victim.[ii] James is just as ostracized by his peers and elders as Jimmy is, though in different ways, owning to the difference in time periods. When looking at James’ story line, there are several major plot, character and thematic elements that carry over into Jimmy’s world.
Returning to the idea of progress, the James-Jimmy dynamic is used by Ware to set up the question of whether or not personal growth is visible over a single lifetime. Tracing Jimmy’s history back all the way to the late 1800s allows Ware to provide extensive backstory to Jimmy’s quirks and social ineptitudes. Rooting a majority of his issues in James, Ware’s most immediately noticeable cross-generational dynamic is the fact that the male characters are often under-developed, juvenile characters, woefully unable to cope with the demands of interacting with people, especially those of the opposite sex. In fact, sexism and blatant objectification are common threads throughout the novel, starting with the ‘instructions’ page on the inside cover of the book, where Chris Ware breaks the fourth wall and says “if b [female], you may stop. Put down your booklet. All others continue,” giving the reader a brief taste of the sexism that they will encounter throughout the book. Crucially, however, not all the objectification is leveled against women. In contrast, most of the serious gender issues arise from the fact that the men, and specifically the Corrigan men, are the victims of the sexism present throughout the story.
On the first glance, it is clear that Ware’s story showcases femininity and women in a negative light. Most of the women that aren’t major characters do not get their faces shown, instead, as can be seen in the noted picture,[iii] Ware focuses on their bodies, purposely hiding their faces by everyday objects. Ware, however, does not treat the men in the story any better than he treats the women; throughout the course of the multiple-generation story, there is arguably not a single all-around strong male character. Ware writes the men so that they all lack in at least one area of traditional masculinity. Contrasted with that, is the fact that the two strongest characters, Amy and the Girl in the Blue Dress (who is not named), are female. While the Girl in Blue is the only female character who interacts with James as a peer, she is never given an identity. Identity, as one of the major themes in Jimmy Corrigan, is represented “as an ongoing process filled with errors and corrections,”[iv] where both the reader and characters continue to learn about their relationships to each other. Without a name, the Girl in Blue simply exists as a force of nature in James’ story – with no tangible relation to anyone else. The reader never learns anything about her other than what she presents to James besides the fact that at some point it is implied that she is James’ cousin, though this is never confirmed or denied.
One of the first implications, if James’ story is read as a representation of Jimmy’s childhood, of her lack of a name is that fact that she may very well be Jimmy’s mental projection of his own mother and her damaging effect on his mental state. The only interactions James has with members of the opposite sex are his dying grandmother and the Girl in Blue. Neither of these interactions are particularly healthy and since they are the only ones James has as a child, it is not unreasonable to see the manifestation of this stunted childhood, both socially and sexually, present in Jimmy.
It becomes increasingly apparent throughout the course of the story that the only two truly-strong characters are the Girl in Blue and Amy, Jimmy’s black half-sister. William, James, Jimmy’s Father (who is also never named directly) and Jimmy are all poses non-traditional masculine traits. William is abusive, out of shape and divorced – nothing about him is part of the idealized male character; charming, fit, chivalrous. His son James, scarred by the abuse and emotionally stunted from the lack of motherly figure to balance William, is lonely, quiet and ostracized by his peers at school. Jimmy’s father is also out of shape, with numerous children from failed romances. He is far and away the most classically masculine character, especially when one considers his womanizing ways. This fact plays back into the idea that Ware is attempting to turn the conventions of sexism in pop culture around, back onto the typically sexist male characters. By making the men the weaker characters, Ware is able to highlight that for as obvious as female sexism is in a work – anybody would quickly pick up on his almost-blatant objectification of the minor-character women – the sexism leveled at the men, all of who have been failed by society’s image of masculinity, goes unnoticed in general discussions of the story.
Jimmy’s relationship with Amy, the only other strong female character, mirrors James’ relationship to the Girl in Blue. With James, the Girl in Blue approaches him for the first time, another proof that James is not a strongly masculine character, and befriends him on his first day at a new school. As the two grow closer, James continues to fall more and more in love with her, at one point focusing only on a strand of her hair blowing in his face atop the unfinished World’s Fair building.[v] Similarly, Amy is the first to introduce herself to Jimmy when they meet at the doctor’s office.[vi] As with James before him, Jimmy finds himself falling in love with the only strong female character that he meets.
When James finds out that the Girl in Blue is related to him, he reacts violently to the news and attacks her. This is used against him later, when the other children make fun of him for hitting a girl – one of the least traditionally ‘masculine’ actions one can perform, and a large social taboo. When Jimmy falls for Amy, he too is aware that it is explicitly against social norms to act on his urges. When he finally does act on these, by grabbing her hand when they find out their father died, he is violently rejected by Amy, who pushes him to the ground.[vii] In James’ case, the rejection comes internally, when he reacts to the Girl in Blue’s taunting after learning that he will never be able to be wither. On the other hand, Jimmy’s rejection comes from an external source – Amy, though in a larger sense society as a whole, pushes him away when he tries to make the most basic of human connections.
To Ware, literary criticism – especially when done through a feminist lens – relies on the assumption that society’s view of masculinity has a lesser effect on the men of the society. To draw attention and provide a counter to this rather ‘institutionalized sexism’, he presents the effects of this assumption on four damaged men. The women in the story are there to ensure that the discussion of sexism happens in the first place (which only furthers his original goal – if he had not objectified characters such as the airplane passenger or empowered young female characters such as the Girl in Blue, would we have even noticed the inherent sexism against the men?).
There is more than just Ware’s reversal of sexism that connects James to Jimmy in the novel. As previously mentioned, whereas Jimmy has an overbearing mother who took him for granted during his childhood, James’ father was abusive, ill-tempered and despised James enough to abandon him a few days after his ninth birthday. To continue the opposite family-dynamic, until the events of the novel, Jimmy had never met his father, and lived with his mother, while James’ mother died while he was too young to remember her, leaving him with his father and the help they hired to run the house (it should be noted that Jimmy’s mother lives in an assisted-living home as well). Jimmy’s trouble with connecting with his father begins to make more sense once it becomes possible that his difficulty is a result of James’ emotional trauma caused by his dad. By giving Jimmy access to the deep-seated lack of trust towards father figures of his grandfather, Ware provides a mechanism by which to explain Jimmy’s fears of his own father – culminating in the scene where he imagines his father killing him while he sleeps. To expand on that, it is also evident that Jimmy retained James’ violent tendencies, at one point imagining casually slicing his father’s back open with a shard of ceramic, and not unlike James pretending to execute his father.[viii]
Now that the personal, symbiotic relationship between Jimmy and James has been established, we can move onto examining their relationship to each other in the context of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Charting the personal growth of the two main male characters, we see a massive difference in their progress as an individual and the progress of society as a whole. The World’s Columbian Exposition, as with Fairs in the past, was set up to show the coming technologic improvements that would soon be taken for granted. This fair in particular was the first to be fully illuminated by electric light, supplied by Westinghouse after they won the auction for the contract.[ix] The Fair was seen as a showcase for not only new technologies in everything from transportation and agriculture to machinery and electricity, but a marvel of city and urban design and architecture.
Many papers can be devoted to the above facets of the Fair, and it would be easy to get lost in an endless discussion about neoclassical architecture, City Beautiful planning, the importance of A/C power winning the bid, to name just a few examples. Instead of focusing on the history and application of these topics in particular, we will focus on their overall effect on the country and the symbolic relationship their potential had with James’ and Jimmy’s outcomes.
A shining example of American Exceptionalism, the World’s Fair captured the spirit of a country starting to go through a revolution in almost every aspect of daily life. At the peak of the Gilded Age, the Fair encapsulated all aspects of the century to come. To return to the opening paragraph’s scene – with James Corrigan standing alone at the top of the largest building in the world at the time – we can see that Ware is tying the Corrigan’s future to that of the country.
Besides their mutual childhood experiences, James and Jimmy can be seen as representing the story of America, both pre-World’s-Fair and post-World’s-Fair. This metaphor is most prominent in the scenes leading up to James’ schools participation in the opening ceremony of the Fair. Each student is given red, white or blue clothing, and when they stand up together, they form a large American Flag. While Ware graphically represents the re-birth of America in this scene – using the youth of the time to form their own image of America under the guidance of the older generation – an important narrative change also occurs. When James stands up in the grandstands, it is the last time his story is narrated with a third person pronoun, with “the boy occupies himself by watching the crowd”[x] being the last reference to James in this person. Every scene after this puts James in the first person. With the graphical re-birth of America, James enters the next stage of his life and begins to be his own person. No longer is an omniscient narrator controlling his life through “he does…” or “the boy…” instead, the narration takes on James’ inner thoughts. Fittingly, the scene immediately following the re-birth of America involves James being mean to an immigrant student he does not want to be associated with.
Realizing the independence he has been granted with this new pronoun – I – James begins to finally form his own thoughts. And just as American society as a whole resisted the large numbers of immigrants coming to its shores, James – already ostracized as it is – does not want to be associated with the immigrant student who is simply looking for a friend. Instead, with his new-found identity (a realization that he is his own person) he chooses to try and fit in with the rest of the kids at his school. As James’ story progresses, the reader watches as he continually treats his Italian friend (again, never formally named) as a ‘second-class citizen’ only to one day find that his friend has deserted him and joined the group at school who incessantly tease him. This is yet another way in which Ware showcases James’ utter lack of social skills. Had James not attempted to fit in with the rest of the school by rejecting the friendship of the ‘weird kid’, he would have had a friend on his side when everyone started making fun of him.
Ware’s most profound statement on America and progress can be found in Jimmy and his representation of America after the World’s Fair. After the peak of James’ potential atop the Exhibition building, the narrative shifts back to Jimmy. In this scene, where “Progress, marked as white, is associated with attaining great heights…leads father and son out to the very "edge of the largest building in the world" in a series of frames scaled to set personal drama as inconsequential against the grand architecture of the White City,” Ware sets up the dramatic contrasts between James’ and Jimmy’s progress and the country’s progress.[xi] Ending James’ story on his abandonment, Ware shows that this ‘new America’, represented by James and Jimmy, must embrace the changes alone. The changes are simply too new for the older generation to keep up with and this lack of ability to relate to the progress is mirrored across all aspects of society. The arts would begin to break from Traditionalism as artists across all mediums began to think in an entirely new way leading to the birth of the Modernism movement and radical new plans for cities would emerge.
As Jimmy’s story takes place decades after the implementation of these new ideas – many of which would be disproven or radically altered – his story can be seen as a representation of modern American society. Jimmy, as a self-described loser, struggles to live a life with any semblance of normalcy. As a human being, Jimmy is missing the most fundamental of social skills, a result of a generations-long history of loneliness and isolation. Unable to function in a world where rejection is a necessary social outcome, Jimmy – whose main issue is that he is “paralyzed by a fear of being disliked”[xii] – can be seen as representing a generation of men who are unable to meet the demands modern society places on them. Existing in our society requires a bare minimum of social ability, and neither James nor Jimmy was truly able to function at this level for any extended period of time.
When a reader views Jimmy as an ‘everyman meant to stand in for the general population, they are shown a very pessimistic view of modern society. After the World’s Fair, the ultimate expression of the country’s potential, we are shown what society has actually become – a generation of Jimmys. Ware uses the various generations of Jimmy’s family to highlight each of their respective generations’ faults, all stemming from their flawed views on masculinity. With these views on society, and in the way Chris Ware is able to showcase them aesthetically and narratively, Jimmy Corrigan could be seen as a drawn-out representation of the society that Herbert Marcuse envisioned in One Dimensional Man.
Marcuse’s view on modern, post-industrial society is quite similar to the characterization of Jimmy. “And yet this society is irrational as a whole. Its productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties…its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence,”[xiii] writes Marcuse in the opening chapter of his defining work. If Ware’s story describes the society visually – what it would physically look like – Marcuse describes the society theoretically through the written word. Both the world Ware draws and the world Marcuse describes have important similarities. The main one being that even though “Contemporary society seems to be capable of containing social change - qualitative change which would establish essentially different institutions, a new direction of the productive process, new modes of human existence,”[xiv] the societies choose instead to remain where they are – unwilling and possibly even unable to change their situations. Both of these authors are seeking to show that we have grown complacent with modern societies and, because we all have aspects of Jimmy and the rest of the Corrigans inherent in our selves, that we are quickly becoming unable to change the situations even if we wanted to - shown in Jimmy Corrigan by the death of Jimmy’s father. Even at his lowest point – reeling from this news, unable to ever really communicate his feelings, he finally is able to reach out and attempt to start a meaningful connection with Amy – he is quickly and thoroughly rejected. Even if he was able to finally try to change, to make good of the potential James had at the top of the World’s Fair, society is still against him. Society, it seems, has moved past the need for meaningful human experience.
Showcasing this alienation, as art is supposed to do according to Marcuse, allows Ware to show the reader that because society has grown and progressed at an exponential rate, the individual members of the society are harmed. Out repressive society’s traded the well-being of the individuals to make it better for the collective. Modern society progressed at a rate which did not allow the citizens to properly adjust; forever ensuring that people will not be well enough adjusted to truly excel – or as is becoming more common, even function – in the societies they create.
 This has significant implications in terms of Jimmy’s underdeveloped and quite taboo sexuality, this will be brought up later in his relation to Amy.
 This can also be seen as a comment on the gender double standards we take for granted in society – James cannot physically confront the Girl in Blue without being called out as non-masculine, but if he confronts her in a non-violent way, he also loses his credibility as a male character.
 It would seem as though Jimmy is locked in a negative-feedback loop, where any attempt on his part to do a normal person-to-person interaction is met with a swift denial. This will, over the course of his life, inhibit him from attempting these interactions leading to a further inability to perform them.
 A generation that fought the Civil War in order to keep the country together
 As is usual, and especially so with young children, James would have still been made fun of, no matter what he did during school. Had he befriended the immigrant child, the kids at school would have found another reason to torment him. This fact, coupled with the idea that the kids looked up to and followed the Girl in Blue, adds to the idea that she is a stronger, more masculine character than James.
[i] See and
[iv] Bennett et. al.
[viii] compare this to:
[xii] Front Cover of Jimmy Corrigan
[xiii] Marcuse, page 7
[xiv] Ibid., page 9
Bennett, Juda and Cassandra Jackson. "Graphic Whiteness and the Lessons of Chris Ware's
Jimmy Corrigan." . ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. 5.1 (2010). Dept of English, University of Florida. 13 Dec 2013.
Larson, Erik (2003). The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that
Changed America. New York, NY: Crown
Marcuse, Herbert. "The Paralysis of Criticism: Society without Opposition." Introduction. One
Dimensional Man. London: Sphere, 1968. 7+. Print.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.