Exams exist to evaluate. They tell teachers how well a student has covered material, they tell the state if a person is skilled enough to drive, and tell doctors about the fitness of an individual. In Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, a graphic novel by Chris Ware, inverts the normal usage of an exam. Instead of evaluating the exam taker, the exam in the front cover of his comic is used to tell the reader about what to expect within the comic, and how to interpret it in reference to the title character Jimmy.
The “exam” poses questions that seem to judge the reader. Personal questions, including the reader’s gender, relationship with his or her father, and social ability in interacting with the opposite sex. While this seems rather useless when first reading the book, it is actually the closest thing to a dust-cover-blurb that the book has. These questions less for self-inflection, but more for an explanation of what the title character faces. Within the first half, the reader comes to see Jimmy’s personal failings, from his inability to interact and connect with women, to his relationship with his absentee father, all of which was explained to the reader by the Exam.
Looking at questions 6 and 7, both deal with connecting with women. The interesting thing about both questions is that the answers do not span a range of options as in traditional multiple choice (where you have good, bad, and terrible answer selections), but instead see all the possible answers as synonymous with one another. Question 6 asks “The presence of members of the opposite and or attractive sex makes you feel a. weird, b. awful, c. terrified, d. hopeless, e. like killing yourself”. All the possible answers are really the same thing, and when taken into context about the true purpose of Ware’s exam, point to show how Jimmy fails to connect with the women. He is simply too terrified to do anything. Similarly, question 7 asks “The possibility of finding social and or personal contact with members of the opposite and or attractive sex is a. laughable, b. incomprehensible, c. all you ever think about, d. a, b, and c, e. a, b, c, and d”. Once again, all the answers are really the same answer, and all point to Jimmy’s inability to talk to women. Looking at page 13, where Jimmy first interacts with Peggy, it’s clear that he has never been able to talk to connect with her. Peggy sees him as more a nuisances than anything else, while it’s clear that Jimmy wants a more personal connection. By viewing just that one panel on page 13, it would appear that Peggy may have bee only busy, but in context with the exam questions, it’s clear that Jimmy wants a deeper connection. Within the novel, outside of Peggy and the ever-calling Mother, there are female characters that are mentioned more than once. Outside of the Jimmy’s mother, Peggy is the only female character mentioned more than once, and without the context provided by the exam, Jimmy’s attraction, and failure to act upon it, towards Peggy would not be so clear. Outside of Peggy, Jimmy can’t even have a normal conversation with a woman, and his sexual visualizations of them all fall apart. When talking with the fast-food cashier, he is unable to coherently speak, stammers through his actual complaint, and pays again for a burger he wanted fixed (Ware, 45). He later visualizes a sexual liaison between the two of them, but he is unable to connect with her, and insults her as he leaves (Ware, 49). In any normal reading, this pair of events would be chalked up to bad luck, but in reference to the Exam, the reader is able to understand that this type of reaction is commonplace in Jimmy’s life. Overall, because of the information about Jimmy provided by the Exam, the reader is able to gain a deeper sense of Jimmy’s character.
The exam also gives a very good summary on how to interpret Jimmy’s actions towards his father. Question 10 asks “Your relationship to your father could be best characterized as a. strained, b. distant”. This frame’s Jimmy’s relationship perfectly. He doesn’t know his father, so he never had the opportunity to explicitly like or dislike him, so distant is the most apt description. Because of the frame provided by the exam, Jimmy’s reaction to getting the letter in the mail from his father (Ware, 13) is understandable. Shock, surprise, and confusion are all indicative of an absent father son-relationship. Even when meeting his father, Jimmy does not know what to say. Jimmy is unable to communicate well, and his father runs both sides of most conversations (Ware, 47). Past this, it’s clear that Jimmy has some issues with paternal abandonment, even going so far as to visualize patricide. On page 39, we see Jimmy dreaming about killing his father with a mug, right after his father had sex with his mother. Earlier, on page 13, we see a younger Jimmy attacking a man, while his mother looks on, the death of another father figure. Tying to the paternal abandonment are the constant superhero references. Male superheroes are an archetypical father figure, and in Jimmy’s imagination, the superheroes are always dying or disappointing him. The first one jumps off a building (Ware, 17), a second one falls off a table (Ware 178), another has sex with his mother and leaving immediately (Ware, 5), and so on. The only positive superman father figure is on page 99, where Jimmy projects the costume of superman on the man who saved him. By putting the question about the reader’s relationship with the father into the introduction, Ware is able to characterize the relationship between Jimmy and his father more quickly than would have been revealed through normal reading.
Most books put a teaser paragraph on the back cover or the inside of the dust cover to entice the reader, and give them some information that would lead to them actually reading the entire book. Chris Ware ignores that custom, even commenting that the exterior was designed to hide the true contents. Instead of the normal paragraph, Ware uses the Exam from the “General Instructions” to tell the reader what types of topics will be included in the book, and give an idea as to the mental, social, and emotional characteristics of Jimmy, all of which serve to characterize the character better in context of his actions.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.