One of the most universal themes in all of literature, and one that strikes a special chord in the hearts of almost every reader, is the question: “Who am I?”. Ironically, from an early age, children look to everyone around them to give them an idea of who they are and who they are supposed to be in the future. They are too young and naïve to look inside of their own selves and discover their identity. Without positive role models early in life, these children’s lack of self-awareness will cause their self-esteem to suffer later on. Chris Ware illustrates (quite literally) this theme in his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. Jimmy is a 35-year-old, socially awkward man with an overprotective mother who has never met his father. By carefully examining the specific details in the image where Jimmy visualizes the many different potential father figures he could have, the reader can see how not only the absence, but the abandonment of his father when he was a boy has affected the self-esteem of Jimmy and the growth of his character.
The image tells the reader many things, but one of the most noticeable aspects of it is that the eyes of the potential father figures are blacked out. In fact, no face is seen in its entirety throughout the first half of the graphic novel apart from Jimmy’s face, and later on, his actual father’s face. The black bar covering the eyes of these men make that very apparent since Ware has gone out of his way to make sure that their whole face is not shown. It shows that Jimmy is completely clueless to who his father is at all. After all these years, the prospect of seeing his father causes him to have an active imagination. Jimmy’s father has not even inserted himself into the picture yet, only left Jimmy a note, and already we see ideas flowing around in Jimmy’s head about who his father is, which in turn allows him to come closer to figuring himself out as a person. Once he figures out the identity of his father, a piece of him that has always been wondering who his father is will be fulfilled. Thus, once he has himself figured out, his self-esteem will increase dramatically, because you cannot love yourself without knowing yourself.
Another interesting detail to notice is the actual dialogue that the men use in the image. The dialogue flows fluently, almost as if it is the same person speaking, and not twelve different men with their own separate input (although one man has no dialogue at all). This symbolizes Jimmy’s lack of knowledge of his father’s identity, since there is no distinction between the men. To Jimmy, every man he sees on the street is the same and could possibly be his father. He does not have any memories from his childhood of his father that have shaped his image of him, or the image of any man for that matter. One of the reasons that there is a remarkable lack of faces in the novel is that without a father to shape his image of men, Jimmy sees them all as the same. He does not have a solid male role model to compare them to, and thus is often lost socially. This most certainly affects his self esteem, because “For kids who grow up feeling as though their father didn’t want them, they may further convince themselves that no one else will either – that they are not worthy of future accolades or love in life” (“The Long-Term Effects of Being Abandoned by a Father”). The readers can see that this is true of Jimmy, as his encounters with women are far from optimal. He usually makes a fool out of himself while only fantasizing about sexual encounters. Thus, Jimmy’s lack of good relationships with others due to his father’s abandonment leads him to appear incredibly lonely for the majority of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. This is evident since he is often quiet with not much to say. When Jimmy does finally meet his father, he begins to hang out with him everyday, and Jimmy is now completely aware of what his father’s face looks like. There is no more confusion.
Moreover, the similar faces represent that Jimmy has a small idea of what his father may look like. Although there are very visible differences between these men, a lot of them have similar attributes. Most of them have a receding hairline or are bald. Many are wearing a suit or a nice polo. A good portion of them even have the same hand gestures, such as pointing to themselves or giving a thumbs up. This tells the reader that Jimmy has a certain understanding of what his father probably looks like. All of these men appear to be older versions of Jimmy projects himself onto his father’s faceless position in his life to fill the void in his life the only way he knows how. Jimmy has been unable to form meaningful relationships throughout most of his life. This may be because, “For kids who grow up feeling as though their father didn’t want them, they may further convince themselves that no one else will either – that they are not worthy of any future accolades or love in life” (“The Long-Term Effects of Being Abandoned by a Father”). Since Jimmy is so closed off from the rest of the world, he has no other important figures or men in his life that he can imagine to be his father apart from himself. When he does meet his father and is able to fill in the blacked-out eyes as well as the rest of the face and body, a part of his life that was previously missing, knowing exactly what his father looks like, will be fulfilled. This will help him come to peace with both his father and himself. Perhaps, he will even be able to open up to more people and form more powerful emotional connections.
I think it is no coincidence that some of the men in the picture are giving a thumbs-up sign to Jimmy. I believe that this is symbolic of what he needs to see his father do - lend Jimmy his approval. Since Jimmy’s father left him when he was only a young boy, his father never showed that he accepted him in anyway whatsoever. In fact, Jimmy may very well suppose that his father even disapproves of him since he left Jimmy and his mother. Jimmy then believes that he was not good enough to stick around for. Perhaps even worse, Jimmy may have believed it to be his fault. Global Post writes of fatherless children, “Even when their father’s estrangement has nothing at all to do with them, they may convince themselves that it resulted entirely from something they did or did not do” (“The Long-Term Effects of Being Abandoned by a Father”). Jimmy’s father never even gives a reason for his absence, so countless possibilities of why he left must be flowing through Jimmy’s head. He could be thinking about what he could have done differently in his childhood to make his father stay. The possibility alone that it could be his own fault would cause Jimmy to think poorly of himself, but each and every time he thinks of where he went wrong Jimmy’s self-esteem takes another blow. By Jimmy visualizing his father giving the legendary thumbs-up, it is clear to the reader that this is what Jimmy expects when he at last meets his father, or at least his preferable outcome. If Jimmy does indeed receive the sought-after thumbs-up, then he will begin to think more highly of himself. Not only will he feel better about himself, because a thumbs-up is a sign of approval, but he will feel like he is wanted through the eyes of his father, whose affection he has been longing for his whole life.
Another interesting aspect of the picture that is worth taking a look at is the attire of the men. They are all dressed quite nicely: most are in suits and some are in nice polos. This observation represents the appearance of his father that would improve Jimmy’s self-esteem. If his father looks professional and dresses nicely, then that would raise his father’s social status, and thus Jimmy’s own as well. Jimmy is not a wealthy guy, and if he met his father and he happened to have a high-end paying job such as a lawyer, then not only would that make him a more impressive father, but Jimmy might in turn get some of that money. Of course, if Jimmy himself were wealthy, that too would raise his self-esteem.
Conclusively, Jimmy has an unstable social life and identity crisis because of his father’s absence in his early life. The image of the men highlights the identity crisis through their blacked out eyes, dialogue, many different faces, attire, and hand guestures. While most people have to find themselves mostly by themselves, having a strong role model of the same sex around while you are still young is a vital step towards identity, and a high self-esteem. The absence of such a figure can result in decreased confidence and a feeling of emptiness, as well as a longing for the certain type of parental affection that they have never known and may never know if their relationship with a parent that has abandoned them is not repaired.
Campbell, Leah. "The Long-Term Effects of Being Abandoned by a Father."
Everyday Life. Global Post, 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Ware, Chris. Picture of many potential father figures. Digital image. Hazelfoster.com.
N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2014. <http://www.hazelfoster.com/wp-c