The 1970’s song “Cats in the Cradle”, by Harry Chapin, describes the singer’s realization of the impact a father can have on the life of his son. He learns that the actions he took in life, directly became the same actions his son would take, and in fact, the actions the singer took were the same actions the singer’s father took. He realizes that, consciously or not, the younger generation looks to follow and emulate the older generation. To this idea one can place Chris Ware’s work Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, a comic book about the life of the title character Jimmy Corrigan. Jimmy, as originally introduced, is a particularly passive character. However, through his interactions with his absentee father, he is able to improve himself. Chris Ware, through both the art of the comic, and the knowledge of the psychological concepts of role models, male patterning, and catharsis, is able to demonstrate that the cause Jimmy’s vapid life was his relationship with his father (or lack thereof), and his eventual transformation was a product of his interactions with his father.
The biggest concept to understand in relation to Jimmy’s life is the importance of a father figure in the life of a child. While not as emphasized as the mother-child relationship, the father-child relationship is extremely important, especially in the lives of young males. The father figure in the life of the child becomes the person the child will pattern themselves against, and try to copy. The actions of the father will change how the child develops into an adult, and eventually interacts with society. More nurturing fathers lead to emotionally open and happy children (that become well-adjusted adults), while distant and absent fathers produce the opposite effects in children (and later adults) (Mussen). In Jimmy’s life, his father was absent, and without a stable father figure, Jimmy had no real role models to emulate, and therefore grew to become a less emotionally equipped individual. However, this doesn’t stop Jimmy from wondering who is father is, and what he acts like, if just so Jimmy can have some idea of who he is supposed to be. This is apparent in the series of images where Jimmy, about to meet his father, tries to picture what he looks like (Ware, 30). All 12 men share similar characteristics with Jimmy, from limited hair to similar chin-shapes, but all are distinct, and have what appears to be, varying lifestyles and personalities. Jimmy’s lack of understanding about who his father is, as a person, explains why Jimmy fails to act assertively in most situations. He has never had a real role model from which Jimmy could learn how to behave, and as a result, fails to act.
Ware reinforces the concept of pattern after role models, specifically male father figures, throughout the text. One of the most repeated characteristics along the Corrigan family is sexism. Ware uses Jimmy’s grandfather’s life to drive home the power of a male role model in terms of behavior emulation, when Jimmy’s grandfather attacks the red-hair girl (Ware, 219). Here, the child’s actions mirror the model that Jimmy’s great-grandfather set, where he mistreats women and acts as if they are beneath him. The child even expresses regret for what he has done, even though the child as simply replicated the actions of the father. The child is unable to interact with the girl in any other way because he has never seen another manner of interaction, due to the example his father set. Likewise, racism is a learned trait, but still passed down the Corrigan lineage. Jimmy’s grandfather parroted both his father’s and the red-haired girl’s racism (Ware, 229). This racism is then passed down to Jimmy’s father (Ware, 125). Jimmy, who grew up with no contact of the other Corrigan males, does not exhibit this characteristic at all, proving that the roles the older generation played were instrumental in the lives of the younger generation. Ware clearly understands the power of a father-figure in a child’s life, and uses it to begin to explain Jimmy’s behavior, and how the lack of a real role model stunted his emotional growth.
Without a live-in father figure, Jimmy struggles to find a substitute, and, like many young boys, ends up selecting one from pop culture, here a superhero. Society holds up (male) superheroes as the epitome of masculinity, due to their strength, morals, and their predilection to save the day. Because young children are unable to completely separate reality from fiction, they often take superheroes as role models, and assume the same ideas, morals, and even gender-roles that the characters exhibit (Baker). From this, we see why and how young children focus on these types of characters for models. Within the comic, Jimmy selected Superman as his replacement father figure. The issue arises here when Jimmy actually meets his role model, at a mall appearance (Ware, 4). This hero proceeds to take only a glancing interest in Jimmy’s life, takes Jimmy and his mother to dinner, and proceeds to have a one-night-stand with Jimmy’s mother, leaving Jimmy with only a mask to remember him by (Ware, 5). From this sequence, Jimmy learns two things. One, that women are primarily sex objects (as shown by the hero taking an interest in Jimmy only so far as it leads to the hero having sex with Jimmy's mother), and two, that the role models in one’s life will leave without notice. Based upon these two lessons, Jimmy’s future development is understandable. Jimmy’s isolation (Ware, 20) and loneliness is a product of his belief that people will not stick around in his life, and is failure to connect with the opposite sex and to focus on sex exclusively, is a product of Jimmy seeing his role model interact with him only for his mother. The ideal man that the superhero represents imposes his ideals upon Jimmy, who, even at a young age, takes these lessons to heart, even if he did not yet understand it. Even with these obvious issues with his superhero role model, Jimmy persists in using the superhero as his role model even until adulthood, proving Jimmy’s shortened emotional growth. We see that after Jimmy is hit by a car, Jimmy imagines that his savior is indeed the superhero, instead of just the driver (Ware, 99). Furthermore, the image of his superhero dying, or letting Jimmy down, with the suicide of the superhero (Ware, 17), and with the superhero dropping Jimmy and his future son (Ware 53), emphasizes Jimmy’s belief that even those people who he believes in will let him down. In both of these cases, the model used for Jimmy’s personal development has failed him, yet he still immaturely follows the same role model.
Jimmy, as we originally meet him in the comic, is a man in a state of arrested development. He lives alone, is unable to connect with women, is not assertive, and his only real connection exists with his mother. But due to his interactions with his father, he is able to sufficiently change himself, and reach an emotional catharsis. Catharsis is an act of reconciliation, emotionally and psychologically, and is noted by a significant release of negative emotion (Claiborn). Jimmy’s catharsis deals with his reevaluation of his chosen role model, seeing his father as a flawed individual, and ends with Jimmy maturing emotionally.
The first step towards Jimmy’s catharsis was the realization that Jimmy is not, nor does he have to be, his father. After originally meeting, the two head to dinner, and find that they have little in common, and the conversation immediately lapses. Jimmy’s father is forced to drive the conversation, and it always circles around the immediate and obvious, like the waitress, the weather, and the food (Ware, 48). Nothing ever escalates to a deeper conversation. Amy, Jimmy’s adopted half-sister, even notes that the two spent near a day talking about nothing (Ware, 300). This type of interaction makes Jimmy realize that he and his father fail to connect, on any level outside of genetically. The bacon plate left out by Jimmy’s father, later learned to be a caring gesture, is missed by Jimmy, and never brought up by the father after the signal is missed (Ware, 66). Jimmy and his father are clearly not the same person, and Jimmy finally starts to realize that he can be distinct from his role model.
The divide between Jimmy and his father is only exemplified when Jimmy tries on his father’s clothing, after his father had washed Jimmy’s (Ware, 67). His father’s clothing fails to fit him, and when he tries to put it one, looks like a sausage. This simple occurrence signals to Jimmy that he is physically not his father, and that, try as he might, will never be exactly like him. Later, when Jimmy’s old clothing fails to fit him, it signals that Jimmy has changed since he arrived at his father’s apartment. The clothing is a signal to Jimmy that being separate from his father is normal, and completely fine. It starts the process of Jimmy differentiating from a role model.
To further the indicators of Jimmy and his father’s separation, the actual apartment is used to great effect. In a spatial sense, Jimmy does not fit into his father’s life. When visiting, the only place for Jimmy to sleep was the small couch (Ware, 58), and from his father’s shopping, it’s clear that the apartment does not have enough food to sustain Jimmy as well. The apartment is small, and to Jimmy, indicates that he is separate from his father’s life.
Jimmy’s second step towards catharsis is the realization that his father is flawed, and not the perfect person that he had built up in his mind (a vestige of the superhero role model). Jimmy wants his role model to be the perfect person, but in when Jimmy sees his dad, not everything is perfect. Jimmy’s father was a smoker (which may have led to his wife’s death) (Ware, 225). He is also mildly racist, as he continues to complain about minorities during Jimmy’s visit (Ware, 125). Continuing the family tradition, Jimmy’s father is also sexist, and makes inappropriate comments in all situations. And most importantly, he called Jimmy a mistake, right to his face (Ware, 117). While Jimmy’s father took that as a joke, Jimmy took that personally, and started to doubt if his father was a good person. Jimmy began to question why he actually came to see his dad. Altogether, his father is a significant drop from the superman ideal that Jimmy held dear. This realization allows Jimmy to understand that he needs to redefine the importance of a role model.
But Jimmy’s father has some redeeming qualities, and Jimmy must learn to accept them, even if Jimmy still smarts about the “mistake” comment. Jimmy’s father is mostly redeemed through his adopted daughter Amy. While he may have left Jimmy, he did take in Amy, and by all accounts, was a good father for her (Ware, 286). Jimmy is still uncertain how he feels about that, however. When he first sees the “Number 1 Dad” shirt (Ware, 71), he feels betrayed. If his father could be a father, why couldn’t he be a father to Jimmy? Jimmy’s realization that his father is both a good guy, with flaws, allows Jimmy to acknowledge that his role models can have faults, and that Jimmy is not bound to repeat the same faults, and can become his own man.
The tipping point towards Jimmy’s eventual catharsis is his father’s death. By interacting with his father, Jimmy was forced to reevaluate his idea of a role model, and specifically, if he should pattern himself against a specific role model. The night before the death, in a conversation with Amy, Jimmy finally reveals why he came on the trip, which was “to find out what he was like” (Ware, 321). This alone indicates that Jimmy was looking towards his father as a role model, and now, after meeting his father, he had to reevaluate his opinions. Weighing on Jimmy was the fact that his father was in the accident while traveling to get groceries, literally trying to provide for Jimmy. His father was a good father to Amy. Yet, he was racist, sexist, and abandoned his child. Jimmy finally examined the full difference between superman and his father, and realized that he (Jimmy) does not have to be either one of them. Jimmy begins to take responsibility for his actions after the death, and that, combined with his distinction between the ideal and reality, are the hallmarks of a true catharsis (Nichols). By meeting his father, Jimmy was able to see the extent that a role model was useful, by finally having a male role model who was real, who had his own flaws and problems, and could still be a good guy.
After this tipping point, Jimmy is able to change his life, and become responsible for himself. He is finally able to let go of his childish attraction to Peggy (Ware, 374), a huge step for Jimmy, as it indicates he is finally moving on emotionally and not fixating one person. He is finally able to let go of his mother (even as she found a new lover), and he is no longer tied to her as he once was (Ware, 373). And at the end, he is able to talk to and connect with a woman in a non-sexual manner (Ware, 387). This alone indicates that Jimmy has matured enough to see a woman outside of a sexual context. All of these actions seem out of the grasp of the Jimmy from the first pages, but through his interactions with his father, was completely possible for the reformed Jimmy. The biggest benefit to Jimmy’s meeting with his father was the emotional development. Jimmy was originally in a poor development state originally, but by accepting the changes in his role model, and meeting his father, he was able to grow past any childhood limits. A final, lasting image of this change was the final page (Ware, 379), where Jimmy is rescued by superman. What’s interesting here is that the superhero looks like adult Jimmy, and the child is a younger Jimmy. The combination of those two together indicates that Jimmy’s salvation was provided by himself, because he was able to make the changes in his life to move on.
Through the body of this comic, it’s clear that Ware has approached what Herbert Marcuse would call “Art”. Art, in the most Marcusian definition, serves to elucidate “a doctrine which has to be learned, comprehended, and acted upon” (Marcuse). To Marcuse, art is useful only in that it sends a message to the one experiencing it. Within this comic, Ware is able to impress upon the reader how important the father-son relationship is to proper emotional development in a child. Without a nurturing relationship, the child will grow up emotionally stunted, while proper rearing leads to well-adjusted children. This dichotomy is evident in the psychological makeups of Jimmy and Amy. Jimmy, left alone by his father, is passive, and lacks confidence. Meanwhile, Amy, who had a stable father in her life, grew up happy, well-adjusted, and emotionally stable.
The two largest counterarguments focus on the moment and cause of Jimmy’s eventual change. While I contend that it was Jimmy’s actions with his father that changed his life, the two alternative choices include his mother’s rejection of Jimmy at the nursing home, and Amy’s rejection of Jimmy after his father’s death. Both of these arguments hold water, as both rejections are from a person in a non-sexual position (contrasting to the rejection from other women Jimmy talks to, who are more sexual objects to him), and that both rejections are more emotionally important to Jimmy than a random encounter with a woman. This argument holds that rejection from his mother, the one parent that supported him, and rejection from his half-sister, and the only connection he has left to his father, acted like a shock to Jimmy, and forced Jimmy to change himself. However, both arguments are not as strong as Jimmy’s father as the driving force behind Jimmy’s catharsis. In terms of his mother, this was not the first time Jimmy was sidelined by his mother’s sexual desires (it occurred with the mall superhero as well), and therefore, is not a new occurrence to Jimmy. Furthermore, Jimmy was, for most of the book, trying to distance himself from his mother (by avoiding her calls, limiting the amount of information she had about his life). Rejection from his mother was not terrible damaging. Amy’s rejection is trickier. She was actually forming an emotional connection with Jimmy, and to a degree, was able to get him out of his shell. The easiest answer is that without Jimmy’s father, Jimmy would have never met Amy, and thus her rejection is superseded by their father’s larger role. At a deeper level, Amy’s rejection is not all that different from the normal rejection from women who reject his advances (like Peggy). Secondly, Jimmy was already reeling after his father’s death, and prior to the death, was already exhibiting signs of positive change. The death of his father was more personal to Jimmy in terms of his reevaluation of what a role model is, and how Jimmy should relate to one, and therefore, was more important than Amy’s rejection. The Jimmy the reader encounters at the beginning of the book would have been decimated by both rejections, yet, at the end of the comic, Jimmy is able to move past both rejections fairly quickly, recognizing that the rejection was not the end of the world. This change in Jimmy indicates that he has gone through the catharsis already, and was benefiting from the changes.
Jimmy’s situation may not exactly model the story detailed in “Cats in the Cradle”, yet the idea that the father-son relationship plays a vital role in the child’s overall development remains constant. Without Jimmy’s father being a presence in his life, Jimmy faced stunted emotional growth. However, through the events around Jimmy meeting his father, and his father’s death, Jimmy was able to enact change within himself, and develop emotionally. Author Chris Ware uses the art of the novel, as well as a working understanding of psychology to show the manner and method of Jimmy’s change, acknowledging that Jimmy was able to change himself, but required the catalyst that was interacting with his father, and redefining the role of a role-model. It took some time, but Jimmy realized that it was okay for him to be different from his father.
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