It surprised us when we heard it, but until Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, the last comic or graphic novel to win a serious literary award was nearly ten years before, when Art Spiegelman got a Pulitzer for his concentration camp memoir Maus. Since then, comics and graphic novels have been completely off the map of the big prizes.
So, Chris Ware’s book is unique in this context, as well as a few others. Winning the Guardian’s first novel award for 2001 isn’t as big as the Pulitzer, but it is still some achievement considering the quality of standard fiction it was up against.
And Jimmy Corrigan is certainly deserving of wider recognition. It tackles the kind of issues that contemporary modern fiction loves – the relationship between four generations of careless fathers and dysfunctional sons. We have no doubt that the subject matter helped it appeal to the judges of the prize more than a book about costumed heroes would ever be likely to, though dysfunctional relationships and parent problems are nothing new to comics. However, this story is treated with reverence and style, flashing between the adult life of Jimmy Corrigan and the Grandfather he didn’t know he had. Jimmy finally meets his father for the first time during the course of the book, which also brings him into contact with his Grandfather and the adopted sister he also never knew he had. Trouble is, Jimmy has been smothered by his single-parent mother, and is now barely capable of forming any kind of relationship, coping with situations outside his very limited sphere of control or showing any kind of emotion.
It’s not an easy story to read because all of the adults are flawed and you can see how the way they treat each other and the children around them is only going to create more of the same. This is also portrayed in the artwork – the Corrigan clan look similar throughout the generations and you can see exactly how the bloodline has ended up the way it has. The simple drawing style, looking like a newspaper cartoon strip (which is where Ware originally started publishing comics), counters the complexity of the framing, which can often circle round the page with tiny frames showing minute differences, almost like frames of an animation. The expression of the characters is made complex by this use of movement, even if the individual images themselves look simplistic.
Like many comics that are the work of one person, this merging of visual style and story are intertwined so you couldn’t imagine one without the other. This is a fine example of a comic and is well worth reading. It’s not easy, both because of the content and the layout, but the journey is ultimately rewarding. Not only do you get a fine read, you also know that this is one of the big current hopes to get comics taken more seriously. Buy it, read it, then persuade someone else to read it. It really is worth the effort.