The Adventures of Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth by F. C. Ware is one of those heart-breakingly warm stories of the way loneliness can transmit itself through three generations. The title character is a painfully awkward adult, almost incapable of human interaction because of a complete lack of the ability to screw up enough courage to talk to anyone. One day our hero gets a letter from the father he never met, and we then discover the life of his father, and his grandfather through a series of awkward interactions and flashbacks to his grandfather’s similarly heart-breaking childhood. The story is quite well-told, full of poignant moments which never descend to the maudlin. It’s hard not to root for Jimmy Corrigan even though you know that there is no way his life will never really be any better than it is at the outset. It’s hard not to feel the shock of disappointment when you gradually learn about his grandfather’s life. It’s hard not to be drawn into sympathy with Jimmy’s father even though, on the face of it, there really isn’t much with which to sympathize. And the other characters who show up throughout the story are drawn is a similarly affecting way. This is the story of humanity: lost, isolated, and desperately lonely, but thoroughly incapable of finding a solution to the eternal human quest for love.
And, by the way, The Adventures of Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth is a comic book.
The combination of the details in the last two paragraphs elevate this story from what is a good story well told to a harbinger of the future. This is an attempt at high literature. There are no superheroes or talking animals. There is nothing in this story that wouldn’t fit into a conventional novel. While I have read Great comic books before (truly Great as in potentially Great Books great), they all had some trappings of the genre from which they were born (The Sandman with the fantastic; Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns with superheroes, Maus with the mice—mind, these may not be Great Books, but at least they have the potential). This story has none of that. And that make it interesting. The other attempts at straight-forward literature I have seen in the comic book form all had stories which would not have stood up in another medium. This one does. And the art enhances the story immensely. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think this book is Great Books status at all—it’s very good, not Great. But, this book is paving the way for something new. I am now convinced that sometime in the not too distant future, we will see the Madame Bovary of comic books. I am not sure what it will look like; but it will be extraordinary.
Thinking about the Madame Bovary of comic books, made me wonder about other future comic equivalents. I had the shock to realize that there is no Dickens equivalent in the comic book world—that is really odd when you think about it. A Dickensonian story, with those perfectly drawn caricatures is perfect for the comic book form. Yet, I don’t even know of an attempt along those lines. (I am not talking about comic versions of Dickens—such pale derivatives don’t interest me—I am talking about the literary equivalent of Dickens in comic book form.)
And while on the subject of comic books, here are four other reviews of books I have read recently.
1. Miller, Ronin
This is fairly early Frank Miller. It made me realize what defines a Frank Miller work. Miller is the comic book artist of violence. I’d be shocked it that hasn’t been noted endlessly before, but it just occurred to me. Miller’s work explores the nature of violence in book after book. At his best (Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One) these reflections are riveting. Ronin is pretty good. The story gets a bit silly over time, but it never completely loses its moorings. The book also gets bonus points because how could a story about a samurai warrior in a science fiction age not be inherently fascinating?
2. Eisner, The Best of the Spirit
This is a collection of, a the title suggests, the best Spirit stories. The Spirit was one of the earliest superhero comics. It was a seven page insert in the Sunday paper back in the 40’s (1940’s, that is). This book is of historical interest; it is amazing how much Eisner did in seven pages. In fact, many of these stories have a much plot as the longer comics of the 1970’s, which I am afraid is a statement of the general quality of 1970’s stories as well as a statement about Eisner’s master of being succinct. The stories themselves are often quite clever. Nothing jaw-droppingly great here, but well worth the time if you are interested in the history of the comic book.
3. Wald, Kingdom Come
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I have tried to convince myself that it was good. I haven’t been all that successful. The basic plot; the superheroes of our world retire from the scene as people demand increasingly violent and brutal superheroes. The next generation of superheroes starts off as crowd-pleasers—they are willing to do things like actually kill supervillians—but over time, they grow bored and start turning the world into giant playground of destruction. So, the Heroes of old, led, obviously, by Superman, return to try to make things right. Endless pontificating. Endless promises of a great moral choice that must be made, but which when the crucial moment comes, is never quite made. Endless pontificating about why we need superheroes. And in the end, it all adds up to very little. There are some nice touches here and there—Batman is old and seriously injured, for example—but overall, my overwhelming impression was disappointment.
4. Grant, Odysseus: The Rebel
I found this book on the free book shelf at the MHC library, so I picked it up and read it. I paid too much for it. Awful does not begin to describe this book. Grant tries to rework the story of Odysseus, but forgets to introduce anything interesting and somehow leaves out everything that makes the story of Odysseus a good story. Couple that with some bizarre attempt to turn the whole story into a statement about how man should rebel against God, and this is just a mess. The funniest part: The book was published by Big Head Press, which bills itself as publishing “thoughtful stories.” On the back cover, they write: “For mature readers: If you’re not mature, put this book back on the shelf and go read a story about super-powered mutants or something.” The funny part—the worst X-Men comic book ever written is better than this comic book. I can’t decide whether to put this back on the free book shelf in the library or throw it away so that nobody else will be burdened by reading it.