Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth, can be at first hard to follow and interpret due to its unconventional layout. However, it comes with its own “general instructions” which serves to verse the reader in how to approach the book as well as aspects of the technical style required to grasp the comic string language. This section is littered with words and descriptions which juxtaposes the later body of the novel which, for periods of time falls short on textual detail. Right away these instructions prepare the reader to be able to think critically about the passage of time and relationship between individual moments separated by frames. Even panels placed directly next to each other with mostly identical content can be different representations of time and space in Jimmy Corrigan.
One of the striking images from these pre-novel instructions is in section four titled, “Technical Explanation of the Language, Developing Skills”. It is broken down by two consecutive panels featuring a cat and mouse. The first panel shows a cartoon mouse lifting a large hammer over his head, and then in the latter panel hitting the disembodied head of a cartoon cat with the hammer. Linked with this panel, the instructions state, “Below are five test questions by which you should be able to determine whether your understanding of the ‘comic strip’ language is sufficient to embark” (Ware). Although the panel is seemingly straightforward in nature, these questions seem to deliberately complicate the transition between the two panels. These questions all stress understanding the basic aspect of time and relationship to past and present by exploring the break between panels, and what the physical separation of the images can produce. However, the coupled images shown only function to make sure the reader grasps how the natural flow of time functions in typical panels by showing just one specific action, the hammer being lifted to strike the cat’s head. Stressing the normative in this manner is a way to draw attention to unorthodox relationship to time the panels within the novel exhibit. The composition of panels, and the relationship to time between them in Jimmy Corrigan, is unlike any typical comic representation and is hard to classify by general norms. Now that the reader has been introduced to this simplistic two-step functionality of time in depth, some of the very first panels in the novel incite a red-flag reaction which induces further examination of the composition.
By deconstructing such a simple scene in a nature, emphasis is placed in how the visual representation of action and symbols function in the image, as well as helping to understand transitions and narrative links in the story. One reoccurring visual element of this in Jimmy Corrigan, is the red bird which appears in scenes which often link different periods of time or move between a state of Jimmy’s lucid dreaming and reality. The first appearance of the red bird occurs on page 6, where it sits upon a branch in front of two versions of Jimmy Corrigan’s house. The bird appears in multiple locations in this scene and appears to be the same bird throughout, however the panels themselves actually show vastly different versions of time. The way the bird in placed in these scenes creates an interesting paradox about the passage of time. The bird seemingly transitions between the narrative preface scenes, the house of Jimmy as a young child, into the narratives present condition of Jimmy’s childhood house, boarded-up, decrepit and forgotten. Finally we get one last panel of where the house was before its destruction with no bird present at all, potentially showing the end of the bird’s existence and by extension Jimmy.
The symbol transition of the red bird is further used to explore the continuity of time throughout the novel, but maybe most visually in the scene which transitions from the Battle of Shiloh to the hospital. In this scenario, the bird actually interacts with the environment making its actions seem completely continuous through the panels. The bird picks up a flower branch near the body of the dead solider from the past, then flies up to a branch in the next panel to overlook the modern day hospital. The birds shown are inevitably not the same, but yet when viewing all the panels closely together on the same page, they are intrinsically connected as the similarity of their actions represents them as singular.
One might extrapolate the reason for stressing the basic in the general instructions pertains to the fact that Ware regarded them as unneeded and frivolous. The entire layout is speckled with back-handed retorts and passive-aggressive tones, and functions in a way similar to the structure of the novel. That is, what you are provided on the surface is not always what it seems, but may require extra thought to comprehend. Ware did not disregard this section in its impact to the reader and function to the novel, but rather designed it to work parallel. As the novel may be confusing in its presentation, the instructions are designed to be completely opposite, so easy to understand that they may be intellectually insulting. However, they very subtlety underline important aspects of the novel under a guise which seems to simply educate on the structure and examination of comics.