Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, despite being a comic with a simple art style and concise writing, can be very difficult to read and understand. Because the seemingly simple story is so challenging, some “General Instructions” are printed on the inside of the cover. In contrast to the book itself, these instructions are incredibly wordy, using complex vocabulary and a condescending tone as if to suggest insult to the reader’s intelligence for not understanding basic comics. But even with the mocking tone of the “General Instructions”, they can still be useful in understanding the comic itself by mirroring the unreliability and hypocrisy that shows up.
There is one passage at the end of the instructions, “New Pictorial Language Makes Marks: Good for Showing Stuff, Leaving out Big Words” that reveals how the instructions can relate to the comic. Right in the title, one can see the hypocrisy in “Leaving out Big Words”, as the instructions are simply full of them. But at the same time there is a sincerity to that title, as the comic itself lacks many large words and strives for pictorial explanation.
One quote, in particular, stands out in the passage. “’CSA is here to stay,’ remarks a well-known and highly-decorated researcher of popular culture, ‘and all we can do is get ready. People can hardly form sentences that make any sense anymore; they’re making nouns into verbs, and acronyming words out of the first letters of a lot of other words, and using words wrong all the time to mean things they don’t. So I guess little pictures are about the only way we’re going to be able to tell stuff in the future, since most anybody can understand them.’” That passage is just dripping with mockery. All of the ‘sins’ people are making in forming sentences happen in the instructions, all in that section, a few even within the same sentence that condemns them. The attribution of the quote to a vague, well-known researcher also hints at its insincerity. There is strong suggestion here that the narrator might be a little unreliable.
The essay “Comics Architecture, Multidimensionality, and Time: Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” by Thomas Bredehoft goes into detail about the other instructions and activities found throughout the book. But even with his analysis of other parts of the book, he ties them in to the general instructions. He says, ”and since (as will be seen below) the typeset notes and instructions on page 206 are explicitly presented as instructions and commentary directed towards the reader of Jimmy Corrigan, they are probably to be interpreted as being presented in the voice of the narrator, as are the "General Instructions" appearing on the front endpapers of the hardback edition.”(Bredelhoft)
One place in the book where you can see the unreliability of the ‘narration’ would be in Jimmy’s first major dream sequence. It slips from the waking world to the dreaming so seamlessly that the reader is not entirely sure when the transition takes place. Well, it’s clear that it is not reality once he turns into a robot, but before that there is no dialog or narration to tell what is happening. In the book, dreams and daydreams are shown without any differentiation to reality, and because many of them play out as fairly plausible actions, the reader may be left confused as to what is dream and what actually happens. This dream, however, starts as one of the more obviously fantastic ones that are easy to differentiate.
There is a page entirely without words at all, telling the story entirely through pictures. The reader sees the robot looking around and off a ledge, a large picture in the middle reveals that the robot is on an airship, and the robot then appears to extend its eyepiece where it snakes down from the airship and up to a window. This entire section is given without a single letter on the page. That use of little pictures to tell ‘stuff’ happens throughout the entire comic. There are lots of pages where not a word is spoken, written, or otherwise even drawn in the background, yet the comic gets by without the complicated vocabulary seen in the instruction. The passage in the general instructions speaks of using images over words, and here we see a great example of how that can work really well. Even though the instructions are hypocritical, they do have some truths, but it is up to the reader to figure out what is real and what isn’t.
After that there is a dream scene where the robot is nothing more than a head. This robot is seen waking up and receiving a crutch as a present. This is notable because after the dreams, Jimmy is shown to have an injured leg, but at no point is it really shown how he injures it. As seen in the ‘transitions’ to and from dreams, there is nothing really showing the difference between the two. As this is one of the crazier, more obviously dreamlike scenes, it is even more notable that Ware chooses here to insert something real. So that might leave the reader questioning whether any part of the ‘dream’ is real or even how much of the ‘waking world’ is real. How much do dreams and reality blend?
At one point in his essay Bredelhoft talks about the page where the reader can supposedly cut out and assemble a model of the old Corrigan Family home. But he points out, “Because the cut-outs appear on both sides of a single leaf of the book, it is actually impossible to cut them out and build them, at least without employing some method of reproduction or cutting up two copies of the book.”(Bredelhoft) The words of those instructions claim, “Given the generally intuitive level of the task, no detailed directions are provided,” but then one finds that the task itself is actually impossible. There is this promise that the reader can create an actual, physical, real-life model, but with only one copy of the book that is nothing more than hypocrisy and imagination. The hypocrisy of the instructions extends to other areas of the comic, such as how the Columbian Exposition promised a bright future full of innovation, but the world turned out very different than was envisioned, such as the fact that Jimmy Corrigan really isn’t the smartest kid on earth, or such as whenever characters criticize others’ parenting techniques, love lives, or general social skills yet are lacking in those areas themselves.
The comic is very similar to the general instructions, where parts of them are joking and parts of them are serious, parts are real and parts are not. There is nothing to tell the reader which parts are which and the two parts even blend together at points. The narration is somewhat unreliable, though in the instructions it’s because it is so verbose while in the comic it’s because it is so absent. Finally, both the general instructions and certain scenes of the actual comic exhibit areas of hypocrisy. Even if the “General Instructions” don’t directly tell one how to understand the comic, they mirror the comic in such a way that the understanding is shown, not written.
And why does Ware do this with the general instructions? The instructions were added when the comic was put together in a single book so that they could add to the book and aide the reader. Instructions could act as training wheels, displaying characteristics of the comic in far blunter ways so that the reader is prepared for them later on and perhaps feels less confused by more unorthodox storytelling techniques. Given that the story was originally serialized in a newspaper and already read by many, the instructions could also have been added to point out some of the more subtle, yet very important, reoccurring themes that people may have missed without this bluntness. Questioning reality, unreliability, and hypocrisy all show up again and again throughout Jimmy Corrigan, and the General Instructions place them right in front so the reader is conditioned to notice them.
Bredelhoft, Thomas A. “Comics Architecture, Multidimensionality, and Time: Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” Purdue Research Foundation, MFS Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (2006): 869-890. Project Muse. Web. 3 November. 2014
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. New York City: Pantheon Books, 2000. Print.