Within the image of the mouse striking a cat’s head with a hammer are a million small details of perception of the situation: the passage of time, the sound of the hammer strike, the visuals of both the past and future at once. A combination of understanding about what it happening and when it is happening is necessary to understand this image in the opening instruction page and the book as a whole. A few pages within Jimmy Corrigan show imagery strikingly similar to that of the instruction manual, one examining a ripped photo of Jimmy and his parents, looking at their aging over time in a series of small panels, then looking closely at Jimmy’s grandfather, going deeper into the images surrounding him. A second does the same to Amy’s family history, giving us her full backstory and exposing her connection to Jimmy’s grandfather. With this comic technique, the instructions to show us the meaning that images can create and the millions of ways these images can be looked at; the novel brings us meaning and shows the connectedness of Jimmy and his past while showing us the analytical characteristic that defines his present. At the same time, Ware uses this technique to show us the flaw’s in Jimmy’s analytical thinking and the insignificance that connections can have even when they seem so emphasized throughout the novel.
The instructions make it clear that to be considered prepared to read this book it is essential to take what we perceive as happening at the present time. Watching Jimmy struggle with meeting his father, grandfather, and half-sister for the first time shows us Jimmy’s present, even if much of it exists in fantasy. At the same time, the images within the instruction pages bring to our attention the evolution and aging processes at work to bring us this very moment in time – mouse hits cat with hammer. As Jimmy pictures the photo in a drawer at his home that shows his mom, dad, and him, we are also given a very similar row of panels: a quick overview of the lives and time that brought us to now. The comic style introduced in the beginning helps us understand that the development of Jimmy and his parents was necessary to create the world that, in reading this book, becomes our present time. The ability to create the past and present within one page, giving us such a range of time in Jimmy’s world to create this single ripped image from a photo frame, is a tool used by Ware to emphasize the present in light of the past, showing meaning within context.
We are given a look at all the people that played a role in Jimmy’s existence, but what really defines that existence? Jimmy rarely interacts with the world, and even when given the opportunity to be a part of his family’s life, he remains as closed off and silent as he was before. A subject is only as important as its influence on the world it inhabits, and while Ware puts such influence on the past, it’s really not a past that led to anything significant. In his book specifically looking at Chris Ware’s comics, David Ball describes this sequence of photos and display of ancestry as “a long historical sequence of tragic and lonely characters appearing and disappearing on a much larger stage” (2010). Ware is making a statement here about the influence of the past on the present human condition: the past can take us to where we are, but it can’t bring us any farther. Jimmy exists in the present, and his choice to interact with the world or not will change his life, not the fact that the familial connections exist in the first place.
With the introduction of Amy Corrigan, we see more than ever the missed opportunity Jimmy had for a meaningful connection with another person and a chance to influence and relate to someone. Using the instructions once more as a method of interpretation, the diagrams and pictures show Amy’s family history, a topic, as Ball points out, that is “through the information barrier --- unbreachable for the characters” (2010). Once again, we are given a chance to understand where a character came from, and this time are shown the hidden connection Amy had to her family, as she is related by blood to Jimmy through the great-grandfather that abandoned his son at the World’s Fair in the 1890s. Ware not only wants to simply point out the connectedness of the past with the present, and bring in new insight about our characters, but we see even more clearly the loneliness of characters who feel separated from their families (Jimmy by time and space, Amy as she loses her father). By staying together and attempting to understand their history, Amy and Jimmy could have created a more human connection with each other in the present: “Jimmy’s disappearance is a tragic failure of family reconciliation” (Ball, 2010) for both characters. The meaningful truth of the past that Ware offers to his readers can be interpreted with the instructions, but the instructions emphasized the here and now of present time even more. Reading with this in mind, we should interpret the diagrams of family history and connections as a missed opportunity for the present, only bringing about change if the characters in the present are able to act on their histories and come together.
To understand Jimmy Corrigan within this world being created, Ware’s general instructions can be used again. The analysis of the cat being hit by a hammer-wielding mouse is not the only time we see very detailed analysis. Jimmy’s character is derived from the world of over-analyzing, as he tends to analyze to the point where he imagines and dreams up scenarios for most of his life, creating a constant mix of fantasy and reality for the reader. Looking at his life from every angle, Jimmy creates in his head a diagram of possibilities, like that which takes the mouse-hammer-cat image for more than face-value, creating an entire world of existence for the image. In this way, Jimmy’s own mind is very connected to the comic style of Chris Ward. The in depth drawing style we see in the General Instructions section and so many other parts of the book are a way to view Jimmy’s internal struggle with human interaction and his own identity. By associating detailed analyses and overthinking with Jimmy’s personality, Ward almost seems to present this style ironically. In most cases, this world Jimmy creates in his head is presented as equal to the world of reality, with the same style and no separation. Not only is Jimmy left living in an unrealistic world, but the reader is unsure of what is real. Clearly, living in this way – overanalyzing, imagining– is predominately how Jimmy’s life is spent, rather than interacting with the world and other people.
We can also look at the time manipulation as a way that Jimmy Corrigan establishes his own existence. A. A. Mendilow reviewed the concept of time in literature, saying some characters seek out the past “to replace the loss of personal identity by a generic, human identity in the wider perspectives provided by the cyclical systems of history” (1955). Jimmy is lost as he struggles with interaction and the people around him. His strongest relationship with his mother often seems forced, with her insistence of daily calls and his uncomfortable conversations. Jimmy is alone, and turns to the past when he is contacted by his father. The lack of a male role model in his childhood left him only with fantasies of masculinity through superheroes. Ware’s creation of Jimmy’s fantasy world and overly analytical thinking provides us with a way to understand how Jimmy wants to be a part of his newly discovered family’s life, but struggles at the same time, even imagining killing his father at one point. Flashbacks to the 1890s section of the book show the cyclical nature of time that Mendilow described, as Jimmy’s grandfather struggled to connect with his own father and fantasized about having the loving mother and father that other children had. If Jimmy tried to establish a sense of self by imagining the past and fantasizing about the present, it is still important to note that he was left at the end of the novel almost exactly where he began. Ware’s General Instructions told us we should read the book by examining all aspects of each scene and all the components that make up a person or place, but in the end it is the present that would have allowed Jimmy to really change, and it is in the present that our focus should lie. Jimmy’s present by the end of the book leaves us still wondering about his ability to connect with others, but with a sense that he missed an opportunity to make up for lost time by connecting with his family.
After the analytical breakdown of Jimmy’s family history for the reader, another dimension is added: the lives of those who came before Jimmy become the new present of the story. The past takes on the same life that the present does, with Jimmy’s grandfather as the focus. From the general instructions, we can better understand the connection between these realities and the individual presence that each of them can exist within. Clearly this creates an important connection between Jimmy and his grandfather, between the past and the present. A comic is read so that each moment can be interpreted as the here and now – according to the way the instructions want us to read comics. Thus we are transported almost to the past in these pages, foreshadowing the story’s transference to the past later on when Jimmy’s grandfather is given his own present as a child. Even if Jimmy and his grandfather are literally within different times of history, they share a present within this writing, and the connection between them as they both struggle to connect with their fathers and relate to the world around them is made stronger. Without action in the present however – without an attempt by Jimmy to form the necessary bond with his family, the connections that exist will fade into the association that only exists between strangers. On these two pages, where we begin and end with almost the same view out of a window, Ware uses his analysis through comics to establish past and present, yet blur the lines between them at the same time.
The irony of Ware’s writing style is clear, however. We are given a window into the past, and an emphasis is thus put on Jimmy’s origins and family history. Highlighting the past of any character in a novel often gives us a sense of building up, a sense that the character plays a significant part in the future or that this past will manifest itself somehow. In Jimmy Corrigan the past is shown to us only to show the insignificance of Jimmy. His character wanders through the world almost without consequence, and the past that built him up really never built up to anything. The progress made a century before him did not necessarily lead to real, visible, or meaningful change. So much emphasis in the 1890s was put on looking towards the future and electricity and the wonders of tomorrow, but jumping forward to the present all we see is the empty world of consumerism and McDonald’s, the electricity that had so much promise contained to the telephone wires that have become a daily and almost meaningless part of modernity. This contrast is especially clear as Jimmy’s grandfather stands at the top of a building at the world’s fair, looking out toward the coming page – a silhouette of modern life in the shape of McDonald’s arches and telephone wires, black against the sky, in stark contrast with the visions of the future presented at the World’s fair just one page before.
Ware does this not only to show the tragic existence of Jimmy Corrigan as an adult, but the overall meaning of looking at the past and present at once: the past leads invariably to the present, but how it gets there cannot create significance where it does not want to exist. Jimmy has created his lonely existence for himself by choice, dwelling on the past and his fantasies while he misses the important connections that could have given him a more fulfilled life. His father, grandfather, and Amy were all within reach, and all willing to share with him the bond of familial connection, but Jimmy chose to run, and just as the old mouse in the General Instructions stands listening to a record and fantasizing about how he once hit a cat with a hammer, Jimmy will be stuck dreaming about the past and what could have been.
A. A. Mendilow. Rev. of Time in Literature, by Hans Meyerhoff. The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 8, No. 31, Aug., 1957: 342-343. Print.
Ball, David M., and Kuhlman, Martha B., eds. Comics of Chris Ware. Jackson, MS, USA: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. Print.