Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Jimmy Corrigan, Tough Instuctions for a Reason

           While reading the first few pages of Ware’s, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, you quickly understand why he needed to include reading instructions for his graphic novel, although he does not seem to be happy that he is doing so.  His instructions are condescending and are meant to insult the reader to a level that may be in line with how the main character in the novel feels in his adventures in the novel.  Ware is basically trying to get the point across, that if you have never read a comic before, this graphic novel should not be your first attempt and if you make it through the instructions you might be able to withstand the difficult and confusing style of his graphic novel.

The way he lays out the instructions and the size of font chosen is also very awkward for the reader to try to read, and this was done to possibly discourage some people from reading any further or to just make the reader feel uncomfortable while reading. As Kuhlman and Ball put it in their book, Comics of Chris Ware, “turning to the endpapers reveals “General Instructions,” followed by an “Introduction” and five sections that culminate in an exam, all rendered in painfully tiny type that requires preternatural vision or bringing the book so close to your face that it almost touches your nose” (Kuhlman & Ball, ix). Ware sets the tone for his book to be one of social isolation, confusion and melancholy, simply by the way in which he writes his instructions and how he treats the reader from the beginning. 

The general instructions, in particular section four entitled, “Technical Explanation of the Language, Developing Skills”, is useful in understanding the basics of the comic strip and how he plans on using them in his book, but they are not necessarily included to be an easily read guide for an increasingly difficult graphic novel.  This section is broken down into five questions that guide the reader into only one conclusion per question, which goes from being very basic comic illustration interpretations to questions manipulating the way you are supposed to feel. If the wrong answer is chosen the reader does not go any further in the questions and then is forced to agree with what Ware wants, before the next question is answered. He is deliberately trying to make sure the reader knows how to interpret the two pictures he placed side by side in the beginning of the section, but at the same time he is insulting the level of comic intelligence the reader may or may not have. 

Ware establishes his comic superiority over the reader early in the instructions and insults their comic reading intelligence at the same time during section four, because this breaks the reader down to a level he requires them to be on to understand the story of Jimmy Corrigan, and opens them up to the idea that this is unlike any graphic novel they have read before.  Ware was interested in writing a difficult to understand graphic novel for only the truly interested and well versed comic enthusiast.  The section also references figure 1 on the next page, which is undoubtedly a masterpiece of Ware’s confusing and insulting style.  The two illustrations in the section are a small fraction of what is to come in the first figure and throughout the rest of the graphic novel. They were used to show if you could not interpret the two simple illustrations to the level Ware demands, you would not be able to fully comprehend what is going on in the rest of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.

            In the beginning, section four states that, “most of the talents required for the understanding of this volume are essentially intuitive, though some basic premises must be re-established before attempting a thorough apprehension of the complete work.” This is another way in which Ware belittles the reader and makes sure that even if they think they know comics or graphic novels this one is different than any they have encountered before. Also, the use of the word, “talent” implies the reader must have, “a special ability that allows someone to do something well” (Merriam-Webster, “Talent”). He uses this to make the reader feel inadequate if they do not immediately understand his simple instructions, which is similar to the way Jimmy Corrigan feels throughout the book.  This is a subtitle way in which Ware is trying to bring the reader to the level of Jimmy Corrigan and the inadequacies he feels throughout the graphic novel.  Also, Ware is trying to weed out some readers by insulting them and making them feel like this book is too hard to possibly be read by an average comic reader.  Kuhlman and Ball make a good point when they wrote, “As the cover warns us, what we have here is definitely “a bold experiment in reader tolerance,” and many will not have the time, interest, or patience for it” (Kuhlman & Ball, ix).  Ware would rather only have the truly patient readers traverse through his confusing novel, by isolating them early in the instructions, than have readers who will only have a general idea about what is going on throughout the graphic novel.

            Next in section four are the two illustrations previously mentioned, which are two small boxes that contain a mouse standing and a cats head in the floor, with a sequence of events taking place between them.  The very first question is about what the reader believes the two illustrations could be portraying. Ware asks, “Do you see a) two boxes printed in the midst of text filled with a confusing arrangement of outlined shapes that are utterly incomprehensible, or b) two boxes printed in the midst of text on a page with tiny pictures of mice and a cat head inside them?” Of course, the reader is not going to choose option (a), because it sounds completely ridiculous, but this is what Ware was going for. He knows it sounds absurd and does not think anyone will think it is the correct answer, but it is a small way he insults the reader and shows how little he may think of them or how he wants to make sure they are even capable of the most basic comic strip reading. The two illustration boxes are clearly moment-to-moment as we learned about in Mcloud, but Ware is still straining the reader’s patience by asking simple questions about the basic illustrations.

            In the next question, Ware asks, “If b), do you see a) two mice and two cat heads in two boxes next to each other, one raising a hammer above his head, the other striking a cat head with a very similar hammer, or b) one mouse and one cat head, portrayed at two different points in time, the result of comparison being the impression of the same mouse striking the same cat head with the same hammer?” This question is not as insulting as the previous one, but still is making the reader feel a little insulted making sure they understand how time evolves through comics.  The reader can take this as an insult or as a helpful guidance to the way they should see time happening in comic strips.  Again the way these questions are interpreted can be one extreme to the other and Ware is testing the patience of the reader in the beginning to ensure they will have to patience to methodically read his very unusual and unconventional graphic novel that lies ahead.

            The sequence of events is the topic of questions three and question four.  Ware is making sure that the reader is not completely lost on how comic strips are used to show movement of things and how it relates to the time of events. He uses one question to ensure the readers know that you read from left to right, because this will be of importance during the reading of his graphic novel. He goes from left to right unless otherwise specified by the use of red arrows to direct the reader through the illustrations. This is one of the most basic reading requirements in the English language, and Ware uses it as one of his test questions to show just how little of the reader he thinks.

 During questions three and four, he writes less and makes sure the reader knows the cat’s head is being hit with the hammer by the mouse, and not the mouse lifting the hammer off the cat’s head.  This was emphasized because Ware includes violence in his novel at times, and does not shy away from confrontations between characters is his novel. Ware makes you believe the mouse was hitting the cat’s head because in most cases the cat is the one hurting the mice but he wanted the smaller adversary to have the upper hand.  Revealed later in the book, the elder Jimmy Corrigan could be seen as the mouse and his father seen as the cat, with Jimmy wanting to be the one in charge of the hitting and not his father.

            Lastly, Ware asks, “If b) did you, a) feel sorry for the cat head, or b) not?” The only correct answer for Ward is answer (b), and that shows that he does not want the reader to always feel bad for the one being attacked in the comic book because they may not know the full story behind the events leading up to the conflict. He intends the readers to think above and beyond the illustrations he provides and question the motives behind them. This is the first exposure to violence that will be shown throughout the book, but violence is mainly only in the daydreams of the characters.  The violence displayed can be very vivid at times, but in reality both Jimmy Corrigan’s are non-threatening characters that do not pose a threat to anyone around them.  Ware included this small exposure in his instructions to further insult the reader by making sure they did not feel sympathy for fictional characters.

            Then in the last segment of section four, he gives the readers who answered (b) to all of his questions the okay to read the comic book, while anyone who did not answer (b) to all the questions has to take an exam in the next section.  He tells the exam taker’s to not dally, be honest, and to fill in the ovals completely with firm pressure. This section takes on a bossy and annoyed tone, because he does not want to deal with any person who was not able to pass the previous test. Once again, Ware is trying to discourage impatient readers to stop reading by demanding them to complete an exam filled with completely ridiculous questions.

            Ware included his instructions and in particular this section to make sure his graphic novel was interpreted correctly, and only by people who are patient enough to think on the level required.  I believe Ware was required to include the instructions to demand a certain amount of respect from the reader, and ensure they were prepared to think critically about what he spent so much time constructing.  This graphic novel is meant to be on a different level than any other graphic novel at the time it was written, and Ware knew he needed to set the tone early to in the end help his reader enjoy the book.  Although, at times Ware is rude and condescending, it was all required for the benefit of the reader, and helped to enrich the readers understanding of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.

            By the end of reading this section, the reader is slightly prepared for what is to come in the next page, and throughout the rest of the graphic novel. Ware crammed an immense amount of information into two small pages at the beginning of the book, so he could overwhelm the reader to the point of quitting or to the point of full understanding.  This was a strategy that made his book what it is and allowed it to set a new standard for graphic novels. As Gregory Gallant was quoted saying, “Chris (Ware) really changed the playing field. After him, a lot of (cartoonists) really started to scramble and go holy (expletive), ‘I think I have to try harder’” (Random House, “Building Stories”). Even though this quote was about another book, it references how Chris Ware changed the way “cartoonist” or “illustrators” thought about how they approached their work.

                                                                 Works Cited

Ball, David. Kuhlman, Martha. Comics of Chris Ware. University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Web.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comic The Invisible Art. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 1994. Print.

“Building Stories.” Random House. Penguin Random House, n.d. Web. 8 November 2014.

“Talent." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.  <>.

Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. New York City: Pantheon Books, 2000. Print.

1 comment:

  1. This is actually the most interesting part of the intro: “His instructions are condescending and are meant to insult the reader to a level that may be in line with how the main character in the novel feels in his adventures in the novel.” Focusing on the insult to the reader might have led you more quickly to a compelling argument.

    “Ware sets the tone for his book to be one of social isolation, confusion and melancholy, simply by the way in which he writes his instructions and how he treats the reader from the beginning.” -- Good. Of course, we also need to ask why this matters.

    I think you lose your way a little in paragraphs three and four - there’s not much forward motion here. They could have been cut, at least mostly.

    That trend continues at least somewhat through the rest of the essay. Let me explain what is more effective and what is less effective here. On the plus side, you do thoroughly detail the various ways in which Ware insults his reader in the introduction. That’s useful, and some of the details are interesting, but by being so detailed & repetitive, you miss a major opportunity. That’s the problem.

    So Ware starts out by insulting the reader in exhausting detail. Why? You argue that this helps us see things through Jimmy’s eyes, by making us feel like he feels all the time. Life is a cramped, insulting text ending in an idiotic exam. It’s a good idea. So show us why it matters! For instance, when he struggles to interact with Amy, how does it help us to remember how we felt reading the general introduction?

    In other words, you would have accomplished more by making your point about the insult at a reasonable level of detail (half what you have here?) then made *use* of that through a reading of 1-3 scenes of the book that can be better understood with that initial insult in mind.