Monday, December 8, 2014

Final Project: Jimmy Corrigan's Tough Instructions For a Reason

While reading the first few pages of Ware’s, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, you may understand why he needed to include reading instructions for his graphic novel, although the deeper reasons are not as obvious until you actually start reading about Jimmy Corrigan. From the beginning, 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, which is an important tool to aid in the deeper emotional response by the reader throughout the novel. Ware was quoted in Irish times as saying, “Comics are not a genre, they’re a language in which you can express anything”. As the graphic novel of Jimmy Corrigan goes, there are many emotions in which Ware expresses throughout the entirety of the novel and he used the instructions to prepare the reader for the depth of emotions the graphic novel would elicit.

Ware’s instructions are condescending and they 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 every day life.  Also, Ware is trying to get the point across, that if you have never read a comic before, this graphic novel should not be your first attempt, but if you make it through the instructions you might be able to understand his deliberately involved and complex style. Most importantly these instructions are meant to involve the reader to an extent that they feel inadequate when reading them, which is the same way that Jimmy Corrigan feels inadequate and lost throughout his life in the novel.  

Throughout the novel there are many instances that will relate back to how the reader is meant to feel during the instructions and how Jimmy Corrigan is feeling at that time. He is often insulted and lost within many normal social situations that “ The Smartest Kid on Earth”, should have no problem interpreting.  There are many correlations to the instructions included in the beginning of the book, and how Ware expected the reader to relate to Jimmy Corrigan on a different level than many other authors have ever tried to accomplish with their characters. By insulting and belittling the readers intelligence early in the instructions, Ware allows the reader to interpret his graphic novel with a new level of understanding, because he makes you to think back to how you felt during the instructions when there were times of total frustration, confusion, and anger.

In the very first impression of the instructions, the reader is meant to feel awkward, and a little overwhelmed. First, the way Ware lays out the instructions and the size of font chosen is very awkward for the reader to try to read.  This was done to possibly discourage some people from reading any further or to just make the reader feel uncomfortable while reading. Furthermore, the discomfort felt by the reader relates to Jimmy wanting to give up in many social situations and how he feels uncomfortable at almost every instance of human interaction in the graphic novel. His facial expressions throughout the novel never show him to be anything but sad, confused, embarrassed, or anxious, which are emotions the reader should feel throughout the instructions. A part in the novel that stands out as an instance when Jimmy completely gives up on an awkward social situation, is when he finds out his dad passed away and his half sister Amy starts yelling at him to leave.  He leaves the room feeling completely at a loss and grabs a cab to the airport as fast as he can, which is how Ware wants the reader to feel as they start to get bogged down by the tedious and insulting instructions.

Further analysis of the relationship between Jimmy and Amy, shows a strong connection between the instructions in the book, and the evolution of their relationship.  In the beginning Amy is very polite and accommodating towards Jimmy, and she is even able to put Jimmy at ease while interacting with her, which is the first point in the novel where Jimmy reaches this comfort level with another human being. From the car ride to Jimmy’s grandfather’s house, to the point when he breaks down and cries in front of her, there is a notable change in the emotions Jimmy had shown in the novel. Similarly, the instructions start out as seemingly being written for the benefit of the reader, but quickly shift to a different tone, which prompts a separate emotion felt by the reader. In the same manner, Jimmy went from feeling comfortable and welcomed by Amy to rushing to the airport without saying a word to her after she pushed and yelled at him in the hospital. Both the reader and Jimmy went from a feeling of understanding and comfort, to a sense of displeasure and desire to avoid any more confrontations or belittlement by Ware or Amy.

To continue with how the emotions felt by the reader at their very first glace of the book and how they relate to the emotions felt by Jimmy during the book, a closer look at the formatting shows what Ware was trying to do to the reader in the first two pages. 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). These formatting decisions make the reader feel very awkward, and confused while trying to read the instructions.

 Likewise, the tone set for the reader is exactly how Jimmy Corrigan feels throughout the book, as you can see from the first scenes in the novel with the adult Jimmy Corrigan being harassed on his way to the grocery store for bringing a coat and hat when it is  “ninety five degrees”.  His reasoning for the hat and coat is so that he can stay warm while shopping. Jimmy is planning ahead as “The Smartest Kid on Earth” would possibly do, but this isolates him socially, and it confuses him that other people would not be doing this.  On the same page in the novel, there are three separate places that state, “Jimmy Corrigan The Smartest Kid on Earth”, but only the one small action already mentioned on that page makes you think he is somewhat smart. If anything Jimmy Corrigan is one of the most socially isolated and depressed people on earth. As Amy Hungerford wrote in her article, Fiction in Review, “existential loneliness that readers find in Jimmy Corrigan”, which can be used to solidify the true feelings that Jimmy Corrigan is fundamentally supposed to portray as the main character.  This all relates back to how Ware isolates the reader and makes them feel awkward by simply formatting the instructions in a confusing way.

As previously mentioned, the instructions help to lay the groundwork for evoking certain emotions from the reader at different times in the novel to allow them to relate more closely to how Jimmy Corrigan is feeling at that moment. In particular, section four in the general instructions, titled, “Technical Explanation of the Language, Developing Skills”, is useful in understanding the basics of the comic strip and how Ware plans on using them in his novel.  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, which is how Jimmy is guided through his life by what other people want him to do. An example of this is when Jimmy receives the plane ticket from his father.  After a phone call from his father, Jimmy does not feel like he has any other choice but to go on the trip. Thus, relating back to the choices Ware requires the reader to make during his exam. Overall, Ware 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 reading intelligence the reader may or may not have and forcing them to make the decisions he requires.

A further explanation of this section of the instructions is to say that Ware wanted the reader to feel like they were helpless and had no choice but to go along with what he wanted them to answer; otherwise they should just stop reading.  This relates to how Jimmy Corrigan is bossed around in his everyday life and never really stands up for himself, although he secretly dreams of one day having the courage to do so.  One part of the novel that relates how Jimmy Corrigan is treated and how Ware treats the reader in the instructions, is when Jimmy gives his four dollars and fifty cents to a coworker in the break room when he really does not want to.  He does not stand up for himself, which is exactly how the reader is supposed to deal with the test.  Ware makes himself out to be the aggressive worker in the break room, while the reader is required to sit there and take whatever is given to them without putting up a fight, because if they try to answer differently than Ware wants them to, they have no options to continue the test.  

Furthermore, 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. This also opens the reader up to the idea that this is unlike any graphic novel they have read before and invokes certain emotions towards Ware, which Ware will draw upon later in the novel.  Ware was interested in writing a difficult to understand graphic novel for only the truly interested and well versed comic enthusiast, because they might be the only people who can fully understand the complex emotions and depth of feelings in his novel.  The section also references figure 1 on the next page, which is undoubtedly a masterpiece of Ware’s confusing and insulting style. This figure is meant to confuse the reader, and show them how Jimmy Corrigan feels about the world around him. It is not by coincidence that part of the figure references the evolution of the world.  The world seems to have evolved past the understanding of Jimmy Corrigan and he is just drifting through his life without ever having a true purpose. Ware shows the evolution of the world in the instructions and starts the novel with a two page sequence zooming in from space to the childhood home of Jimmy Corrigan, because he wants to epitomize the lost and isolated feelings Jimmy feels in his life. 

Furthermore, the two illustrations in the test section are a small fraction of the difficult illustrations that are 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.

As well as making sure the reader can understand basic comics, Ware is once again insulting the intelligence and simple comprehension skills of the reader, because that is what Jimmy seems to lack the most in the novel.  He seems to have absolutely no understanding of how to interact like a normal person, and fails when he tries to step out of his comfort zone.  At one point he calls Peggy from work to ask her to save his mail for him while he is out of town.  This is socially inappropriate for a few reasons, but mostly because he is calling her at home, after work about something she would already have to do as part of her job.  Needless to say, the interaction does not go well for Jimmy, even though he may have thought it went well because he probably never talked to her outside of work before. Equally as inappropriate as the Peggy interaction, is the interaction he has with the nurse after he was hit by the mail truck.  The nurse is nice to him as part of her job, and he immediately starts to fantasize about her to the point of them being married and growing old together.  The lack of social understanding in the book is related to the lack of comic understanding Ware assumes the reader has throughout the instructions.

            Next, 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 with his interactions to other people.  This is another subtitle way in which Ware is trying to bring the reader to the level of Jimmy Corrigan and make them feel the inadequacies Jimmy 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 the 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.  As previously mentioned, readers need to feel a certain way when they read the instructions to allow them to feel the true depth of emotions Jimmy goes through during the events that take place in the novel.

            Next in section four, there 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 is going for. He knows it sounds absurd and does not think anyone will think it is the correct answer, but it is another small way in which he insults the reader and shows how little he may think of him or her, 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.

Also, Ware is ensuring the reader has basic comic reading skills, because he is putting the readers skills on the same level as Jimmy Corrigan’s lack of understanding of basic social cues. This is once again insulting to the reader but serves a deeper purpose. What most people take for granted when it comes to social interactions, Jimmy Corrigan finds extremely confusing and intolerable because he has no idea what to do in normal interactions with other people. A very good example of this is when he is flying to meet his father for the first time, and he has a conversation with a woman next to him on the plane.  She is the complete opposite of Jimmy, and does most of the talking, which abruptly ends when she calls him out for looking at her breasts. Jimmy barely says anything to her because she is not only a stranger talking to him, but she also seems to be an attractive woman, which makes Jimmy extremely uncomfortable. This relates to Ware taking the reader from basic comics to his comics in one step, which is why there needs to be instructions. Ware does not want the reader to be completely lost and overwhelmed like Jimmy was during his brief interaction on the plane. 

            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 by 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, which is very important because Ware likes to jump around in time and from story to story without any notice.  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 enough to methodically read his very unusual and unconventional graphic novel that lies ahead.

Moreover, a sense of doubt felt from the reader is also an emotion Ware would like to make the reader feel in this section before they encounter the doubts and fears of Jimmy Corrigan. Ware does this because it allows him to reference points in the instructions when the reader doubted their own skills. One such point is early on in the novel when Jimmy has his first dream of being a robot.  This point is very difficult to understand when you first read the novel, but the reader is meant to doubt their own understanding of what is going on for a few pages.  They can reference back to their doubts felt in the interpreting of the instructions and it should make the reader slow down so they can try to understand the complexity of the events transpiring over the dream sequence. The novel goes from a fairly straightforward comic to a complex series of illustrations that require much deeper analysis from the reader to achieve a full understanding of the vivid dreams that come from the dull Jimmy Corrigan.

            Next, the sequence of events between the two boxes in the instructions 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 that the readers know 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 he thinks of the reader. Again, it is important to note that Ware is comparing the abilities of the reader to interpret comics to the inability of Jimmy Corrigan to comfortably interact with other people. A reader must remember how little Ware thought of them during the instructions and compare that to the level of confidence Ware gives Jimmy Corrigan during social interactions.

Moreover, during questions three and four, Ware 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 and he wanted the reader to feel a sense of sympathy for the mouse.  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 mainly violence is 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.  Ware included this small exposure in his instructions to further insult the reader by making sure they did not feel sympathy for fictional characters.

            Instances of violence throughout the novel are almost always showing Jimmy Corrigan as the aggressor, except for when it comes to Jimmy’s grandfather and his great grandfather. When Jimmy is dreaming he is always the one taking charge and harming someone else, but in his real life he would never harm anyone.  This part of the instructions shows a situation of violence that would never be possible, which is what is shown in the novel.  At one point, in a dream of Jimmy’s, he is shown hitting his father with a mug and then slicing his back open with it.  This is a very graphic scene of violence for Jimmy Corrigan, but the reader was clued into this not being real by the illustrations include in the instructions. As discussed already, the transitions between real life and Jimmy’s dream are not always distinctly defined, so Ware used the instructions to prepare the reader for these unrealistic acts of violence. 

            Then in the last segment of section four, Ware 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 is treating the reader how Jimmy Corrigan is treated in parts of the novel.

            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. Ware also included 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. In addition, Ware wanted to ensure certain emotions were felt at distinct points in the novel, some of which have been discussed already. 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 on 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.  The overwhelmed feeling was used to put the reader in a mindset the Jimmy feels on a daily basis when dealing with the world around him.

In conclusion, many emotions were invoked by Ware for the reader to remember the instructions and relate them to parts of his graphic novel. 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” though about how they approached their work.


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

"Chris Ware's Comic-Book World." Irish Times: 12. 2012. Web 2 December 2014.

Hungerford, Amy. Fiction in Review: Chris Ware. The Yale Review, 101: 148–159. doi: 10.1111/yrev.12095

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.

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