Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is a very complex comic book. Not only does it not read like a normal comic book due to its complex panel layouts, but it is almost meaningless when read on the surface. However, when read at a deeper level, there are multiple meanings or purposes that are possible to explore. One of these purposes is to cause the reader to reevaluate their personal values, as well as the values of society as whole. The main themes for these values include technology and commercialism, but also can be viewed through military and social lenses. A common central point for these questionable values is the World’s Columbian Exposition. The World’s Columbian Exposition set out to show the progress of United States as a country. Ware questions whether the United States is still headed in the direction that the World’s Columbian Exposition was supposed to guide us towards, or if there was a negative detour along the way.
One of Ware’s main interests in Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is the concepts of technology and commercialism. This pairing is due to the tendency for technological advancements to be driven by commercialism. Without the pressure of commercialism on technology, the advancements would be extremely slow. Although today we tend to refer to technology as electronic devices or various forms of software, technology is defined as anything that has an effect on our lives, generally in a positive way. However, most technology is actually created to increase production, lower costs, and/or increase profit margins. Not all technology fits into this generalization, but it is a major trend.
Ware emphasizes this through the depictions of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. There are numerous pages of panels relating to the World’s Columbian Exposition in the book. Several of these pages are related to building designs. In this time period, there was a cultural demand for attractive buildings. Unfortunately, with the rise of industrialism, came the rise of commercialism. Although commercialism is nothing new, the greed and demand for products to be highly profitable arose. Several of the buildings that Ware depicts would never be built today due to costs. Everything today is costs versus benefits with the benefit as the primary, if not the only, factor for most executives. For example, one of the buildings is essential a huge hangar-like building with the walls and ceilings being steel and glass. Although this building may be fond to the eyes, it is highly expensive and would never be seen to be worth the costs in today’s society. Throughout the whole section on the World’s Columbian Exposition, Ware depicts buildings that have visual appeals like this one. This is likely due to Ware forcing the reader to think about what not only their values are, but what is valued by others and the country or world as a whole.
The concept of thinking about or re-evaluating values is a reoccurring theme throughout the book. Although it is not solely tied to the issues relating to military, technology, and commercialism, it can be applied to most, if not all, of these issues. For example, with the issue of Jimmy’s grandfather during the Civil War, the reader is guided towards thinking about and possibly re-evaluating what they think is versus what is valued for someone in the military. Although this is not bound to war times, the values could be different due to circumstances.
Although the theme is throughout the entire book, the heart of the theme has to deal with the focus of technological progress of the World’s Columbian Exposition and the failure to adhere to this forecast. Despite the theme of the World’s Columbian Exposition, “Some of the more popular exhibits were curiosities rather than serious displays of technology and progress. They included an eleven-ton cheese and a 1,500 pound chocolate Venus de Milo in the Hall of Agriculture and a seventy-foot-high tower of light bulbs in the Electricity Building. (“The World’s Columbian Exposition”)”. Ware decides not to include this in his book. Although it may be hard to depict this specifically, it definitely changes the way the World’s Columbian Exposition is viewed. This could be interpreted in many ways including people did not see or value progression and that people find attractions more interesting. Those interpretations may not actually be distinct. As for not seeing progress, for the people attending the event, most of the exhibits being displayed were part of their everyday lives. Typically things that people use on a daily basis, they take for granted, hence the lack of value of progression. Although these are not the only reason why people may find the exhibits that they do not get to experience during their daily lives, it is definitely a serious possibility. What is more interesting is why Ware did not include this in his depiction of the World’s Columbian Exposition. One likely possibility is that it is not necessarily a failure, but rather human nature. Despite this, taking things for granted seems like it should be covered by Ware. The likely reasons that Ware did not cover this concern is that either he did not think of it, or his did not want to be hypocritical since he probably takes things for granted as well. Although this cannot be explained entirely, it is something that could probably be explored at a deeper level reading of the book that I currently have. Again, this ties back into value evaluation. Although it does not appear to be explored by Ware, it still is something that should be considered by the reader.
According to the Chicago Inter Ocean, the World’s Columbian Exposition got its name from the person who discovered North America. “America is really Columbia, and should have been named so” (Chicago Inter Ocean). Although this newspaper is technically incorrect since Leif Eriksson was the first to discover North America, Christopher Columbus was one of the first to settle in the current area inhabited by the United States. The World’s Columbian Exposition was created to honor Columbus and show how much progress has been made since this “discovery”.
The World’s Columbian Exposition was supposed to be an event displaying progress. Although it has been noted that these exhibits were not always valued during that time period, it defines a forecast for the future. One of the technologies that is displayed to shape the future is electricity. Ware depicts a building with a sign saying “ELECTRICITY IS LIFE”. He also caps the section on the World’s Columbian Exposition in panels depicting a street light and some electrical wires connected to telephone poles. There is also a depiction of the lights turning on at the beginning and off at the end. This can be interpreted in multiple ways that are somewhat similar. One of these is meaning is from the use of light bulbs as an icon for an idea. When exploring this meaning, we see the World’s Columbian Exposition as purely that, an idea. This is probably close to reality. The forecast depicted by the World’s Columbian Exposition was a great idea, but not reality. Another meaning comes from the expression “to see the light”. When applying this meaning, the World’s Columbian Exposition is a brighter life, or at least the forecast could have been. Unfortunately, the saying “things aren’t always better on the other side” comes in to play here. With both meaning applied, you get a sense of what is really occurring. Electricity did have a huge impact on life, but not always in a positive way. Most of this falls back on the evaluation of values.
Today, you often hear people say that we are becoming more anti-social due to the amount of time we spend behind screen. Although we cannot get Ware’s view point of this due to the time period of the book, it is possible to refute this view, making Ware’s view point of sociality in the 1980s outdated. Today, we have numerous ways of being social, without being physically in the space, such as Skype, FaceTime, FaceBook, Twitter, and several other technologies and applications. When applying this statement to Ware’s views on sociality in the 1980s, his views appear to be outdated.
Although Ware does not directly talk about socialization, it does fall into his theme of reevaluating our values and the values of others. There are several questions that revolve around technology and socialization. One of these issues is whether or not being connected with others is enough to create socialization, or what is required for socialization. Although this could be open to personal opinion, I would argue that these electronic interactions are mostly communication and not completely social. The manner in which someone sends a text or instant message is different than that of email or a phone, audio, or video call. The first group is typically extremely informal and no real social skills are needed. The second group is typically more formal, but can still be performed at a lower manor. For example, in the book, Jimmy receives numerous unwanted phone calls from his mother. Although he can typically get off the phone, he is not able to get the point across that he should not be called while at work. Even further, he has no idea how to respond to the woman on the plane. He does respond, but you can tell by the way that Ware illustrated him, that he is extremely uncomfortable. Ware is clearly showing that Jimmy does not have social skills. Although this book is before computers and cell phones were available to the masses, Jimmy is not completely comfortable interacting with anyone and it does not appear that even if he had access to the technology of today, he would have anyone to improve his social skills with.
This concept of technology and socialization falls back to the sign during the Columbian World’s Exposition that says “ELECTRICITY IS LIFE”. However in Jimmy’s case, this does not appear to be completely true. Jimmy Corrigan uses very little electricity throughout the book. He uses lights, probably heat, a microwave, an alarm clock, and phones. Jimmy could probable survive without any of these inventions. This is an interesting concept because most people today are lost without electricity. For most people “ELECTRICITY IS LIFE”. If the power goes out, most of us have to think about what to do. The same can be said about the internet, which would not exist without electricity. When there is an internet outage on the floor of my dorm, everyone leaves their rooms and ask whether it went down for others. The phrase “ELECTRICITY IS LIFE” is even more interesting when paired with these outages. Although there is no argument that electricity has positive effects on our daily lives, there is also this negative side. Electricity may consume or run our lives. It can take an outage to cause us to have face to face socialization. In the Futurama episode “Mother’s Day”, which is a fictional television series that takes place in the thirty-first century, almost every piece of technology is robotic and revolts. One of the characters, Phillip J Fry, tries to open a can of soup. Without a can open, he has no idea where to turn. In this fictional future, everything is dictated by electricity even more than it is today. Granted this is fictional, but I feel that it complements the fictional world of Jimmy Corrigan and the real world when considering this dependency on electricity.
Although the book takes place from the 1860s to the 1980s, Ware’s views on modern day America still apply. Ware appears to be emphasizing the values caused technology and commercialism. Although this is a mostly opinion based view point, it is one that is not as commonly thought of. Although you can refute some of Ware’s view points, even in the 1980s, they are still an interesting view on life. Everything has pros and cons, but it is a matter of weighing them. At the surface, Ware appears to have a story that does not seem to have much of a point. However, when diving deeper we see that Ware is favoring a negative our values of various topics. Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan has the purpose to making us reevaluate our values and those of others. There may be an intention of trying to get us to change the way we live our lives and try to improve society as a whole. What Ware wants us to value is not always explicitly clear, but there are numerous values to think about when read at a deep enough level.
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