It's easy to dismiss graphic novels as nothing more than souped-up comic books or perhaps alternate realities for Goth kids. They might be stunning to look at, and they might even have well-executed plotlines, but for the most part they aren't literature. "Look! This is a graphic novel..." instructs the bookstore manager depicted on the back of the paperback edition of Jimmy Corrigan. "You know... superhero stuff... for retards!"
But if there's anyone working in the medium who can turn that perception of graphic novels around, it's Chris Ware. Like Daniel Clowe (Ghost World) and Art Spiegelman (Maus), Ware writes and draws serious literature in which pictures pack as much nuance and narrative as do dialogue and description. First published in 2000, Jimmy Corrigan is a cross-generational tale of loneliness, alienation and one man's search (both literal and metaphorical) for his father. But of course it's far more than that, encompassing -- among other things -- a slice of American history in the Chicago World's Fair, references to Thurber's "Walter Mitty," an homage to the superheroes of old comic books and a love for old advertising text and graphics.
Readers who are already at home in McSweeney's ironic, self-aware and hyper-dense style will immediately take to Jimmy Corrigan's intricate page layouts, architectural attention to detail and sense of the absurd. The paperback version, published this summer, is as stunning as the hardcover, and is worth the cover price alone as an objet d'art. But the story, which won the book both the American Book Award and the UK's Guardian Prize, is just as compelling in its strange and lonely beauty. Jimmy is one of those people who exist on the periphery, who wear too many clothes in July and tape-record the private conversations of strangers. But even in his small life, Ware finds the makings of an epic. Seemingly ephemeral details -- the word "HI" spelled out in strips of bacon, a Dairy Queen glimpsed from a car window, even the slumped acquiescence of a winter parka -- tell an unforgettable story. At first glance, Jimmy Corrigan is the perfect coffee-table book. It's attractive, it's portable, it transmits "cool." But beware -- it's all too easy to become utterly absorbed, transfixed and changed by Jimmy's miniscule world.