Around the turn of the last century, Friedrich Nietzsche killed God and replaced him with the Ubermensch, or superman. In the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon; 380 pages; $27.50), Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware goes Nietzsche one better. He replaces God with Superman, the caped hero, who becomes a God/father metaphor to the emotionally crippled title character. Then Ware kills Superman too--or at least a man in a Superman suit, who, in a single bound, leaps to his death from a tall building in a scene, witnessed by Jimmy, that sets the tale's poignant, darkly comic tone.
You might guess that Ware, 32, has father issues. You wouldn't be far wrong. He began the book, six years in the making, in part to "work out stuff"--namely, his relationship to his own father, whom he never met until a brief, awkward reunion just before his dad died, when Ware was more than halfway through the book. "I was resistant to meeting him, and I was trying to figure out why," says Ware. Did he? "No! That's the rotten part of it. I feel even more confused than ever."
Which is not to say Ware is Jimmy Corrigan. A shy, potato-shaped Untermensch, Corrigan is the 36-year-old correlative (neither smart nor a kid) to comic child-men like Charlie Brown. He works silent hours in a cubicle. He calls his domineering mother every day. Women, not coincidentally, terrify him. One dreary Thanksgiving week, his long-lost father sends him a plane ticket to visit him in Michigan. During the tragicomic, disastrous get-together, Jimmy meets his adopted black sister Amy and his ancient grandfather (also named Jimmy), whose own 1890s Chicago childhood unfolds in a beautiful and heartbreaking novella-within-a-novel in Jimmy Corrigan.
Ware serialized Jimmy's story in The Acme Novelty Library, the idiosyncratic comic series that established Ware as a meticulous artist who reshapes older comic art into a new and expressive form. Like any good Postmodernist, he borrows from the past--the Superman bits, 19th century ads, a touch of Little Nemo and Krazy Kat. But Ware's appropriations all serve his story. The 1890s novella uses sepia tones to depict senior Jimmy's claustrophobic home life; the '50s comics motifs perfectly capture junior Jimmy's state of arrested childhood.
"I just prefer the craftsmanship and care and humility of design and artifacts from the earlier era," says Ware, who collects pop ephemera like turn-of-the-century sheet music. "[There is] this arrogant sexuality to the modern world that I find very annoying, and I guess threatening. Everything has to be cool. Everything has to be sexy and fast-paced and rock-and-roll." Daniel Clowes, creator of Eightball comics, remembers visiting a modern-art museum in Amsterdam with Ware: "After about three rooms of Damien Hirst-ish paintings, I thought he was going to start tearing the art off the walls."