american pipe dream

Jud’s paper gets to the heart of Chris Ware’s work.  Everything a paper should be- beautifully written, well researched, plenty of evidence.

Julian Vaughan

Due: 11/3/12


ENGL 4200

 Jimmy Corrigan and the American Pipe Dream

In the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware juxtaposes traditionally lauded American imagery such as the 1893 Chicago’s World’s Fair, Superman, and the great frontier, with undesirable concepts such as racism and social inequality in order to suggest that the supposed greatness of the United States of America is, in fact an artifice undercut by its cultural shortcomings. This essay will examine how this ironic contrast of grandiose images and jarring subject matter directly undermine the social-political theory of American exceptionalism. David Weiss and Jason A. Edwards define American exceptionalism as “the distinct belief that the United States in unique, if not superior, when compared to other nations” (Weiss and Edwards 1). The key aspects to this American superiority complex are generally thought of as social equality, frontier spirit, and industrial achievement. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth represents the achievements of America in context with its failings in order to instill doubt in the supposed “shining city on the hill” (2).  The following will list the images which Jimmy Corrigan develops in order to represent the remarkable nature of the American ideal and thereafter will expound on how he deconstructs those images so as to criticize the faults of contemporary United States society.

In D.J. Joyce’s book discussing Jimmy Corrigan and its 20th century graphic novel colleagues, Joyce puts forward that “Unlike most of his peers, Chris Ware almost entirely abnegates and retreats from the socio-political impulse. Jimmy Corrigan has a specific historical context that covers parts of two centuries, but it is a very isolated, contained tale […]”  (Joyce 127). However, Joyce’ assertion overlooks Ware’s “Corrigenda” at the end of Jimmy Corrigan, which categorically defines some literary, historical, and seemingly mundane terms that carry special significance to the novel as a whole. The “Corrigenda” defines the word “exposition” as “(ɛkspəʊˈzɪshˈən) n. The main body of a work, esp. that which explicates a main theme, or introduces a fundamental motif” (Ware 293). The definition is accompanied by an elevated-perspective image of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—also called The World’s Columbia Exposition. By playing on the word “exposition,” Ware abstrusely illustrates to the reader that within the story, the fair exemplifies a “fundamental motif” in Jimmy Corrigan. Moreover, the social-political implications that come with the World’s Fair are undeniable. The Chicago’s World Fair was the ultimate display of American industrial progress and epitomized the traits supposedly making the United States the paramount country of the world. The Chicago World’s Fair is universally conceived as a foremost symbol for the rise of American exceptionalism as the theory developed in the later decades.

In contrast with the grandeur overtones associated with the Chicago World’s Fair, Chris Ware’s representation of the fair and its construction are tainted by inherently negative visions of inadequac in the American social realm which surrounds it. For example, in a scene where James Corrigan’s father is buying a paper from an African American youth, the section is begun with a reproduction of a classic patriotic promotional illustration for the “CHICAGO of today: The Metropolis of the West” accompanied by lady justice and a bald eagle that majestically wrap a ribbon labeled “Art-Science-Industry-Electricity” around the globe (75). This opulent image of America’s success is then contrasted by the scene’s ending, where—after a feigned effort of charity—Mr. Corrigan utters a racial slur at the newspaper boy (76). Therefore Ware shows how the optimistic artifice which America portrays itself is undercut by its habitually racist inclinations. Joanna Davis-Mcelligatt acknowledges: “according to Ware, America—founded on and forged out of racist, nativistic, capitalistic, and imperialistic policies and ideologies, a nation that has been steeped in notions of its own exceptionalism and superiority—was never structured to support the myth of racial, ethnic, and political inclusion” (Davis-Mcelligatt 136). The exclusionary nature of America’s populace is not one indicative of “the great melting pot”  we typically choose to recognize, but Ware represents it as a clear contradiction to the advanced depictions found in exceptionalist art and literature which focus on “ […] emphasis of key values, such as liberty and equality” (Walker 13).

Racism in relation to the Chicago World’s Fair (and America in general) continues when a racist caricature of a black man in a poster for a minstrel show is depicted next to James as he plays (Ware 265).  Paul Williams notes Ware’s insertion of bigoted imagery into Jimmy Corrigan: “The depiction of every ethnic group as victims of racial stereotyping fuels a moral imperative to empathize with racist victims, while avoiding the radical economic, social and political transformations necessary to restructure American society” (Williams 206). Accordingly, Ware attached racial overtones s to the story in order to bridge a personal empathy between the reader and the oppressed minorities in America. This poster acts as a contrast to the “CHICAGO of today” illustration (Ware 75), where instead of innovation, racist entertainment is celebrated.  Ware uses the same style of poster in order to convey how prejudice is equally a part of the United States as its achievements in art, science, or industry.

One of the most apparent contradictions of the American innovations versus American social failings in Jimmy Corrigan is the portion where James Corrigan is taken to the Chicago World’s Fair in the one act of kindness ever portrayed by his father. Ware devotes intricate, expansive panels to convey the awe-striking nature of the architecture and presentation of the fair—compared to the smaller, cramped panels of the surrounding pages, where every thought and action are scrutinized to the umpteenth degree (Ware 284). James is allowed to bask in his country’s glory as he wanders the fair: “Exhibit after exhibit in building after building… hundreds of them… more than anyone could possibly hope to see… machinery, agriculture, electricity, weaponry…Everything… no matter how insignificant seemed to have its own cabinet or pedestal” (286). The egalitarian prose Ware uses in describing the fair gives a sense that American equality and ambition may go hand-in-hand. The deception present in the trip with his father is revealed, however, when James is abandoned on the roof to become an orphan (290-292). The reader is then left to realize that once the World’s Fair was completed, James’s father was absent an occupation, and without means to provide for his son, Mr. Corrigan decided to leave him. So, in the shadow of the greatest exhibition of American work ethic and ingenuity, a child is left unwanted and uncared for. The weakness of the United States is exposed once more, for in a truly egalitarian nation with social mobility, an Irish construction worker could easily find a new job, or else find government assistance to keep from deserting his progeny. Instead, we are left with a panel showing an orphanage full of children in the wake of the false decadence America espouses to the world.

Ware’s exposition on the artificiality of the United States’ indicators of splendor and exceptionalism is continued in the present day by the contrasting of the original “pioneer” attitude with a “conquered” frontier: the great Midwestern plains are transformed tame and synthetic by suburban development. Much of the classic and formative American art focuses on the rolling valleys and babbling brooks that heroes such as Lewis and Clark overcame as U.S. borders expanded across North America. Ware satirizes this romanticizing of the American country most blatantly in two instances. In the first instance, Ware confronts the reader with disruptive cut-out “trading cards,” depicting several bland residential landscapes in Waukosha that include false (yet elaborate) natural descriptions on the backside, such as the insipid chain grocery store parking lot labeled “Murmuring Pines” (169-170). The tongue-in-cheek referencing of the territory before it was developed—such as naming the town after the Native American tribe that was brutally conquered in order to establish it—highlights the major changes in American aesthetic (and epitomes) which the populace has not quite acknowledged.

The second instance where Ware visually contrasts the past of the natural American frontier is the  dissection of the Corrigan family home, in which a grid of panels separate temporal visions of the property: the house is shown under construction, in the present day, and with a Native American from the past (207).  As a result, we can see the overpowering presence of the suburban artifice against the bygone vision of the noble American past. America may be dominant in its expansion and architectural innovations, but at the cost of subjugating America’s Native populations—an exploit which is far from the national credo of liberty and social equality.

Extending his criticism of American exceptionalism into the modern day, Chris Ware incorporates a running leitmotif of a blemished Superman figure. The first vignette of Jimmy Corrigan relates a story of Jimmy Corrigan as a child, idolizing an actor playing “Super-Man,” but as the events play out, “Super-Man” is shown to be an amoral phony when he seduces and subsequently abandons Jimmy’s mother (3-6). Later, when Jimmy is reintroduced as an adult, the character is again given hope in the existence of a super-powered defender of justice when he spots a man dressed as Superman on top of a building outside his window. The costumed man takes flying position and jumps to his death where he presumably lies for hours, ignored by the passerby (16-19). In the American pop-culture canon, we consider Superman to be invincible, vindicated, super moral, protector of the weak. Superman is also commonly symbolic of American ethic of justice allied with power.

As an icon, Superman could certainly be described in the ideal standards of what make America exceptional as presented by Jason A. Edwards and David Weiss: “To believers in American exceptionalism, the United States continues to move in a constant upward pattern, remaining the beacon of light in the darkness and the defender of the rights of man as long as the nation exists” (Weiss and Edwards 1). When Ware undermines our expectations of Superman with such dramatic and disparaging results, he causes us to view the American ideals he represents as flawed, impotent, and false in its “costumed” pretenses. Dycus shares his analysis of Super-Man as a symbol: “The overall purpose, then is to create a sense of hopelessness and despair: if even Super-Man is unable to help us, if he’s just a victim like everyone else, how can we be expected to save ourselves?” (Dycus 88). Applying this victim/hero transposition to the vision of America this essay has established in the above paragraphs, it is illuminating how America has, in some fashion, been the chief victim in its own progression. The United States did not “save” or protect its wildlife, native population, or African Americans, it dominated and subjugated them.

As a companion of genre with Jimmy Corrigan, Superman is a comic book character. Chris Ware draws a parallel between Jimmy and Superman as two protagonists of their respective works: while all-powerful in his own comic series, Super-Man takes on the traits of Jimmy in his eponymous novel. Ware draws the parallel visually when Jimmy struggles to pass a bowel movement while in his Superman sweater (Ware 302-303) unable to perform a simple biological function, much less leap a tall building in a building in a single bound. Jimmy Corrigan shows us that in reality there is no infallible figure under the nationalistic red and blue costume. It exposes the mythos of the United States exceptionalist attitude as just that: a mythology. In Chris Ware’s representation of the world, there can be no country that is so great that it warrants “exception,” because there is no character which is unflawed.

Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth demonstrates how the crucial tenets which inform the American exceptionalist theory are either a downright farce generated by political goals or flawed by the underlying violence and inequality that has inhabited the United States since its conception. Through the direct visual and literary contradiction of symbols that embody the values of an exceptional America, such as Superman (a.k.a. Super-Man), the western frontier, and the Chicago World’s Fair. Instead, Jimmy Corrigan appropriates the aforementioned symbols for his own critique on America on social injustices such as racism, social immobility, and domination of the native people. Ware conclusively lifts the ornate veil of Lady Liberty and counts the blemishes.  Far from being a “city on the hill,” (Weiss and Edwards 1) the United States of America is only exceptional in its exquisite (but not entirely honest) marketing techniques.

Works Cited

Davis-McElligatt, Joanna. “Confronting the Intersections of Race, Immigration, and       Representation in Chris Ware’s Comics.” The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking. Ed. Martha B. Kuhlman, and David M. Ball. UP of Mississippi, 2010. 135-145. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 5 Nov. 2012

Dycus, D.J.. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: Honing the Hybridity of the Graphic Novel.:     Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.  Print.

Edwards, Jason A., and David Weiss. Introduction. The Rhetoric Of American Exceptionalism: Critical Essays. Ed. Jason A. Edwards and David Weiss.  Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2011. 1-8. GEORGIA STATE UNIV’s    Catalog. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

Walker, Karen M. “Resolving Rhetorical Tensions.” The Rhetoric Of American Exceptionalism: Critical Essays. Ed. Jason A. Edwards and David Weiss. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2011. 1-8. GEORGIA STATE UNIV’s    Catalog. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan : The Smartest Kid On Earth.: New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. Print.

Williams, Paul. “‘A Purely American Tale’: The Tragedy of Racism and Jimmy Corrigan: The      Smartest Kid on Earth as Great American Novel.” The Rise Of The American Comics Artist : Creators And Contexts. Ed. Paul Williams and James Lyons. Jackson [Miss.]: UP of Mississippi, 2010. 194-209. Print.

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