I worry about my tendency to identify with fictional protagonists, especially when they're highly neurotic. Fortunately, I don't think I have much in common with Jimmy Corrigan, but still, I frequently found myself wincing in sympathy while reading this book.
Technically, "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" is a masterpiece. I've loved Chris Ware's work for years, although I've only seen it in small pieces published in The New Yorker or McSweeney's. He has a very distinctive style, crisp and clean, highly geometric, with backgrounds that looks almost computer-generated. The characters themselves are fairly simply drawn, more evolved than stick figures but not by a whole lot. That said, Ware can convey an astonishing range of emotion with just a few lines; a straight line under the eyes betraying a character's fatigue; a slightly arced line above the eye showing despair.
Structurally, JC is a 90's masterpiece, epitomizing the same indie spirit of Slacker. It's a bit of an adventure, and a coming-of-age story, and an epic. But the adventure is a trip from Chicago to Michigan; the coming-of-age is about thirty years too late; and the epic shows how three generations of Corrigans have endured painful, emotionally bereft lives.
I think my favorite parts of this sprawling tale were those set during the Columbia Exposition in Chicago. This is a story-within-a-story that at first seems unconnected to the surrounding narrative, and eventually takes over it. It really isn't much more important than the present-day tale - both deal with the daily events of powerless people - but it sustains a bit more of a story, and at least the 19th century Jimmy Corrigan takes a few actions on his own initiative, even if they don't lead to anything enjoyable.
The story effectively portrays how traits can pass from generation to generation. We see the modern Corrigan's repressed racism at its roots. We see how abandonment emotionally stilts a child, who then cannot provide emotional support to their own offspring. All in all, it's moving, but, man, depressing!
In terms of comics, JC seems closest to Daniel Clowe's "Ghost World" among comics that I've read, and Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor" among comics that I have not. These are stories set in the real world, drab and dull: most of the action takes place in fast-food restaurants, hospital waiting rooms, efficiency apartments, cubicles. There's a great interlude within the book that displays cut-out trading cards for some of the locations from the story. On the front you see bleak scene after bleak scene: highway rest stops, shuttered businesses, strip malls. On the back are eloquent and loquacious captions extolling the high virtues exemplified by these places. That gets at the crux of this work. It isn't about elevating the mundane to the level of art. Nor is it about satirically mocking the ugliness in our world. It's about staring unflinchingly at that ugliness for as long as we can bear, and then staring some more. I don't think that there's any redemption in JC, but neither is there condemnation. For myself, all I can do is mutter, "There but for the grace of God go I."