Looking In, Looking Back

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Childhood may very well lay within the straightedge sharp boxes of comics better than anyplace else, save for the very childhood spots that spark so much fear and wonder in us to gin with. Chris Ware captures the world of a very lonely little boy growing up literally in the shadows of Chicago’s 1893 World Fair, and we are allowed intimate peeks at his most vulnerable moments as though the black pencil borders of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth were the very frame of his bedroom window.

Comic strip writers know how to pack one hell of an emotional punch, they’re picky about their words, but choose wisely, and they understand that empty can have just as much meaning as full. Take the dreamy, winterscape wonderland panel, in which figures ice skate all about the foreground while evergreen trees trail upwards in the background. Much of this panel is mere white space, but its suggestion is a great expanse of snow, fun, and possibility. We feel, tangibly, the boy’s hopefulness, the brightness of his dreams, the endless potential that is palpable to this child, to the child within ourselves.

There is no white space like the comic white space in written literature. It simply isn’t possible in strictly prose form. Here, with the graphic medium, we dive into the snowbank in search of that misshapen lump of lead because the key is our visual empathy. Ware has crafted a series of panels that harken us back to youthful familiarity, often of a dark variety, that we cannot help but to identify with and imaginatively inhabit.

The Chicago depicted in this excerpt of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth looks little like the Chicago we know today. Yet we see traces of the Carl Sandburg poem, we see origins of now noted landmarks, and the architecture of the Gilded Age whose influence still resonates today. Clues lead us this way, deliberately placed by Ware throughout, but there is something too to not quite recognizing this unfamiliar, archaic world. It further evokes the feelings of childhood, when the world before us is big and strange, curiosity drives us ahead, and with every turn of the page comes something new and unsuspected. Perhaps this is why the comic book is the perfect looking glass for youth. (Brendan Eathorne/ City of Stories Student)

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