Graphic Whiteness and the Lessons of Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan
Chris J. Cuomo and Kim Q. Hall have argued that "Scholars and activists critically interrogating whiteness seek to decenter rather than recenter whiteness by making performances of whiteness visible" (3). In this essay, we examine the unique ways in which the graphic novel, specifically Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, enacts such a critical interrogation. Scholars of Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan have addressed, with great perspicacity, masculinity and heterosexuality, but race and whiteness remain under-examined. However, in its best moments Ware's graphic novel effectively succeeds in manipulating the form in order to challenge simplistic narratives of whiteness. The graphic elements of the novel intervene in overdetermined scripts of whiteness, resulting in one of the most challenging texts about national identity and whiteness.
Jimmy Corrigan traces the history of the titular character from a childhood characterized by an absent father and overbearing mother to his life as a middle-age white man whose isolation is represented by the cubicle in which he works. He is the novel's Everyman. Contacted by the father he has never met, Jimmy travels from Chicago to a small town in Michigan. In Waukosha he meets Amy, his father's adopted African-American daughter and – unbeknownst to them – a distant relation to Jimmy. Though the figure of the Everyman never completely understands himself in the context of a racialized America, the audience is aware of this complicated genealogy.
The narrative is interrupted periodically by the story of Jimmy's great-grandfather and grandfather, which is set in 1893, and this narration focuses on the great-grandfather's abusive relationship with his young son, whom he beats and eventually abandons at the top of one of the largest buildings in "The White City" at the Chicago World's Fair. This narrative section also reveals that Amy is not only the adopted daughter of Jimmy's father but a blood relation descended from Jimmy's great-grandfather's relationship with his African-American maid. Reduced to its barest bones, the narrative is built upon Jimmy searching for himself through the lost father and finding a much more (racially) complicated family. At the same time, the reader learns of a more complicated backstory to that diverse family (blood, and not just adoption, link Amy to her half brother). Given that the protagonist never discovers this history that the reader is privy to, the novel refuses a simple conclusion in which the protagonist finds or even fully knows himself.
Ware represents identity as an ongoing process filled with errors and corrections. Ware ends his graphic novel with a postscript entitled "Corrigenda" which he defines as a "list of errors with their corrections." This postscript links the title character's surname, "Corrigan," to "Corrigenda," conveying that identity is not fixed but marked by errors and corrections and perhaps never fully finished. The novel also expresses this idea graphically by using comic strip boxes that can often be read in a variety of patterns, all of which add up to different meanings. As the reader pieces together Jimmy's story, arrows pointing in a variety of directions make it apparent that readers not only may choose a pattern but also may return and choose an alternate pattern as they piece together Jimmy's identity. This reading practice that acknowledges both errors and corrections as an ongoing part of the process of constructing identity captures the struggle to name white identity. As Valerie Babb reminds us: "The very existence of whiteness embodies an odd duality of distinguishing itself from something nonwhite while appropriating the nonwhite to justify its being" (43). This is the problem of representing whiteness: in naming itself, let alone attempting to narrate its story, it replicates white hegemony.
If Ware does not fully solve this problem, he provides one of the more challenging interventions in American scripts of whiteness by illustrating this dilemma through the unique opportunities of the graphic form. More precisely, Ware sets up a reading practice that challenges the ability to read and interpret race through simple chronologies. As the reader attempts to follow both Jimmy and his sister Amy's stories, no simple narratives of racial origins emerge. Instead, the reader is left to actively piece together the narrative, making errors and corrections along the way. Ware reminds us of this reading practice at every step in the novel. For example, the novel withholds page numbers, deemphasizing a traditional narrative sequence and encouraging a reading practice that may move freely backwards and forwards and across the page in numerous directions. As if to complicate this practice even more, Ware's hardback and paperback editions of the novel participate in this notion of errors and corrections in that the latter adds visual material not included in the former edition.
Making Whiteness Visible through Comics
Jimmy Corrigan begins by referencing the comic book tradition through the familiar figure of Superman.
In the novel's first scene, Jimmy, still a small child, excitedly attends a cheesy car show to see his hero. Ware's Superman, however, is an obvious fake, right down to the hyphenated spelling of his title, "Super-man." Ware's rendering of Superman as a middle-age white guy with a paunch and a red mask, something that the traditional comic book figure never wore, calls attention to the body, which does not so much imitate as miss/represent or fail to fully represent the superhero. More precisely, what allows this man to portray Superman is not his physique or his physical prowess, and not really the inaccurate costume or mask, but rather his whiteness, apparently the only qualification that matters. Indeed, his hyphenated identity might just as easily be white-man.
By opening with the fake Superman, Ware engages the comic book tradition only to pose challenges to its assumptions about race. Significantly, both Superman and the comic book tradition he launched have presented whiteness as normative and therefore necessary. Superman came to function, as E. Nelson Bridwell notes, as a symbol of white, Western masculinity's dominance over Others (10). Despite his status as an alien from another planet, a status that some critics have noted reflects the experiences of his Jewish creators (Fingeroth 54), Superman is the "consummate figure of total cultural assimilation" (Engle 341). And his whiteness is key to that assimilation. Some critics have argued that this racial reductiveness is characteristic of the superhero genre. Marc Singer, for example, contends that the genre is prone to dangerously reductive depictions of race because it relies on "visually codified representations in which characters are continually reduced to their appearances." According to Singer this "visual typology" is matched by the genre's "long history of excluding, trivializing, or 'tokenizing' minorities to create numerous minority superheroes who are marked purely for their race: 'Black Lightning,' 'Black Panther,' and so forth" (107).
As Richard Dyer reminds us, the hegemony of whiteness is wrapped up with its ability to appear invisible:
Whites are everywhere in representation. Yet precisely because of this and their placing as norm they seem not to be represented to themselves as whites but as people who are variously gendered, classed, sexualised and abled. At the level of racial representation, in other words, whites are not of a certain race, they're just the human race. (3)
Though Superman is clearly pictured as white and his ability to assume certain standards of masculinity depend on his whiteness, his whiteness nonetheless remains unarticulated. At the same time, this invisible whiteness is indicative of the unarticulated whiteness of the target audience.
Ware offers a provocative symbol for the dynamics of (in)visibility and places it squarely upon the ironic figure of the fake Superman. After spending the night with Jimmy's mom, the actor hands young Jimmy his mask and leaves. The mask, of course, distinguishes as much as it hides and serves as an apt metaphor for the problem of representing whiteness. This scene, furthermore, never shows the actor unmasked, keeping his eyes in shadow or outside the frame when he takes off the mask. In keeping the actor's face hidden from the reader, Ware links the actor (the surrogate father) to Superman's alien status and his secret identity. Although the mask is not part of the Superman myth, Ware invites us to think about multiple ways that identity is unstable by layering these two symbols. The mask, moreover, serves as a fine metaphor for the paradox of whiteness: it distinguishes the wearer (making him visible) while also hiding identity (making him invisible).
This first symbol extends the relevance of Superman to the entire narrative by foreshadowing other masks. It is not only a symbol of hiding the self from community but also a sign of power as vulnerable, identity as dangerous and unstable, and most provocatively, whiteness as problematic. It is later echoed in twelve nearly identical frames that reflect Jimmy's speculations about what his father looks like. In each portrait, the eyes are blacked out, as would be done to protect people's identities. If Superman provides the initiating figure of masking, or identity as a hidden performance, these other masks extend that metaphor to the novel's obsession with paternity. But masks appear elsewhere: for example, on a statue of lady justice, and briefly in a dream sequence that depicts Jimmy being hit by a truck. The latter image, which repositions a red baseball cap as a red mask, suggests that masks can be found everywhere and are perhaps as unassuming as baseball caps. This morphing of the baseball cap into a mask serves not only to connect the guilty truck driver to the memory of the sham Superman but also to depict Jimmy's subconscious as dominated by fantasies of the father and anxieties of recognition. This is the crisis of whiteness. How does it recognize itself? How is it distinguished?
Ware confronts this invisibility of whiteness by insisting on its historical specificity, situating the character's stories in specific geographical spaces and times. For example, by tracing Jimmy's family history to Ireland, Ware removes the veil of the whiteness in lieu of a nationally specific identity. Ware does not, however, just offer these histories. Instead, he maps them geographically, thus making them into visual diagrams that the reader must interpret. Ware presents history, and more precisely race, as an interpretative process, not unlike that of the graphic novel. The reader chooses how to the read the parts of the diagram, whether to read from left to right, up and down, or around. How one sees or fails to see whiteness is dependent on how one sees or fails to see that history. Though Ware exposes whiteness as a carefully constructed illusion by historicizing race, significantly, the novel's central characters remain unaware of this history, demonstrating the relentless power of that illusion.
While the first edition opens with a two-page guide on how to read graphic novels – with instructions on how to move freely up and down or allow the eye to take in an entire page of images – the paperback edition provides two new pages that instruct readers in how to read history spatially.
The pages illustrate an extensive diagram of the Corrigan family history. The broad, horizontal pages consist of a large globe at the center and an intricate series of more than one hundred small pictures of ships, historic buildings, European immigrants, and African slaves radiating in different directions from the globe. A series of arrows and lines, not unlike those found in a genealogical chart, connect these images, linking geography to genealogy.
Thus the image traces the Middle Passage and European immigration to the U.S. at once. By following these links, the reader may trace various histories of the Corrigan family, including its African-American members, in relationship to geographic lines of American immigration and slavery. If this page may be said to provide a pictorial summary of, foreshadowing for, or guide to reading the novel, it also reminds us that there is no one center: history is always a matter of perspective – always partial and prone to exclusions. Similarly, the diagram too is a process of interpretation. Not only is it a maze that allows the eyes to roam its circuitous patterns, but it is visible in the hardback only if the reader unfolds the dust jacket. It is up to the reader to discover it. This reading practice in which the reader may or may not discover the whole history parallels Ware's treatment of race. Without the specificity of history, whiteness remains invisible.
As the geography becomes more and more specific, zeroing in on the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Ware parallels the construction of race with the construction of these geographical and architectural spaces. Indeed, "The White City" serves as an apt metaphor for the geospatial race relations in the novel. The cities in the novel are shaped by the racial ideologies of their time, demonstrating the relationship between race and place. And yet perspective – who sees and who fails to see – remains a constant theme. The novel's treatment of 1893 Chicago, for example, exemplifies the ways in which racial ideologies give shape and meaning to geographical space. As they travel in the city, Jimmy's great-grandfather William views a minstrel scene through a handheld viewer.
In the slide sequence a white woman places a hot pie in the window. A small black minstrel figure appears in the window and attempts to steal the pie. In the final slide the woman laughs as he drops the hot pie and the falling window strikes him on the head. In response to the slides, William laughs and explains to his son that he likes the pie slide best. Finally he says "Poor Old Jim Crow." Just then his son reaches out of the window and takes a blossom from a tree, which elicits this response: "What if everyone simply took whatever they wanted?" The panel that follows is full page picture of the famous Chicago Water Tower, which resembles a European castle. The caption underneath reads "Hmm? Then where would we be?"
The scene calls the reader's attention to the ways in which whiteness is constructed, simultaneously within the intimacy of the family and in the public space of the city. More specifically, the minstrel scene is not about the minstrel figure, but rather about the how this scene allows William to define his and his son's whiteness by witnessing the minstrel performance. The minstrel becomes the occasion to say "Poor old Jim Crow," effectively securing his superiority through feigned pity. As the viewer, William maintains a position of privilege and power over the scene. Significantly, the scene also positions the city of Chicago as something stolen, a legacy that lives on in the Native American linguistic roots of the name Chicago. The question, "Where would we be?" might just as well read, "What is this European castle doing in a place called "Chicago"? Chicago is not merely a backdrop for this scene; rather, it too is a character, implicated in the racial performance.
Ware illustrates the ways in which geospatial relations are racialized throughout the novel. As the characters travel to and fro across the city, they not only witness Chicago's strident racial segregation but also reflect back the racial ideologies that shape the city's landscape. In a series of panels, William and his son travel across the city again. After a long journey the scenery changes from stately architecture to shanty row houses, with black adults and children out front. This panel explains that they travel "past neighborhoods that most of the town goes out of its way to forget." Disconcerted by the change in scenery, William "soothes" himself by saying to his son, "We give them their freedom and look at how they waste it." In the panels that follow they return to "The White City." These panels read, "and after a time only a general notion will remain in his mind that there are places where he doesn't belong and those where he seems to fall right in." That Ware chooses "fall right in" rather than the more colloquial "fit right in" stresses race as something that is regulated in space, effectively representing William's racial superiority with biting irony.
Ware presents the Chicago World's Fair as a site where whiteness is actively being constructed through spatial elements. In a series of panels, Ware contrasts the World's Fair exhibits, "Dwellings of the Cannibals," and "Zoopraxographical Hall," a theater designed to show early moving animated images.
While a fence separates young Corrigan from the cannibal huts, an open door to the classical building of the Englishman invites him in. Obviously technological advancement, the beacon of modern culture, contrasts with primitivism, which functions as sideshow entertainment. But perhaps more importantly, the spaces signal difference and belonging to the child, shaping racial identity formation.
Still, the novel presents the illusion of whiteness as entrapment, rather than safety. The White City, for example, is the site where young Corrigan is abandoned by his father. In a scene that ends the historical part of this narrative, the younger Corrigan follows his father "like a loyal animal" into the symbolic cage of an elevator. Progress, marked as white, is associated with attaining great heights, and the elevator ride leads father and son out to the very "edge of the largest building in the world" in a series of frames scaled to set personal drama as inconsequential against the grand architecture of the White City. Ware gives us two images of father and son at the top of a grand building. One depicts the moment "where he put his hand on my shoulder and gently pressed," and the other shows the son being tossed off the building. But the small figures, no larger than a single letter of text, are eclipsed by the detail and magnificence of Ware's depiction of the building. In smaller, subsequent frames, Ware supplies a close-up of the filicide. The father is shown lifting his son into the air in "a genuinely fatherly gesture," but then he tosses Jimmy off the building in what is glossed as "a truly dramatic manner by which to terminate one's paternity." Ware, more obviously than in other sections of the novel, marks this clearly as a dream. Subsequent panels state that "No … he simply mumbled something dull to me, and stepped aside." But the reality is horrific enough, and Ware depicts the child "waiting for him to return," which "[o]f course, he never did."
This scene of abandonment suggests the ways in which whiteness itself is a severing of ties, the erasure of history in exchange for the myth of whiteness. Jimmy Corrigan's tragedy, in other words, is the tragedy of lacking significance. This is the anxiety of whiteness: that it is invisible and thus its meaning is indecipherable. The image of loss at the top of a building provides a bookend to one of the novel's earliest scenes of loss: Superman's suicide from the top of a building. Ware ties the two scenes together in order to suggest that white males are incapable of meeting the expectations of white symbols of progress and attainment. The protagonist is overshadowed by the white father, Superman, and history, represented through the White City.
Whiteness and the Black Subject
The illusions of whiteness in the novel are challenged by the appearance of Amy, Jimmy's African-American stepsister who is also his blood relation. Not only are none of the characters aware of this fact, but reader awareness depends upon careful attention to the details of the character's ancestry. Thus the characters' ignorance offers just one model for how readers might interpret or rather misinterpret (and actually miss) key details in history. Still, the larger schema from which readers make choices, and the possible sequences that link the Corrigan family history to the history of slavery, suggest the ways in which the illusion of race shapes how one sees and does not see history. More precisely, the history remains hidden because of the illusion of whiteness, an illusion that for Ware is always geographically located. Like "The White City," Jimmy's family is shaped by the illusion of its own newness and disconnection from a past marked by American slavery. As they migrate to Waukosha, the small white suburb of Detroit, the invisibility of whiteness is solidified and Amy's connection to her patrilineal line disappears. Readers never fully know whether the liaison between Jimmy's great-grandfather and his maid was rape, seduction, or a consensual affair. Significantly, the novel represents this break in history without providing details of that break.
That Amy is related to Jimmy serves to further themes of invisibility and racial difference, but also deploys irony and paradox. Both characters are disconnected from their roots, but Jimmy searches for connection while Amy, the offspring who looks least like her parents, does not struggle to recover a mythic past. When she tells Jimmy that she doesn't wish to meet her real mother, he is surprised. In positioning her as secure, despite her "broken" or unclear ancestry, Ware falls into myths of blackness as a present and secure signifier and whiteness, in contrast, as unstable. The two characters come together over the hospital bed of their father, and Jimmy is depicted as weak and incapable of dealing with someone else's suffering while Amy is depicted as in control.
Ware's narrative is in danger of slipping into clichés of race, and the novel struggles with the burden of representing racial differences. Because she is introduced into the novel after William abandons his son, the narrative seems to suggest Amy's importance to healing, or at least to explaining, ancestral history. Blackness, in other words, serves to heal, explain, or justify whiteness. It is also in the Amy section, which is arguably the book's most continuous narrative, that whiteness most clearly gets made visible. Amy, after all, is a black child who has been abandoned, not unlike Jimmy's grandfather, setting up parallels between black and white identities. Because she is adopted by a white family – the very family that Jimmy Corrigan cannot seem to reconnect with – she may be seen as foil, counterpoint, and/or double to Jimmy.
Ware resurrects the specter of a broken Superman, dressing Jimmy exclusively in a Superman shirt, returning us to the beginning of the novel and its effort to make whiteness visible. Amy places protective coverings on Jimmy's bandaged foot, another image of Jimmy's brokenness introduced early in the novel. In having Amy attend to his wound, Ware further emphasizes their roles as racially defined and positions Amy problematically as caretaker to white brokenness. As if recognizing some of the dangers of this representation of black and white identities, Ware highlights the ineffectual way that we talk about race. The characters, for example, consciously give voice to the difficulty of talking about race, such as when Amy's adoptive father asks his father not to talk to Amy about the racist "colored's only day" of the Chicago World's Fair or when Amy expresses embarrassment over her Barry Manilow cassette.
Ware suggests in these interactions that we are not particularly skilled in talking about race. If Amy's role in the novel is to highlight the way conversations about race remain strained or even silenced, it is significant that the novel does not end with her. Although she serves as both foil and echo to Jimmy Corrigan and essentially dominates the last fourth of the novel, the novel ends with Jimmy returning to Chicago and his humdrum life.
As the last few pages return to the repetitive and colorless space of Jimmy's office cubicle, the snow is falling and it is Thanksgiving. Amy, of course, cannot return with him, and her function as part of Jimmy's new family ends. Jimmy's loneliness is amplified by some of the most repetitive images of the novel. The rectilinear space of the office cubicles and the saturated blue-green tones of this section are startlingly interrupted by the red hair of a new office worker, Tammy. She may be seen as a displacement for the failed romance with Peggy, who inhabited the cubicle across from Jimmy at the opening of the novel, but she may also be seen as a female version of Jimmy, as she is also disconnected from her family on Thanksgiving. With her hand extended to Jimmy, she appears almost as a mirror image as he extends his hand. But this new character, introduced in the very last pages of the novel, may also be seen as a substitution for Amy. Tammy engenders possibilities for Jimmy, essentially echoing Amy (Jimmy's family) and Peggy (Jimmy's failed romantic interest). Tammy's name, ending with "y," is linked to the other women and to Jimmy as well.
In the final pages of the novel, Tammy seems to be inviting Jimmy to dinner for "Thanksgiving in a restaurant" as she gazes at the white snow: "Gosh … it sure is pretty … isn't it?" With a flip of the page, the smaller frames give way to two full and concluding pages of white snow on a grey background that mirrors the book's opening night sky flecked with stars. Almost appearing as a mere dot in the center of the left page, there is a small image of a masked Superman holding a baby while the opposite page simply states "The End." In the hardback edition, these end pages are followed by the "Corrigenda," but in the paperback edition there are two new pages. In the paperback edition, Ware adds a last vision of Amy, who in two added pages is imagined as separate and independent from Jimmy. She no longer serves as a foil for Jimmy's disconnection or his whiteness. Instead, she is seen going to work on a beautiful morning. As she replaces the early shift, the weather turns from sunny to rainy and the other nurse gets ready to leave. Still envisioned as a caregiver, even in this last scene, Amy is, however, given her own agency. In this way, the added two pages serve as a correction to the hardback edition.
In this mini-narrative, Amy takes an old, white man's pulse as if to echo how we last saw her caring for her white father. But she is also depicted as providing food, perhaps linking her to the caretaking of her great-grandmother who was maid to William (Jimmy's great-grandfather). A male nurse enters and wishes her a happy Thanksgiving. The promise of Jimmy's connection to Tammy does not get echoed in this brief exchange that closes the novel. Amy simply answers, "… You too." In giving Amy the final word, the paperback edition revises the romantic promise of the hardback edition. It also gives the enigmatic black voice in the novel a final (albeit strained) independence from the protagonist. In allowing Amy's life to continue past the hardback's conclusion, the novel seems to signify on what must remain outside of the perspective of the novel. Ware allows Amy to have her own life – mundane and unromantic – that serves as a correction to previous depictions of her as foil to Jimmy.
If Jimmy Corrigan embodies Corrigenda, or a list of errors and corrections, it is a very selective list that gets named. Ware includes the following terms in his list: apology, crutch, dedication, draft riots, exposition, finer, glasses, hello, lonely, metaphor, peach, reproduce, simpleton, symbol, thanks, Ware, C. Pervading all of these items is a concern with representation or what it means to reproduce, which Ware describes as: "to produce a counterpart, image, or copy of, or, to bring to mind again, as in a memory." The trick is to reproduce without error. This, of course, is impossible, and so the trick is really to reproduce, recognize the inevitability of error, and then include a list of corrections and apologies. Ware seems to recognize that nowhere is the need for correction more important than in the narrating of whiteness.
The novel struggles to free the black subject from its relational dependence on white subjectivity and seems to recognize that it has set itself an impossible goal: privilege cannot be so easily disclaimed. Black subjectivity, furthermore, cannot be ventriloquized from a position of whiteness. Ware, therefore, can only offer counternarratives, metafictional conceits, and self-reflexive subversions. As if recognizing the insufficiency of these strategies, he offers apology – apologizing for the failures of representation itself … even as it promises new strategies and structures for reading.
It should be apparent to even the most casual reader of this novella that supplied with it are a handful of piquant and diverting "cut out" reference guides.Ware again encourages his readers not only to break free from linearity (as the initiating diagram of the globe invited us to do) but also to transform the narrative into a three dimensional game. The book argues that "those who do attempt the feat [i.e., of cutting out the buildings and folding them into three dimensional buildings] will find themselves more acquainted with the rivulets and tributaries of its grander scope." Ware seems to suggest that a grand vision is possible but only when we examine overlooked details, such as the "rivulets and tributaries."
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