JIMMY CORRIGAN: THE SMARTEST KID ON EARTH by Chris Ware
(Pantheon) $27.50

DAVID BORING by Daniel Clowes
(Pantheon) $24.95

CHRIS WARE AND Daniel Clowes are towering stars of the tiny, lonely world of alternative comics, those glossy but nearly homemade picture pamphlets for grownups that appear at intervals--interminable to those of us who await them--that are best measured in geologic time. But now, suddenly, a bonanza, for Pantheon has simultaneously issued lovely hardbound editions of Ware's blockbuster graphic epic Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, episodes of which have been appearing in his series The Acme Novelty Library for the last eight years, and Clowes' more modest graphic novel David Boring, which first appeared in three installments of his longtime series Eightball. (His previous book, Ghost World, was by my lights the best American novel, with or without pictures, of the 1990s.)

The family dynamics at the heart of the two stories could hardly be more similar. Main characters Jimmy Corrigan and David Boring were each abandoned by their fathers; each of their clinging mothers has tried to erase any trace of the deadbeat dads. Now they live as loners in the city: Jimmy mutely forgotten in some indeterminable middle age, David sourly hip at age 19. Given that sad family template to work with, though, Clowes and Ware soon go their separate ways. To be clumsily divisive about it, Clowes belongs to the bitter, hilarious, fetish-baring tradition of R. Crumb, while Ware is one of the first graduates of the school of Spiegelman, or at least of Spiegelman's Maus, that ambitious narrative of an individual caught in history. From the meager central drama of sad sack Jimmy sitting alone in his apartment, Ware spins a historical and generational pageant that includes Jimmy's offhandedly vicious forebears, as well as the architectural and racial history of Chicago. He follows Jimmy's stilted reunion with his father and goes on to trace the lineage of disappearances that the Corrigan men have inflicted on their sons.

The real tension of this grim history comes not so much from how Jimmy will resolve his relationship with his father, but from the contrast of the poverty of the Corrigan men's words and the cowardice of their actions, with the sheer obsessive grandeur of Ware's full-color compositions, especially his loving depiction of the great Columbian Exposition of 1893, and his wildly intricate and stunningly moving Corrigan family tree. The loveliness of these images and the ambitious scope of the story evoke the operatic resonance that even (or especially) the pettiest of actions and desires can set in motion.

But the book also feels weighed down by its ambition, by the responsibilities of history and heredity that it so determinedly bears. Jimmy's mute passivity, though clearly the point of the story, becomes its burden. The standard theory among comics scientists is that the bald, round-headed kids who have been the stars of the form are, in their abstraction, gateways for reader identification. But Jimmy, like that irritating old mute Henry, is such a blank, passive slate that I find my attention shunted elsewhere, toward the exact buildings, chairs, streetlamps, and shadows of Ware's Chicago, which come to carry a delicate dignity and longing the lonely figure of Jimmy himself does not possess.

Clowes, meanwhile, flirts with the sorts of Big Themes of family and history that Ware tackles, but he swerves relentlessly back to David's less explicable obsessions, especially with a series of look-alike women who share, among other things, the same knoblike hairdo and the same size ass (that is, large). When considering David Boring, as in the work of Crumb, one must give to the ass the same close attention one gives to, say, the figure of the garden in the poetry of Edmund Spenser. The asses that Boring is drawn to, though large, are not quite the puffed-up fetishistic fannies of Crumb's thick-legged amazons. There is something more humanizing about Clowes' treatment of the rear (Boring's own saggy bag included), which after all is the body's most humble part. The ass lies outside its owner's self-awareness, unseen and nearly unseeable by the subject, which means not only that it can be observed without observation (one reason it is so convenient a focus of desire), but that it is vulnerable and unprotected, a protrusion of soft, intestinal humanity, a chink in the social armor. Clowes' asses are like the sad, grotesque faces he draws: raw testaments to the utter lack of control that people have over their own selves and what others see in them. His caricatures are cruel, hilarious, and heartbreakingly humane. And despite Ware's brilliance, invention, and ambition, Clowes' slighter book is the one I keep turning back to with a sense of mysteries yet to be revealed.

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