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The Cat and Mouse Test in Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan

October 22, 2013
mouse and cat-head from inside cover of Jimmy Corrigan

mouse and cat-head from inside cover of Jimmy Corrigan

In Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan childhood instigates a critique of knowledge. In so doing, Ware allows us to glimpse the importance of the child to the comics form.

The opening instructions to the graphic novel highlight a typical two-panel illustration of closure. In one panel, we see a mouse holding a sledgehammer aloft. A cat lies prone at its feet. The second panel shows the mouse’s dropped hammer making contact with the head of a now decapitated cat.

The opening makes much of these two panels. It is as though the coherence of the entire form hangs together in them. There is a lot for us to learn in this opening, too, which is also a type of lecture, a visual lecture somewhat satirically delivered on how comics work and how they ought to be read.

One lesson we learn here is that in the meager sequencing of two brief panels lies the very basis of narrative causality. Another lesson we learn is to break other lessons we’ve learned elsewhere about reading, particularly those having to do with logic.

As readers of this cat and mouse pratfall, we are encouraged to commit the reasoning fallacy of ad hoc ergo propter hoc. We must violate this logic rule in order to decode the sequences correctly. If B comes after A in the comics, then A has caused B and A is almost always the temporal antecedent of B.

This rebellious blurring of correlation and causation parallels the reversal enacted within the panels. The mouse violently dispatches his natural predator the cat. Such a reversal also encapsulates the comics form as a critique of knowledge.

Deliberately risking epistemological overkill, Ware includes an elaborate concept map with his two basic panels–exploding the idea of any two panels being basic at all. The concept map expounds upon the complex causes, implications, and associations of the single action taking place in the two ‘mouse-and-cat head’ panels.

close-up of central image

close-up of central image

The scope and intricacy of the chart is overwhelming. Vectors from the main panels link to adjacent comic strips that summarize the life histories of the mouse and the cat, tracking each from birth to death. Other lines emanate from the two main panels to explain through images and quasi-mathematical symbols how the heart, eye, and brain read the three squiggly lines surrounding the cat’s head where the sledgehammer impacts it.


Another set of connected images show an icon of an open book with a circle around it and a curtained stage in a theater. The chart instructs us that our reading of comics depends upon a synesthetic experience of literature, theater, and music.

A sequence of mini-circled images of an ear hearing musical notes comically implies that the mouse got his sinister plan for hammering the feline head while listening to a phonograph of music.

And if all this medium muscle flexing were not enough, tiny clocks between images portray gutters as hinges of durational time. In the reverse bathos of the exam that moves from the stock routine of the funny animal pratfall to these scenes of sublime instruction, observers become pupils of the sheer grandiosity of Ware’s project. We enroll in Ware’s school of sensual and temporal reading education. And we are proud to do so, since this is clearly an elite and prestigious institution given all the apparent complexity and in spite of its childish and laughable faculty members.

Ware even gives us a seven-panel sequence at the bottom as a type of final exam for those of us graduating on to actually read the narrative of Jimmy Corrigan, which hasn’t even begun yet. Driving morbidly home the point about the comic’s potential for cosmic complexity, these panels trace all of existence from the big bang to our impending planetary decomposition.

big bang

The relationship between this expansive and intricate configuration of panel sequences and the tiny ‘mouse-and-cat head’ panels is central in all of this. That relationship helps us to understand Ware’s use of other instructional pictorial genres  such as blueprints, flowcharts, how-to diagrams, commercial signs, and musical scores.

The combination of these other picture-teachers and the simple pratfall comic strip creates a sort of crisis of meaning in Jimmy Corrigan. That crisis is reminiscent of Yellow Kid comics. Ware’s cat and mouse test aligns with the banners that recur throughout the Yellow Kid, which translate crises of community into crises of spectacle, crises of closure.

In Ware’s world this crisis is not just temporal or epistemological; not even merely psychological, but ontological. Ware’s adult world is lonely. It is resentfully haunted by its supposed obverse—the innocence of childhood. And Ware’s world has sadly either banished or psychically cannibalized all of its children.

Given the unhappy logic of these early tests of closure, Ware’s aesthetic of the child works retrospectively.  Through ubiquitous panels showing the cloistered tedium of adulthood — with its castrated dreams and decapitated cat heads — Ware snapshots the culprit that has swung the ballpeen hammer that crushes all the joy from this world. At some mythical moment of irrecoverable origin, the mouse did it. The underdog prevails, but now opposites will be even more antagonizing, and so the crisis of polarities replenishes itself for future pupils of reading.

This crisis of union and temporality is a familiar one. It is the uncanny separation of the child from the adult that the child has become.

Childhood is the name for an ideal origin that is only faintly reflected in the mirror. Never merely a fantasy of innocence, lost, or even of one’s coherence in the face of passing time’s entropic ravages, childhood operates in the comics as a doubled fantasy. Every distorted confrontation with an idealized absence is also an oblique encounter with the REAL. In this case, with death.

Ware’s profuse dissection exhibits a circuitous approach to death. His ‘mouse-and-cat head’ panels meander through mourning, lamenting the loss of reason and causality by so obsessively insisting upon them.  No mere avoidance strategy, the visual puzzle of the ‘mouse-and-cat head’ panels is our preludial entry into the world of Jimmy Corrigan. It is a metonymy for the symbolic child that schools us on the bewildering architectures of comics reading.

  1. Next do Daniel Clowes. And then Lynda Barry.

  2. ha! Maybe I should have read this before I tried to read the instructions on how to use my iron!~ 🙂

  3. This is excellent, Michael! Really hits on what I like most about Chris Ware in particular and the material potentials of graphic narrative in general. This will be on my syllabus next time I teach comics!

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