Chris Ware's magnum opus Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth began in 1992 as a serial comic for a Chicago newspaper. This effort was met with such fanfare that between 1995 and 2000 Fantagraphics released the story in eight installments under the auspices of the Acme Novelty Library. That effort was so well received, both commercially and critically, that Random House's Pantheon imprint picked it up just as the Fantagraphics run was nearly done.
And so all of the strands of the saga of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth were bound together. In hardcover. Five years later, it was reproduced as the softcover edition described in GhettoAardvark's write-up above.
The hardback edition originally costs 27 and one half US dollars and was worth every penny. After the release of the softcover, which costs $19.99, reprints of the hardcover were priced at $35.00.
Why pay all that extra dough for a more cumbersome encounter with a 380 page beast?
For the dustjacket, for one. It unfolds into a poster suitable for framing which details how the Corrigan clan first came to be in Chicago from a global perspective. Secondly the hardback edition stands up on it's own.
Inside the front cover there are highly specific General Instructions providing a brief history of language and storytelling-for-hire, ease of use, the essential role of quality entertainment, and a skill check for understanding pictorial language. For those who do poorly on said skill check there is an exam designed to assess one's background. The author promises to grade and discuss the results of the exam if one mails it to him with a SASE, twenty USD and a daytime phone number.
Opposite the General instructions is an essay on Comic Strip Apprehension and the commercial viability thereof.
In the paperback edition, the above-mentioned General Instructions are preceded by two new pages that instruct readers in how to read history spatially. So maybe the softcover is the right one to buy?
This is a story about man who grew up without a father. And then all of a sudden, at the age of 36, Jimmy's father makes contact. This is also the story of Jimmy's grandfather, who saw the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and grew up not knowing his mother. It is a story about trying for second chances too late, a story about loss, being lonely, synchronicity, irony and race. Saying anything else would spoil the story, but do know that there are shining instances of wit here.
On the last sheet of end paper and the inside of the back cover of the book there appears a list of corrigenda. It is here that Chris Ware defines those literary terms and historical events which aid in the understanding of his story (the softlink on "lonely" in the preceding paragraph is taken from this section). He further personalizes this section by dedicating the work to his mother and apologizing to his father. Ware never knew his father growing up, not until he was in the middle of writing this story for a newspaper. His father contacted him, much like how Jimmy Corrigan's father contacts him, and they got together twice. Ware's father passed away shortly before this book was released in 2000; he notes how his total time spent with the man was about four to five hours—roughly the same amount of time it takes to read his novel.
Sample spreads of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth are available from the publisher. Ware's depiction of race in a visual medium has been studied on the collegiate level. (note that the previous two links contains spoilers!) Also, this book contains numerous cut-outs that invite you to reconstruct the pages into something new.