Creator Q&A: Joe Ollmann confronts his ‘Mid-Life’
Unless you follow the small-press or Canadian cartooning scenes very closely, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Joe Ollmann before now. He’s been somewhat on the peripheries of the industry for a few years, though he’s won acclaim for short story collections like This Will All End in Tears. I suspect his star will rise considerably however, with this week’s release of his excellent Mid-Life, Ollman’s first graphic novel, courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.
The book follows John, an all-too self-aware middle aged dad (and fictional stand-in for Ollmann himself), who, while working on his second marriage and raising a toddler son, finds himself growing ever so slightly obsessed with Sherri Smalls, the children’s entertainer his young child currently enjoys watching and listening to. The book then switches perspectives between John, as his obsession grows and he attempts to find an excuse to head to New York and “interview” the object of his infatuation, and Smalls herself as she mulls over signing a lucrative TV contract and wonders why she’s been so unlucky in love up till now.
Hilarious in that way that only good, sharply observed, cringe-inducing comedy can, Mid-Life suggests that Ollmann has a long and laudable career ahead of him. I talked to him over email about the book, the trick of blending autobiography into fictional material and the perils of parenting. Despite my barrage of personal and potentially embarrassing questions, he remained polite and thoughtful throughout, for which I am tremendously grateful.
First of all, can you give me a bit of background about yourself? I have to confess I don’t know much about you beyond what the Inkstuds interview you did with Robin McConnell a few years ago. How did you get started in comics?
Sure. I’ve had a weird career, people have never heard of me, though I’ve been making comics for thirty-odd years, my first book, Chewing on Tinfoil, only came out in 2001. I had ten years of newspaper strips before that and various self-publishing projects, some of which were collected in The Big Book of Wag from Conundrum Press. But as far as proper comics or graphic novels, or whatever, I’m a late starter. I assume people see I’ve got some chops, but wonder where the hell I came from.
What got you interested in making comics? Did you always want to be a cartoonist? And, at the risk of sounding like an insensitive dolt, why do you think it’s taken so long for you to achieve wider recognition?
I’ve drawn comics all my life. I self-published three issues of weird, kind of super-hero comic in the black and white glut of the eighties, called Dirty Nails Comics. The shipping and brokerage fees nearly killed me with that one. I also have been periodically doing a little square-bound book called Wag! since 1989. I had a weekly strip in The Hamilton Spectator for five years and then did a monthly strip in Exclaim! for another five years. So, while I’ve always been working, it’s been pretty low-profile stuff. It wasn’t until the first book, Chewing on Tinfoil, with Insomniac, came out in 2001, that anyone ever heard of me. And there is always the question, why haven’t we heard of you before. It’s mostly just a lot of bad “career” choices I guess. I wish I had been doing books all of that time, I would have a much more sizable backlist. People would say; look at the size of that guy’s backlist!
What served as the inspiration for Mid-Life? I’m assuming (or at least hoping) that the work is largely fictional, even though the main character is drawn upon yourself. How much of the book, if any, was drawn from your actual life?
It’s half and half autobiography and fiction. I swore I wasn’t going to talk about what was what, but I realize now I have no reason not to and it’s the first question I get asked. Most of the elements, the two adult daughters from the first marriage, having another kid at forty with the second wife and being traumatized by that are all the real deal. The affair with the children’s performer, and the children’s performer herself are just fiction. That I’m still informed by my catholic upbringing is evidenced that my character isn’t even allowed to score in fiction.
How are your family and friends reacting to it? Does anyone object to the way they’re being portrayed?
I sent the script to my daughters and my wife before I started drawing. They were mostly fine I think. I’m the one coming off like a giant, half-naked, bloated, guilt-ridden clown in the thing, so I’m hoping they are mostly okay with it. Sam can’t read so I didn’t even bother to change his name. He’ll probably be the one who sues me.
It begs the question, though, if the book is inspired by your life but not drawn directly from it, why not take it completely into the realm of fiction? Why not disguise the main character more, so that readers don’t start assuming it’s 100 percent true and imagine that you’ve had an affair with Laurie Berkner (or whomever)?
I can’t say for sure why I didn’t make it straight fiction. I guess, part of it is pretty straight memoir and it would have seemed strange presenting long chunks of my life as fiction. I guess there’s the fact that I generally draw a character who looks like me in almost all the stories I do which has caused confusion in the past as to what is fiction and what is not. The story Oh Deer, from This Will All End in Tears, about the office worker who shoots a deer and can’t bring himself to butcher it is always assumed to be about me. I’ve been a vegetarian for like twenty years and people assume this horror story is the origin of that. But it was just a story I made up. I’ve never gone hunting and I never killed a deer, but I love the fact that people think I lived that. I guess it’s a strange mix in the end when you add the entirely fictional story of the children’s performer. I kind of like that messing around with, blurring the truth and fiction. Being John Malkovich was the first movie I can remember where a real character was playing themselves but in a fictionalized role, I guess it was also done on The Larry Sanders’ Show as well. It’s kind of wonderfully disconcerting. Ultimately, I’m not a well-known person, so it doesn’t much matter if people think it’s fiction or reality or what is actually real and what is made up. Laurie Berkner would never have an affair with me, but
she is an awesome children’s performer.
Mid-life is twice as long as any previous story I’ve ever done. I guess there’s the obvious challenge of working on the same single project for so long lacks the satisfaction of doing an anthology of stories and crossing off the stories as you complete them and starting a new story all bushy-tailed and etc.
Then there’s the security of sending a group of stories out. If the reader hates one of them, you’re okay, they’re probably gonna like one of the others at least. In the case of a single story, if they don’t like it you are pretty screwed. So, that was nerve-wracking, asking yourself, is this a good enough story to put out there as a full-length book?
What were your biggest influences as far as putting Mid-Life together goes? What did (or didn’t) you read before starting work on it?
No direct conscious influences that I can think of. You know, the usual unconscious influences I suppose. Probably more influenced by the straight, written fiction I tend to read, I guess, T.C. Boyle, Peter Carey and Paul Auster
all come to mind (I admire them, I’m not saying I emulate or am influenced by these great writers, I just enjoy their work and wish I could do work of that calibre). In the last few years, writing-wise in comics I really admired Fun Home, George Sprott, and Wilson. That Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars issue of Chris Ware’s Acme made me sit up and stop taking Ware for granted, that was just an outstanding work in an already incredible run.
Mid-Life is very much a character-based comedy, by which I mean the focus is more on the individual characters than the plot machinations. How much time do you spend developing your characters beforehand? Do you do a lot of preliminary work figuring out what makes them tick or do you just start putting them on the page in the hopes they’ll surprise you?
Well, the real characters, are obviously based in part on my family, so I know them and getting them down is easy, but of course they are revised to make the story work better. The fictional characters, especially the children’s performer, Sherri, I spent a lot of time envisioning her back story and I also looked at my female friends around that same age and seeing where they are in their lives. I think maybe, younger women readers would strongly criticize my portrayal of Sherri as desperate for a relationship and obsessing about having a baby, etc., but I would counter that they’re not at the age of that character. And, you know, this is dangerous territory and I don’t necessarily want to piss people off, and I would agree that is not the norm for every woman at that age, but she’s just one character and I have seen those kind of obsessions with female friends at that age. Shit, I’ve had obsessions like those myself after my first marriage broke up. I was thinking every woman I met might be “the one” for me. So, as these characterizations come from experience a bit, they rarely “surprise” me as I’m not a mature enough writer to have characters to go off do things that I wouldn’t want them to do.
In the notes at the end of the book you note that Ian Brown’s article about caring for his disabled son affected you in putting together the book. How?
Well, in writing the book, which occurred long after my son was born, he was much older and therefore much easier to handle which took a lot of pressure off our relationship as well. So, I’m writing this story with me sniveling about my life, while I have three perfectly healthy wonderful kids that I love and I’m feeling like maybe the title should be Bourgeois Nightmare or something instead and then I read Ian Brown’s article about life with his disabled son. Just unflinchingly honest and unsentimental and this guy had real things to complain about. It really made me change my way of thinking in my life in a giant way. It made me realize it’s necessary to actually be consciously grateful for things in life and that that simple shift can actually improve your outlook and I mean, that’s basically the character John’s revelation in Mid-life. It’s not some giant revelation, but it makes a big difference.
You stick to a straight nine-panel grid for pretty much the whole book. Why and what did that structure give you and the book?
I pretty much exclusively use the nine-panel grid. I’m a pretty traditional, non-experimental storyteller so the format makes sense. I always say that I see the panel as a TV or movie screen. I wouldn’t change the shape or size of the TV or movie screen for an effect, so it never occurs to me to do that in a comic. I like when other people do it, but it doesn’t work for me. What I hope is that the uniformity of the frame is so ubiquitous that the reader eventually forgets it and just concentrates fully on the narrative.
Was making Mid-Life in any way cathartic for you? I ask because, while it’s obvious large swaths of the book are fictional, there are aspects — John talking about his first divorce, his awkward-at-times relationship with his daughters — that seem to cut close to the bone, to the point where I started wondering if you were trying to work through some painful memories. Not that you saw the book as an opportunity for self-analysis, but were there personal issues that, for whatever reasons, you found yourself addressing in the comic, intentionally or otherwise?
A bit cathartic in the confessional sense, but not really, the real issues in the book, the family stuff, had been pretty much worked through and resolved and was, years ago under the bridge stuff. Again, some of this stuff is semi-fictional, exaggerated at times, etc. My daughters and I have a pretty close relationship and we’ve talked pretty openly about a lot of this stuff. Also, I sent the script before I started drawing. But analyzing past events and behaviours and physically writing it out in words is always a good exercise.
One of the things I like best about the book is the way you portray parenthood as rewarding but also absolutely draining and incredibly frustrating. As a father of two I could completely identify with John’s anger and irritation with his children. Did you find it at all tricky to portray that accurately and yet still keep your lead a sympathetic character (not to mention his passive-aggressive attempts at having an affair and all)?
Yeah, well, having kids is hard work but it’s ultimately this amazing experience, so complaining about it is a pretty shitty, but entirely natural thing to do. But in a book, it could very easily just be a boring list of bourgeoisie whining; ooh, my kid keeps shitting their diaper, etc. which would be a drag to read I think. I think the only way to pull off this stuff is with humor, hyperbole and the self-referencial aspect of the narrator himself commenting on how he shouldn’t be complaining about his tiny problems, that he’s lucky and there are people out there with real problems. It’s kind of the crux of the whole book, really.
Why do you think John pursues Sherri the way he does? What do you think is driving his dissatisfaction? Bad job? Mortality? Self-loathing? All of the above?
Well, I think having kids can be a gigantic strain on a relationship for the first few years, and he’s at that stage, his formerly perfect relationship is very strained, so that’s one reason. And it coincides with him turning forty which is a traumatic time where a person starts to feel entirely invisible to the opposite sex, so they’re particularly receptive to any attention they do receive. I mean, just the usual, bullshit reasons why middle-aged dudes go out and pursues illicit affairs I guess.
What are you working on now? Do you have a follow-up project to Mid-Life in mind yet?
I’ve got the next three or for projects lined up. Another book of long short stories, called Sore Spots is written and storyboarded, ready to start drawing. They are really long stories and may actually be individual books instead of a collection. Then there’s the biography of the alcoholic, bondage -enthusiast, cannibal writer from the 40’s, William Seabrook. That’s been years of research and the script is nearly finished, so that is also coming up. It should be a massive book when it’s done. I’m also supposed to be doing a book called Milo and Sam with my old pal, Andy Brown of Conundrum Press. It’s a collection of short strips that form larger narratives based on us and our two sons. It’s half heart-felt outpourings of fatherly love and worries punctuated with malapropisms of little kids saying “cock” instead of clock. Kind of a post-mod Family Circus?