Graphic Novel Review: Mid-Life by Joe Ollmann

Ollmann‘s (almost totally) unfiltered comic autobiography is incredibly candid, to the point where applying a little gloss may have been helpful. Everything from the dialogue to the story to the art itself is unabashedly uncensored; it’s self-awareness taken to the max.

Autobiographies are a tricky thing, illustrated autobiographies even more so. If you believe your life is a story worth telling then you want to relay it as accurately as possible- which becomes a thorny issue as you are dealing with real situations and real people. Creative liberties need to be taken, and once you start doing that it runs the risk of becoming convoluted and/or unrealistic- effectively annulling the point of the project.

Joe Ollmann is apparently fearless and takes a scrutinizing lens to every aspect of his life. His job, marriage, self-image and internal thoughts are all splayed out for the reader in brutally honest fashion. He’s particularly harsh on himself and his thoughts . It’s hard criticize Ollmann’s cartoon self (dubbed “John Olsen“) because he does all the work for us. He does a little too much work at times, going great lengths to both show and tell readers all about his middle-aged body and his middle-aged mind. However he acknowledges the neurotic behaviour and self-esteem so that can’t even be counted as a fault, although perhaps the real Joe Ollmann could use a little pep talk. Hey Joe, you’re alright guy.

The story told is fairly episodic at first and it’s a little while before elements crucial to the overarching narrative begin to surface. Joe’s home and work life stories are supplemented by another plot as well, that of children’s music performer Sherry Smalls. It’s an interesting gimmick, but it’s simultaneously over and underdeveloped. The book’s marketed as Ollmann’s story, so to have as much of it devoted to a concurrent storyline muddies the waters and doesn’t allow some sub-plots to resolve themselves (the HR incident is totally forgotten). Seeing things from Sherry’s point of view is insightful though, so this might be a case where splitting the two stories into separate volumes might have worked better (and made Ollmann a little more $$$).

Visually it’s very appropriate, although the Ren and Stimpy-esque micro detail panels can sometimes get kind of gross (the liver spot on his head is given a lot of attention, as does his physique). The font can get obstructive at times as well. Ollmann’s a talker, and his wordy nature can be overwhelming with such a bold and cramped typeface.

Overall it’s a very earthy, blunt slice of life that feels like a Louis CK sketch illustrated. To his credit, Ollmann wrote this novel in 2010, before the comedian’s honest raunchiness became de rigueur. The lesson learned is a little depressing, and Ollmann’s character is roughed up by life a little more than he ought to be, but it’s a solid read nonetheless.

Final Grade: B+