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CR Sunday Interview: Joe Ollmann
posted June 6, 2011



imageOne of the things I like best about Joe Ollmann's comics is that they don't blink. Even in a book-length humor work like his new Mid-life, from Drawn & Quarterly, there are entire sequences where I sat agog that I was going to be exposed to every last bit of discomfort fostered by the situation he's decided to show us. I don't think Ollmann is one of those squirm comedians, piling on the recognizable miseries for the sake of reaching a breaking point; rather, he sees the world as a relentless drip drip drip of indignities and nettlesome situations through which one must grimace and/or shift uncomfortably in one's seat. A fixture of the rich Montreal cartooning scene with years of short stories and strip work to his credit, Ollmann leavens his portraits of messy living rooms, feral cats, rotten phone calls and embarrassing outfits with something of a traditionalist's belief in the value of incremental, real change in the face of life's demeaning assault. I had a lot of fun exchanging e-mails with him. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Joe, is this the longest work you've ever done? I can't tell, but I think of you as a short-story writer, first and foremost. What was it about this story that made you want to tell it in this fashion, and was there any adjustment for you in working on something that was this many pages? Was there a commercial aspect involved, that you wanted a work that was more like the works that other cartoonists have been doing?

JOE OLLMANN: Yeah, Mid-life is twice as long as anything I've done before. I definitely have previously been a short-story guy exclusively and I'm presently writing four new shorts which were to be one book called Sore Spots, though in the writing process they each stretched out into like 85-page stories and may be individual books some day.

It was partially a commercial move in that short story collections seem like a hard sell to publishers and the public, and I guess and I had a fantasy of some giant, mainstream literary publisher wanting to break into the "graphic novel" market and for some reason giving me a grotesque advance (that I only managed to get published by friggin' D&Q has been a life-long dream realized, so I'm not complaining).

But mostly, my stories have, of their own accord, gotten longer, from the fairly short ones in Chewing on Tinfoil to the slightly longer ones in This Will All End in Tears. It's kind of a feeling of getting away from the economy of newspaper strips which I had been doing for years to realizing you could allow a bit of space in the pacing and that it wasn't a rip-off to the reader if nothing happened in a panel or two.

imageSPURGEON: I tried to think of some clever way to ask you the autobiographical question but I failed. Is there any way you'd prefer to talk about how close the work in question is to your own life, and the various decisions you've made to incorporate parts of story that you know into this work? Did you ever regret the decision to make what seems like -- and maybe only seems like -- a work that uses your own life as a springboard?

OLLMANN: Sure, I'll talk about it. Parts of Mid-life are pure, if thinly veiled autobiography. You can't really choose not to talk about what's autobiographical in a book when you make the main character's name John Olsen and my name is Joe Ollmann. It's like that Son of Dracula movie when the Count in disguise, goes by the name Count Alucard. As a kid, I was all like, "He's Dracula! It's just his name backwards!" I digress, but yeah, I am married for the second time after an 18-year child-bride marriage that ended in heartbreaking, ball-breaking, life-crushing disaster, and I had another kid with my second wife just as I turned 40, I have two adult daughters from the first marriage who also have thinly-disguised names in the book. Having a kid at 40 was fairly traumatic for me maybe as I was just naturally feeling my age or maybe because I had already gone through this stuff so long before and the déjà vu was a bit overpowering.

The affair part is pure fiction, except for the genesis of the character John's obsession with the children's performer, which was suggested by my daughter Liz mocking me for being too enthusiastic about a certain children's performer on a DVD that my son Sam and I were watching. That happened exactly as it does in the book, everything after that is just me making shit up. Even the stuff that is real was altered to fit the story a bit. I'm a regular James Frey.

It's funny, because various reviewers of my past books have speculated that stories with the character I draw which looks a lot like me were autobiography and none of the depressing crap in those stories was mine, beyond the odd little details that every writer steals from their own life. The fact that people thought this stuff was from my life, I took to be a compliment, so it'll be interesting to see the reaction to stuff that really is from life.

I don't really regret writing about this stuff, I'm a pretty open book as anyone who's ever been cornered by me at a party while I drunkenly reveal stories of my marital breakup and my dark years of drunkenness can attest. My main concern was how my kids and wife would feel about it, so I gave them all the script before I started drawing. Then I changed their names so they couldn't sue me. Sam can't read yet, so he just gets dragged along. The reaction was mostly positive. Anyway, I mean, I'm the one coming off like a jackass in my underwear through the whole thing.

SPURGEON: Two follow-ups, one direct and one more of a springboard. First, what's it like to turn that much of your personality into art? Does it provide a way of working through some issues, does it allow you to view your behavior in a different light? Certainly a difference between you and your lead is this kind of obvious inventory you get by examining yourself that way.

OLLMANN: Well, you think it would be embarrassing or something revealing person details, but when you cleverly disguise it by making those elaborate name changes it's kind of freeing. [Spurgeon laughs] As I get older I kind of realize that no matter what crap you've gone through someone else has gone through the same or worse. That's why I put that quote from Terence in there, "I am a man: I hold that nothing human is alien to me." Nothing much ever shocks me and I assume most people are the same.

There is a bit of the idea of therapy on paper in this for the simple reason you have to reexamine the past and analyze it a bit and also knowing that the other people involved in it will read it forces a sense of over-honesty. That's probably why I come off as such a dick in the story.


SPURGEON: Second one, the springboard one. The other big noticeable decision you made in making this book, I think, is making Sherri a second identification character, a second lead, really, as opposed to telling the entire story through John's eyes. Why did you make that decision, what appealed to you about bringing her up on stage in the same way that we follow John around?

OLLMANN: That kind of happened in the writing stage, seeing that she was in her own kind of mid-life crisis, though she's younger. It just seemed obvious that I needed to write the character Sherri's inner dialogue on the direction of her career and her reactions to the John character. It was a bit of a conscious decision too, in realizing in a longer work needed more complexity than a single story focus. It was tricky to make it clear when the narration switches from John to Sherri. I toyed with the idea of different lettering for each narrator, but in the end thought it was clear enough.


SPURGEON: I took a brief look at your blog, and noticed that you wrote positively of both Jeffrey Brown and Jim Aparo, albeit for completely different reasons, neither of which was part of any kind of comprehensive list of influences. It still suggested a question. How much are you inspired by peers like Brown, and how much are you able to incorporate techniques and approaches in new work into your own. Or are you set in your ways?

OLLMANN: Oh, my blog. I'd almost forgotten about that thing. I really gotta get better at that, get some new content, the kids, they like new content. Jim Aparo was, I think, one of the most underrated, taken-for-granted of all the DC artists, but that's another story.

I would say I'm inspired by a lot of comic artists out there for a lot of different reasons, I guess I am influenced by them by osmosis as I am by every book I read, movie I watch, etc. At this stage, I'm pretty set in my ways creatively and I'm fairly careful to avoid any conscious or unconscious borrowing from other artists. Some of the people whose work I admire the most; Chris Ware, Seth, Dan Clowes, are visual stylists and experimental in their narrative approaches, while I, a structural traditionalist, could never hope to mimic that even if I wanted to. As my old pal Billy Mavreas said, "You're not a visionary, Joe."


SPURGEON: One thing I found sort of interesting throughout is how unpleasant a lot of your character designs are -- you're really ruthless in terms of drawing people's physical shortcomings, and while your style allows for pleasant-looking people you're not exactly drawing on notions of the physical ideal. How conscious are you that your characters look a certain way and is anything about that a reaction to other people's art?

OLLMANN: Tom, that's probably just my limitations as a cartoonist. Seriously, I find drawing ugly-ish people amusing, but I didn't specifically set out to draw a cast of grotesques or anything. I realized in drawing this last book, that I need to work harder at the drawing and be a lot more careful in regards to continuity, etc. in the process. Being published by a publisher of the stature of D&Q made me want to make the best-looking book I could and I redrew a lot of pages and panels before I submitted it and then after Tom Devlin mercilessly critiqued what was left, he guilted me into redrawing a shitload more, God bless him.

Some of my favourite artists, such as Dan Clowes or Lynda Barry, draw almost exclusively ugly characters, but they are still pleasing to look at. It's partially their skills and partially some other intangible. Other people can draw perfectly competent cartoon drawings, with skill and still you look at them and they annoy you, they're unpleasant to look at and ostensibly, not intentionally. I hope I'm not completely in that realm, though some of my own drawings do make me sick when I see them in print.

The problem I have with not drawing a character completely consistent from panel-to-panel is one that I plan to address in the future by making simpler character designs or merely acclimatizing my self with them longer before setting down to draw. As is common with me in most books I do, I redrew the first five pages or so of Mid-life several times, before I had the feel of the book down.


SPURGEON: Another question, slightly related to the one about longer works -- how do you pace a scene? I liked a couple of the early set pieces in Mid-life, like the one where you talk to the abusive co-worker, and I wondered how conscious you are of really making a scene work within the wider framework of story?

OLLMANN: That stuff all occurs kind of intuitively with me. Though I do work out a story in great detail in my head for months, months before I ever begin writing it down. When I do put it on paper it is pretty final, I do minor text revisions when I type up the script, but that's it. When I storyboard a script, as I'm generally working with a nine-panel grid, it is necessary that certain actions will occur at the beginning or end of the page and it generally works out perfectly as I break the script into pictures. Just as Mid-life was divided into two parts or books, exactly in the middle of the narrative, it all occurred accidentally, or I'm some kind of Rainman of comic scripting or something.

imageSPURGEON: That brings up another craft issue, which is that I decided I like your lettering and what I think I like about it after some reflection is that the text has a very insistent place within your word balloons, it crowds out the white space and presses against the balloons themselves. You also allow some broken line, which I think guarantees that we read the dialogue as speech. Are you happy with your lettering, do you take time with and try to use it for specific effect?

OLLMANN: Well, that's a first! My lettering is pretty much universally despised by all my cartoonist friends. I'll be quoting from this text next time they attack. It's really something that I just try and make technically (neater) better. But I've really never given enough import to the mechanics of lettering. I've really begun studying everyone's lettering and I find I admire the shape of balloons and the spaciousness inside the balloons. It's another thing I need to pay a bit more attention to. The other problem is I'm overly verbose, there's a lot of words to fit in most panels, so I'm often I'm reduced to cramming things in and fixing the lettering later.

SPURGEON: This may also be intuitive, but a couple of things about the Sherri story struck me. Did you give her multiple male figures to bounce off of on purpose, because I liked that in a structural sense, as a way of seeing her react to extremely different personality types? Did you think of how those characters related to John at all, because in some ways each guy is a reflection of something in his personality.

OLLMANN: Yeah, the male characters in Sherri's story were there to show her reactions to them at that point in her life. So many of my female friends that have always been attracted to bad-boy types reach a point when the appeal, in theory, of a more mature, less complicated man is much greater than the sexy tough guy that only gets more pathetic as he gets older anyway. In the story, Sherri is decidedly at that point.

All the male characters were definitely meant to be foils to John who seems to represent a lot of the best of their characteristics while he's actually a confused, lying sack of crap.

SPURGEON: How sympathetic are you in terms of the world Sherri inhabits and the career choice that she makes? Because I think that you did a fine job communicating the relative ambiguity of her feelings about the decisions in front of her, the kind of decisions that could easily be seen as a cliché. Also, since you didn't really go that far into what decision she made, what role did her having that decision to mull over play in the book, do you think? Certainly John has very few such decisions to make.

OLLMANN: Well, I mean it's an interesting idea that she would hesitate taking a lucrative gig making music professionally just because it's for kids and therefore not exactly what she wants to do. I see that happen a lot with artists and cartoonists, bitching about working in some art-related job that isn't exactly what they want to do. I've worked in factories a lot as a young kid so for me, working in anything art related for me is like the realization of that child-box-factory worker's dusty little dreams. I'd love to be one of the three or four humans in the world that make comics full-time with no day-job but it's never going to happen, so I work my ass off in my basement every night and I like it. Just so I don't come off like some cranky old Al Capp type, I will say I can sympathize with not wanting to compromise your art. I guess.


SPURGEON: Do you think Sherri was genuinely attracted to John? If so, why? If you don't want to talk about that so bluntly, can you talk about how you approached what Sherri did in that section of the book and why, what felt right to you about those moments?

OLLMANN: I think she was attracted to him. I think she was at one of those stages where a person is attracted to the potential relationship with almost everyone they see. I've been there, after my first marriage went to hell, I regularly fell in love with the back of girls' head on the bus, I'd be drinking out of my flask, breathing whiskey fumes thinking; "I wonder if she'll notice me." Sherri's kind of at that place in the story, plus she and John actually get on well. If he wasn't married and lying to her, I would assume they could have got along really well. I actually based much of their conversation on the first meeting I had with present wife and we're still together.

SPURGEON: One part of John's story that I wanted to ask about the way you portrayed his relation to the office setting more than the setting himself. It seems to me that you captured something of the always-in-turmoil feel that a lot of people have about their jobs, the way you can go from office hero to office zero in a few seconds. How much do you feel John's personality is shaped by the job he has, and although I know this might cover stuff we looked at already, how closely do your attitudes about his office mirror your own?

OLLMANN: The character John is very much what I once was myself, investing a lot of time and energy to their job, often to the detriment of their personal life. My last job as art director at a yoga magazine -- and, yes, the exposé book, Help, I'm being Held Prisoner in a Yoga Factory is coming soon -- nearly killed me with the investment of time and energy and a need to put more in than anyone else nearly finished me. It ended in heartbreak when they fired all the men at the magazine. It changed the way I see work, again coinciding exactly with turning forty. When my boss at my present art production job asked me if I wanted to take on more responsibility, I was like, I kinda would rather be a farmer or something than have more responsibility at work. So I'm the farmer of the office which I find is a lot healthier all around.

SPURGEON: I liked Peter Bagge's quote on the back of the book. For whatever strange and unfair reason Bagge's maybe not as immediate a figure in comics as he might have been 15-20 years ago. What do you appreciate about his work? Has it informed your own? It seems you have similar sensibilities.

OLLMANN: Peter Bagge is a giant, really. I used to copy his gag comics back when I was a kid in high school to amuse my cohorts. Those early Neat Stuff books were terribly funny. But it was more interesting to watch Hate and how the Buddy Bradley character and all those stories gradually grew so much more complex, in the earlier, throwaway stuff, you could see that he was capable of bigger things. His character designs are so strong and unique and he's a fantastic letterer, really, an all-around craftsman. That recent Vertigo book he did, Other Lives, was great. I would hope his stuff isn't passing under any radar or anything.


SPURGEON: He makes note of your adherence to the nine-panel grid. What is it that appeals to you about that particular page construction; what works about it for you?

OLLMANN: The nine-panel thing just seems natural to me. I see the panels as a movie screen or an TV screen. No one changes the size or shape of a movie screen in the middle of a movie, right? That's kind of how I see it with my work, I just pan and scan, close-up and longshot, within that framework. I like watching other people's experiments in design; it just never occurs to me to do that. It also is a technical necessity, as that nine-panel grid gives me tall, narrow panels that better accommodate my voluminous narrations.

SPURGEON: Is there any chance we might see a longer color piece from you in the future? I like the watercolor look of the cover.

OLLMANN: It's weird working in color as I've only done black and white for so long. I'd be up for it, I suppose. I really love gray-scale ink wash; that's what I'd like to do next. As far as color goes, that Brecht Evens D&Q book, The Wrong Place, is some of the finest color work I've seen in years, both in terms of color palettes and execution. Also, Alex Fellows who did that book Canvas is doing an on-line color piece that is really beautiful.

SPURGEON: Having your first big book out would seem to me a natural time for reflection as to your comics output generally. Are you happy with the way things are right now comics career-wise? Are you devoted to doing more works of a similar length and ambition?

OLLMANN: Well, I have then next three projects written and ready to draw. I just need more time. Since I turned 40 I really feel like a Robert Johnson song and death's spidery fingers are trying to get me before I finish stuff, so it drives me to work a lot harder. I'm happy where I am mostly. Being published by D&Q is just incredible, really. I feel so lucky to be published by them and to finally have french flaps.

I've had a strange career where I spent about ten years devoted to two different newspaper strip projects, a weekly and a monthly, five years of each, and they were almost my sole output during that time. I wish now that I had been making comic books instead at that time. It feels like a lot of wasted time in a way. Though, delivering the strips to the newspaper, walking through the offices, high-fiving reporters and yelling sarcastic remarks always made me feel like I was in an episode of Lou Grant or something, you know, so it was a good experience, too, that I'm lucky to have had as the newspaper comic slowly dies. Plus, the discipline of meeting deadlines stays with me even when I don't have deadlines.


I guess I see myself doing the same kind of work I'm doing now, hopefully improving rather than worsening. I am experimenting a little as one of the scripts I'm finishing is a biography of the travel writer/alcoholic/cannibal/S&M guy, William Seabrook. That's been several years of research, thousands of dollars in out-of-print books and traveling to different archives, then settling down to sort it all out and make a narrative that doesn't read like old Classic Comics. I'm actually reading Tintin with my son lately and toying with the idea of using a 12-panel grid for the Seabrook book, so I ain't dead yet!


* Mid-life, Joe Ollmann, Drawn And Quarterly, softcover, 184 pages, 9781770460287, 2011, $19.95


* cover to the new book
* photo of cartoonist and son provided by the cartoonist
* one of the more straight-up humorous moments of the book, and one of the few breaks with a nine-panel grid
* Sherri
* a crush that I guess more or less happened in real life
* don't worry, the kid just wants juice
* from the well-paced HR scene
* I don't care what his friends say, I like the lettering
* she just might actually like him
* a non-Mid-life use of the nine panel grid
* from the projected Seabrook book
* a cute throwaway image from the dedications page in Mid-life (below)