Review: Fictional Father

Fictional Father
Joe Ollmann, 212 pgs, Drawn & Quarterly,, $24.95

Cartoon characters, the kind found in daily newspaper strips, are suspended in a particular kind of existential hellscape. Trapped forever as they are, they will never age, nor find the agency to change their circumstances, bound to the saccharine fate assigned to them by an unseen creator. But what compels cartoonists to maintain this graphic limbo, day after day? Is it simply the desire to provide their readers with a bland but dependable form of comfort, or possibly something more shallow and cynical?

Joe Ollmann’s latest work follows the mid-life tailspin of Caleb, a recovering alcoholic and only child of world-famous cartoonist Jimmi Wyatt. Unlike his father’s long-running daily strip, which centres the loving relationship of a father and his young son, Caleb’s own relationship with Jimmi is fraught with alienation and emotional abuse. Forced to live under his father’s extensive shadow, Caleb is stuck in a permanent state of adolescence. He complains endlessly about his father’s private cruelty and disdain for his legions of fans while unconsciously subjecting the people around him to similar forms of neglect. Like the daily strips that Jimmi built his empire on, Caleb’s life appears to be a static and tiresome rehashing of the same old plot.

One would expect Caleb’s sad-clown shtick to get tiresome in this kind of long-form work, but it’s a testament to Ollmann’s storytelling power that this never happens. Despite his entitlement and pettiness (and being the worst AA sponsor imaginable), Caleb emerges a sympathetic character, one we can’t help but root for. The book is beautifully designed, and the illustrations perfectly capture the narrative’s colourful cynicism, bringing the Wyatt family to life in all their exaggerated, cadaverous decadence.