The Mid-Life Moment in Alternative Comics


Friday, March 4, 2011

Mid-Life by Joe Ollmann

Over at the National Post, I have a review of Joe Ollmann’s new graphic novel  Mid-Life (click here to read).

A few ancillary thoughts:

The Mid-Life Theme. As can be guessed from the title, Ollmann’s book is about a mid-life crisis. Has anyone noticed how pervasive that theme has been in recent graphic novels? I’m thinking here of Clowes’ Wilson, Collier’s Chimo, Jaime Hernandez’s The Education of Hopey Glass (and the triptych of stories in Love and Rockets 3), Ware’s Acme 19 (and arguably “Jason Lint” or Acme 20, which covers the characters whole life year by year but where the central life-defining actions take place in mid-life). Perhaps related is Brown’s Paying For It, which I haven’t read yet, also hinges I’m told on a pivotal  life-decision the cartoonist made in mid-life. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the mid-life theme is so pervasive. The generation of alternative cartoonists that now dominate comics were all born in the late 1950s or 1960s and are now facing mid-life themselves. Seth’s an interesting anomaly since it could be said that he cartooned like a middle-age man even when he was young. But Seth is relevant here because he once said that he hoped his audience would grow old with him. That’s what seems to be happening with alternative comics and their audience.


The tradition of low mimetic comedy. Ollmann’s book quite properly carries a blurb from Peter Bagge. This got me thinking about the tradition that Ollmann belongs to, which might be defined as the low mimetic comedy. In comics, it’s a tradition that (as I tried to indicate in my review) goes back to Hogarth. This type of cartooning really flourished in the 1920s with lowlife scoundrels and picaros like Barney Google and Moon Mullins. The tradition was revived in the underground days in Crumb’s Fritz the Cat stories and Gilbert Shelton’s Freak Brothers. Peter Bagge carried the flame in the 1980s and afterwards in his stories about Buddy Bradley, as well as the Bradley clan and friends.  

This is a tradition that is currently undervalued in comics right now (although Barney Google has been picking up fans), in large part because the dominant graphic novel mode tends to shy away from broad comedy and guffaws. It’s hard to remember this but back in the 1990s, it was common to talk about Bagge in the same conversation as the Hernandez Brothers and Clowes. I don’t think that goes on anymore. And certainly the Crumb that is celebrated these days – the Crumb of Weirdo and the sketchbooks – is very different than the Crumb of Fritz the Cat. Shelton’s work is largely the preserve of aging boomers who want comics that will remind them of their salad days and perhaps spark a flashback.

There are all sorts of reasons for the current eclipse of the tradition of the low mimetic comedy. One of the features of this tradition, at least in the Shelton-Bagge-Ollmann line, is that it tends to value plotting and dialogue more than image-making. The art in this tradition tends to be blunter and less subtle than that of more “literary” (for want of a better word) graphic novels. I’ve often thought that Bagge might actually have benefited from collaborating with an artist who could tone-down the art a little. (One of my favorite Bagge stories is a collaboration he did which was drawn by Clowes). This is one case where the auteurism of alternative comics might be a drawback.

I’m hoping that Ollmann’s book will a) be a success and 2) lead people to reappraise the tradition of low mimetic comedy in comics. It’s a lively tradition and some of this work – I’m thinking here especially of Bagge’s Bradley stories – deserves more attention than they’ve gotten in recent years.  Among other things, those stories are (like Ollmann’s work) deeper and darker than they might first seem.

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13 Responses to “The Mid-Life Moment in Alternative Comics”
  1. I’d take issue with your comment re: Acme 20. The car accident happens when he’s a teen and I think that’s one of the central moments in that characters life.

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    Well, I said “arguably.” Actually I did think of the car accident but I have to say one of shocking things about Lint as a character is how little the car accident effected his subsequent life (although he does think about it in the end). It’s part of his no-consequence life-style (and prefigures his treatment of his family, which he also doesn’t think about in consequential terms).

  3. Uland says:

    I really like the tradition of which you write here, Jeet. I like to think that it’ll pick up speed again at some point, but I can’t help but think that the sit-com sort of compacted-ness that those narratives seem to demand feel outmoded. Would Bagge be interested in telling the sit-com saga of Buddy Bradley today, when we have Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office and Bored To Death ( or what have you)?
    I wonder if that kind of neat narrative is essential to this kind of humor and I wonder if someone will try it out without that kind of approach.

    btw, I think Acme 20 reflects the concerns of a middle-aged man and is most compelling when it’s about Middle-aged Lint.

  4. Uland says:

    Oh, and blogs. Forgot to mention them. It’s no longer novel to read details of real lives told in jokey terms.

  5. Alec Trench says:

    Ted Richards’ The 40 Year Old Hippie, from way back when, is a nice example of this sort of thing. It’s a bit more grounded in the everyday experiences of a mature head than the tales of those other Fabulous Furry ones are. There is family life portrayed as well as Mr Natural-ish moments when the hippy tries to pass on some drug-addled “wisdom” to the younger ravers. But less like Mr Natural and more like your common-or-garden old geezer with a headful.
    Crucial to the abundant character of the stories is the lively, dynamic dip-pen work. Richards successfully graces the hero with a particular patina of sun-dried, craggy pickled-ness which marks him out, among the other characters and especially in the late 1970s, as a living relic. Dazzled peepers rolled in leathery squint-pouches.
    The 40 year old Hippy had his own comic, once or twice, and was a regular feature in the Rip Off Comics anthology.

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    Ted Richards is great (and seems to have a website where people can buy his comics as an ebook: There were a bunch of underground cartoonists who did this sort of low character-based comedy. Willie Murphy also comes to mind.

  7. Jeet Heer says:

    A paragraph I forgot to put in the above posting:

    Mirrors and Reflexivity. At several points in the graphic novel, the main character John Olsen is seen looking at himself in a mirror, usually with annoyance or self-revulsion. These mirror images work as panels-within-panels: Olsen is allowed to occasionally look at himself from the outside, which is how we constantly see him. The function of the mirrors is to deepen the reflexivity of the work: for most of the comic there is a tension between the internal life (the captions) and the external world (the art) but in the scenes with the mirrors the line between internal and external is allowed to loop in on itself in a semi-circle. Related to the fact is that this is a semi-autobiographical work: John Olsen is a fun-house mirror reflection of Joe Ollmann, as the names alone would indicate.

  8. Jeet Heer says:

    Another Mid-Life book: Gilbert Hernandez’s High Soft Lisp where the two main characters (Fritz Martinez and Mark Herrera) are both at the middle of their life’s journey.

  9. Everything I know about the low mimetic mode of comedy, I learned in five minutes on google. So this may be well off the mark, but: does Achewood count? I don’t think anybody places Onstad on the level of Ware or los bros., but he seems to me the most-praised web cartoonist, at least among English-language readers.

    In general, low mimetic comedy still seems to thrive in some comic strips (online or print), and certain strains of manga…although most of these aren’t critical darlings.

  10. Bill Randall says:

    “The generation of alternative cartoonists that now dominate comics were all born in the late 1950s or 1960s and are now facing mid-life themselves. Seth’s an interesting anomaly since it could be said that he cartooned like a middle-age man even when he was young.”

    Couldn’t you say that of his peers? Only Seth uses old-time drawing (and fashion), but Ware and Clowes, maybe Collier, Chester Brown, even Lutes, have always been old souls. They turned a Crumb/Deitch influence and the collector’s impulse into comics on Theda Bara, ragtime piano, and the romance of pre-David Blaine magic. It seems a different color of nostalgia than, say, Hicksville or King-Cat, with no analogue I know in French or Japanese comics of that generation. And Ollman’s aging punk rocker, still a little younger, doesn’t lament losing the beautiful music of our grandparents, but getting in fights: “You wanna do the man-dance, punk? Girls, wait for daddy in the car.”

  11. Jeet Heer says:

    Yes, it’s true that the Ware/Clowes/Seth/etc. group does have a nostalgia thing going on, inflected by Crumb/Deitch. But aside from that, there’s a more explicit engagement with mid-life issues which I think is a bit different, and more in common with what Jaime Hernandez and Ollmann are dealing with.

    Another good example of “low mimetic comedy” is Martin Kellerman’s Rocky, two volumes of which were published by Fanta.

    I can’t really comment on Archewood since I have only the most minimal familiarity with it.

  12. Yah, I thought of Rocky. But you’re right, that’s not exactly a critical darling either.

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