The Mid-Life Moment in Alternative Comics
by Jeet Heer
Friday, March 4, 2011
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.