Joe Ollmann’s comic Mid-Life isn’t like most autobiographies. For one, he’ll readily admit that entire scenes are made up. For another, well … Joe Ollmann’s life isn’t like most other people’s. At age 40, Joe had already raised two now-adult daughters when he and his wife brought a son into the world.
Having gone through teenage parenthood and how faced with a whole new child-rearing experience as he entered his fourth decade, Ollmann decided to do what any rational person would: turn the experience into a comic book. Mid-Life is the result, a funny, awkward and singular look into family life.
Newsarama spoke with Joe about comic book influences, parenthood and balancing family and creativity and how those elements came together in Mid-Life.
Newsarama: Joe, your son is still quite young, but your daughters are adults now. Firstly, how do they feel about seeing their relationships with you shared with the world?
Joe Ollmann: Well, I sent my daughters the finished script before I started drawing and their reaction was pretty good. As a book, they thought it was the best thing I’d ever written, the partially fictionalized parts of our lives and relationship, the reaction was more varied. Even that was more of small reactions to their portrayals in the book, than objecting to the material being presented.
From one of the horses mouth’s, I asked my younger daughter Liz (her sister Meaghan is an email-less Luddite type) this question and this was her response: “You can tell them it’s cool cause it’s almost like being famous. or correct them and say these are fictitious characters, not your daughters. and even if our characters come off as jerks, your success is all we really care about. and now we’re inspired to write our sides of the story so your lifelong dreams of us following in your footsteps and writing is happening!”
So, they may be writing companion tell-all volumes to make me look bad, I guess.
Nrama: Ha. Well, I’ll have to look forward to that! You obviously have a different perspective on both parenthood and comics now than you did when your daughters were born. Do readers get to see some of those differences that experience brings in Mid-Life?
Ollmann: In regards to comics, with when my daughters were little, I still had fantasies of being a super hero comic artist. I was reading typical super hero stuff and the odd underground until Peter Bagge's Hate, Dan Clowes' Eightball and The Hernandez Brothers came along and I couldn’t read supers anymore. It was good timing. My daughters cared only for Archie comics, I confess. As my son gets older, he has discovered the boxes of thousands of old superhero comics in our basement. He reads in the bathroom, bellowing out, we need new comics in here! every so often.
Nrama: How did that transition from superheroes to the independent scene open your perspective to comics’ potential? The books you cite are all fiction; how do they show you the way to creating a book like Mid-Life?
Ollmann: Yeah, those books got me back into reading comics and made me want to keep drawing comics, but it was Crumb and Kominsky’s diary stuff that really inspired me to ever write autobio stuff. I was shocked as hell when I read that stuff as a young, Catholic moralist – like, you should not be talking about that kind of stuff. But as I get older, I get less uptight and I really began to be amazed by the level of honesty they were willing to put out there. It’s a real kind of confidence, to just really not care about anyone’s opinion and to just say whatever you think. Some of that stuff probably has an audience of two and is less successful. Lynda Barry’s strips, and I kind of always took this for granted, I confess, have been a giant influence on the way I write and I’m so glad to see that she is being recognized by a wider audience of late.
Nrama: How long did you spend developing Mid-Life?
Ollmann: I have a full time gig during the day—gig sounds too cool, like I'm a musician, or an actor or something, but no, I'm a graphic artist— I have a job during the day, so I have limited time to work after my kid goes to bed. Mid-Life took three years to finish that way and there was a lot of editing, and redrawing after that. It’s really struck me over the last little while, how long it takes to do this shit, cartooning, and I really want to think hard about what I’m doing before I commit to that length of time before I start something.
Nrama: You say it’s partially fictionalized. Considering that you see things one way and your daughters or son have their own perspective, is it more important to depict what happened or how you see the relationship?
Ollmann: Well, I think it's important to tell the truth as you know the other people involved will be reading it and will call bullshit on anything that isn’t true. I probably made myself come off way worse in the true parts of the book, just for that reason. Again, as the book is partially fictionalized, I was also free to take small liberties to aid storytelling, and on the fictional part, the children’s performer storyline, I was free to do whatever, obviously. But I still didn’t allow my character to score.
Nrama: If this weren’t an email interview, I’d insert a (laughs) there. Your daughter refers to “Jewish mom” guilt. Prior to becoming a parent, did you ever think you’d find yourself bemoaning that an entire weekend together would be too short?
Ollmann: Well, you know, it’s very hard to imagine your kids growing up when they are little, you think you will have them forever, but you lose them a little bit at a time. I’ve already lived through that once, I fear my young son will be over-sheltered as I try and make him wear matching engineer hats and play trains in the basement as a teenager instead of going to bush parties.
Nrama: Having been through parenthood once, does it get easier?
Ollmann: You have a bit more experience. I’m always like, his teeth should start falling out soon. Before Sam was born, I told my wife who had little or no experience with kids, sometimes you have to lie to your kids. She was completely incensed, all, I will never lie to my child. We argued a bit, then I just sat back and waited smugly to collect on that one. It was a like waiting for the longest punchline ever, but I remind her every time she tells one of those necessary lies that you have to tell as a parent, like: no, no, I think the good people of the earth will pull it around and save the world from environmental collapse, now go to sleep.
Nrama: You write a bit about being a young father vs. being a middle aged father. When you had your son, what was the first huge difference you noticed compared to your earlier kids?
Ollmann: I think the main difference is that as a younger parent, I was so young (17!), it was almost like my daughters and I grew up together; we watched Saturday morning cartoons together and I was as excited as they were when the new shows came out in September. I was probably less wise and less patient than I am now, so my son has the benefit of all my accumulated sagely “wisdom.” But, I probably do have a lot less energy with my young son, when I was recently chasing after him on his training wheel-less bike, I was sweating and anticipating a coronary. I’m also less dogmatic now, so I’m less-likely to critique my son’s movie choices from a socialist vantage point as I likely did my daughters’.
Nrama: Was there anything particular about parenthood and your particular experience with it that leant itself to comics?
Ollmann: I guess, just the usual funny stuff, diapers, no sleep, kids saying crazy stuff. Like Bil Keane but with more swears.
Nrama: When did you get involved with Drawn & Quarterly as your publisher, and how is it working with them?
Ollmann: This is my first book with D&Q and I feel incredibly lucky to be published by them, the whole experience has been just really great. They are kind, generous and care deeply about the quality of the book as an object. The niceness of Chris Oliveros, coupled with his success as a publisher truly always makes me happy when I think that the two things are possible simultaneously. I met the D&Q people, ironically through our kids, who are all around the same age.
Mid-Life is currently available from Drawn & Quarterly.