Emotional instability and neglect, parental frustration and misunderstood grief, and a much-needed sense of self-discovery — Joe Ollmann’s newest graphic novel Fictional Father explores them all. Or, at least, it presents them all; whether exploration or closure are reached is debatable (and, perhaps, not the point in the first place).
The book presents us with middle-aged Caleb Wyatt, a recovering alcoholic son of an internationally famous syndicated cartoonist known as ‘Everybody’s Dad’; his father’s strip, Sonny Side Up, is a beloved icon, a sort of saccharine strip in the Family Circus vein, if Family Circus had a Peanuts-level fanbase. Sonny Side Up features a loving father and his go-get-em-golly son, but the central concern with the story is that this is not the relationship that Caleb has ever had with his cold, shmoozy father.
It’s an interesting setup for a story. So interesting, in fact, that Ollmann begins his novel with a deeply defensive six-page introduction in which he explains that, yes, his very famous friends let him know that Dennis Ketcham, Hank Ketcham’s son and supposed real-life Dennis the Menace, lived a similar, substantially more tragic life and that yes, other famous cartoonists let him know that J Robert Lennon’s novel The Funnies deals with a similar premise. He’s aware of these things, so just be aware of that and leave him alone about it, thanks.
That defensive tone — and long-suffering underdog mentality — never really leaves the novel after that introduction. Caleb Wyatt is an endlessly whiny protagonist, one more than willing to go on at length about his father’s emotional absence and to reiterate just how much that has made him the way he is. It’s hard to feel as if the character makes any substantial emotional growth over the course of the story if only because he constantly makes his lover James, various podcast hosts, and the audience itself aware of his daddy issues.
While Caleb never quite shines, Ollmann’s commitment to the fictional strip in the story does. He creates a unique style—not quite the style of the novel itself—for the strip, including the sort of eye-rolling quote/unquote punchlines one might expect from a very specific subset of syndicated newspaper comic strips.
Alongside those strips—presented as archival, original work—Ollmann creates a deeply believable career history for Jimmi Wyatt, who becomes a sort of portrait for mid-level celebrity excess and pretense, with celebrity hangers-on that he (and his son) can’t help but name drop. A fractured, cold marriage, a neglected son, and a string of affairs sparked from his notoriety round Jimi’s half-caricature character so that Caleb’s struggle becomes, rather believably, a struggle with the totemic image of the man rather than the man himself.
This struggle, and Caleb’s rough relationship with the strip itself, becomes most poignant and heart-rending when Caleb has to reconcile it against his father’s declining health and eventual death; the novel reads at its best as a parable of mismanaging or misunderstanding grief. Ollmann captures a sort of transformative spiral that can sometimes accompany grief, whether for good or ill, and it makes the back half of Fictional Father almost a relief as Caleb begins to take charge of his own life and actions—and somewhat tragic when he neglects more intimate aspects.
Fictional Father is perhaps an imperfect work, but nonetheless a compelling one, so long as you can get over the preposterously whining tone it sometimes steeps itself in. Ollmann never wavers from his commitment to the characters, and the book’s underlying concern about success — having it, not having it — rings faintly autobiographic, even as the quality of the work refutes it.
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