A mid-life crisis can strike at any time—in fact, for the semi-fictitous version of cartoonist Joe Ollmann in Mid-Life, it seems like he’s been having them fairly regularly since he was seventeen, and alludes to several of them throughout this book.
This book chronicles one of those crises. In his forties with two adult daughters from his previous marriage and a baby son with his new, much-young wife, the (hopefully very) fictitious John is having all sorts of existential problems regarding his life as a father, a husband, a cat-owner, a boss, and employee and a man, problems that eventually reach a crisis point when he becomes unhealthily focused on Sherri Smalls, a Raffi-like children’s entertainer he discovers while watching a video with his infant son.
Unlike many similar comics of the autobiographical or (seriously, hopefully quite) fictionalized autobiographical genre, the grumpy, bitter, aging protagonist shares the spotlight with the object of his misguided affection.
The Sheri character exists as a sort of co-protagonist, narrating chapters that chronicle her own mid-life crisis—which, for her, comes at age 33—and she finds the opportunity to sign with a network to do her own Saturday morning TV show a sort of crossroads in her life. Will she sell out and live comfortably, or will she chuck it all and follow her dream of being a singer/songwriter for grown-ups? And will she ever meet the older man of her dreams?
Circumstances, and some manipulation by John, eventually lead to the two meeting and seemingly having the opportunity to fulfill both of their dreams and desires, but is that the right thing to do? (“You can be reasonably sure if you make a decision and you feel miserable and hare having no fun,” the John character fumes in a narration box at one point, “then you’ve made the right decision.”)
More important than what the right thing is, at least for us as readers rather than them as characters, is what the funny thing is, and the real Joe Ollmann who wrote these words and drew all these pictures always seems to choose the funny thing to do.
There’s obviously a lot of angst in the pages of this book, a graphic novel in the truest sense of the word—it’s really and truly a novel, in form and structure, that happens to be told in comics instead of prose—but it’s always genuinely amusing angst. Certainly the characters have a sense of humor about it, joking about the little tragedies and indignities of their lives, and there is plenty of opportunity for the awkward laughter of relief, of the At least this isn’t happening to me sort.
Mid-Life is built almost completely out of nine-panel grids—there’s a single full-page splash—with a great deal of the story told in the two main characters’ thoughts, which fill the upper-most bits of those panels, although there’s a great deal of dialogue doing the story-telling as well.
It’s an extremely verbal graphic novel, although it’s not necessarily talky, and Ollman never wastes words. Even when panels include several sentences of narration telling us what the character is thinking, or at least saying to him or herself, the art work conveys the emotion behind those words, or the emotion that exists in spite of them.
Ollman’s figures all have big heads, allowing room for bigger faces to fill with big expressions, and there’s a flat, angular quality to the bodies and their implied motions. It’s pretty cartoony work, yet the alternative newspaper comic quality to Ollman’s artwork, along with the black-and-white presentation and rigid, nine-panel format, helps Mid-Life most devastating emotional moments gain their impact.
The form, and the humor, can draw one in while lulling them to the literary qualities. Mid-Life isn’t only a graphic novel deserving of that often meaningless and misapplied term, it’s also a great one.
So if the John in the book isn’t all that fictitious after all, well, at least some good came out of all the suffering on display.