More than anything, Joe Ollmann is a great storyteller. So great, in fact, that it’s easy to imagine any of the eight short tales collected in Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, his latest collection of illustrated stories, presented in pure literary form or even as – gasp – movies. He’s also a great artist, one whose inky lines and characters are reminiscent of how Art Spiegelman rendered the mundane; visually grotesque, yet painfully honest.
But what I admire most is how gracious he is with timing and narrative, allowing characters breathing room, even in the process of doing so brings them to some pretty dark places and giving us – as readers – access to their innermost thoughts and insecurities; one can’t help but feel like a voyeur. Without question, Ollmann is that rarest of word-slinging, line-drawing polymaths; an artist who can actually write and illustrate a good yarn.
And what’s on display here is a glut of riches that run the gamut from the comically tragic to the tragically demure, a collection without the existential warbling that makes their work excruciatingly dull to anyone else but fellow existentially warbling cartoonists. Some are reprints, some entirely brand new creations for this collection. Even if you’ve never heard of – much less read – his previous collections Chewing on Tinfoil or This Will All End in Tears, don’t worry – their best bits are included here in one highly readable package.
He often drops us right into the fire, only to yank us right back out before we’re ready to leave. A choice selection include: “Shut Your Piehole, Johnny Pinetop”, the collection’s lead (and cover model), follows a floundering ventriloquist as he vexes on life and failed ambition, battling paranoia along the way; what could be more tragic than realizing you’ve failed at your chosen craft?
“Hanging Over”, where a middle-aged machinist has to deal with becoming his mentally challenged older brother’s new caretaker when his alcoholic mother is hospitalized. “Big Boned” follows an overweight woman struggling with body image and self-esteem, yet has the decency to not fall back on the predictable post-modern feminism and existential angst clogging up your local graphic novel section.
“They Filmed A Movie Here Once” is a coming-of-age epic about a young girl coming to terms with her faith amidst the backdrop of a small town famous only for being the filming location of a crappy horror film that went direct to video. Among the collection’s most ambitious tales, life could easily imitate art as the story is, essentially, a mini-movie onto itself. “Oh Deer”, where a cubicle-dweller comes to terms, gruesomely, with the fact that he’s never going to be hunter. No way, no how. Period.
A miscellany of the mundane and ordinary, Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People is a shockingly accessible read for those out there who still consider comics the sole domain of bulked-up superheroes, feminist propaganda, or adolescent rage-fantasies drenched in ink. Most of us know this already, but what a treat to be reminded by someone who hasn’t forgotten the medium’s true power to engage on both levels. The eight collected stories here are pretty good stuff – definitely recommended.