This Will All End in Tears

By Joe Ollman

In these five stories by Montreal cartoonist Joe Ollman the page layout of a nine-panel grid is everything. Nothing escapes the regularity of those little rectangular boxes; no dialogue bubbles or flailing limbs stretch outside their confines. It is a linear grid that is echoed repeatedly in background images of doorways, windows, ceiling panels, bathroom tiles, and the wallpaper of picture frames that no home or office seems able to do without.

This visual background represents the monotonous regularity of lives trapped in dead-end jobs and rotting, dysfunctional family relationships. If you guess from this that Ollman doesn’t write stories about happy people, you’d be right. His characters inhabit a world where happiness is the preserve of the mentally handicapped. At least that’s the excuse for the only smiling face in the book.

And Ollman loves to draw faces. They dominate almost every page. Most of the time they are tired, bitter, or angry, dotted and stained with sweat, acne, freckles, blood, tears, stubble, wrinkles, vomit, and greasy pieces of food. They look scary, like the paintings of so many Dorian Grays wearing their suffering and pain.

A lot of today’s adult graphic novels revel in depicting the mundane grind Ollman works here, perhaps as a way of ironically undercutting traditional comic book expectations of action, drama, and beautiful people. Certainly these stories are among the most kitchen-sink realistic you’ll read by a Canadian this year. In particular, Ollman has a thing for the workplace. We see people doing things like serving fast food or sitting in front of a computer in a cubicle. Common enough pastimes to be sure, though not ones described in many Canadian novels.

Though some of the art is dodgy – in profile a few of the heads seem to be morphing into Pacman – Ollman is a terrific storyteller with a sense of visual pace that makes good use of text and silence combined with remarkable psychological range. While most of his characters are variations on the trapped loser, they are also fully recognizable, multidimensional human beings. An obese woman tries to fit in, but can’t. A Catholic girl in Northern Ontario gets dumped, drunk, and disillusioned. A hard-drinking machinist can’t handle taking care of his handicapped brother and dying mother. Flattened by life, there is nothing flat about them. Caught up in the stale grid of their lives, we suffer along with them and feel all of their impotence, frustration, and rage. Sometimes we can even see ourselves running about in the same small cages.

Review first published May 5, 2007.

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