Review: Mid-Life by Joe Ollmann

by Joe Ollmann
Drawn and Quarterly

In Mid-Life, the hilarious graphic novel by Joe Ollmann, we meet a conflicted, pear-shaped John Olsen who is revisiting fatherhood at age 40. Although his much younger second wife, Chan, is the love of his life, he still feels pangs of guilt about his first failed marriage and the disappointment it caused his two daughters, now 19 and 23. Yes, we can all do the math. John was married at 17 and spawned children “like some hillbilly child bride.” His guilt, however, competes with his resentment that he was never able to enjoy the freedom of his youth as Chan was. On the fun scale, everyone in Montreal seems to have had a better time than sleep-deprived John, whose new parent role has created both a cranky husband and an absentminded employee, pushing him closer to the edge of an emotional and professional abyss. To make matters worse, just as his once rabid sex drive starts to decline, his disconcerting habit of ogling the body parts of young women emerges. Clearly, John is experiencing a mid-life crisis.

Readers who have had children will readily identify with John’s situation, from his petty anger because his partner got seven minutes more sleep to the insipid children’s TV shows you are forced to watch because moving would wake the baby sleeping in your arms. In John’s case there is an upside to watching kids’ TV, in particular Sherri Smalls, who John thinks is great and well, hot. As an artistic director at a magazine, he travels to New York where he makes plans to interview Smalls, the second narrative thread in Mid-Life. Sherri is a lonely former-rocker-turned-children’s-performer who doesn’t know what to do with her angry on-again-off-again boyfriend who is also her onstage monkey sidekick. Will John’s desire to feel young again triumph over his crippling guilt?

I originally read the first chapter online and laughed until I cried. Ollman’s nine-frame black and white panels with their scratchy lines convey a range of intense emotion, from cringe-worthy embarrassment to anxiety-inducing pain, with humour never far off. My only criticism is that the lettering was difficult to read at times.

The author has crafted a fine narrative, continually upping the emotional stakes every few pages. This book will definitely appeal to anyone who has had a child later in life when waking up several times a night is akin to torture.  No one can deny the first five years of our children’s lives are trying, and what better way to enjoy it than by witnessing our hapless protagonist limp through it. In the end, John finds a solution to his predicament—he stops looking at what he’s missing and starts to appreciate what he has. The glass-half-full outlook can make a world of difference.

While Mid-Life is considered an autobio comic, how much of it actually transpired remains a mystery. Ollmann states in the preface, “This is largely a work of fiction, except where it isn’t. Please see the notes for even less clarification.” I wonder what his wife thinks…


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