First, a confession: I have never been able to accept the term “graphic novel.” The label has always struck me as a pretentious and self-aggrandizing way of referring to comic books. So it was with some surprise, and no small measure of appreciation, that I flipped open the title page of This Will All End in Tears to find the work described as “Comics by Joe Ollmann.”
Nor did my surprise end there. These five illustrated stories of urban anomie and disaffection turn out to be witty, perceptive, and thoughtful snapshots of ordinary people, most of them social outcasts, trying to make their way in a world that seems both alien and hostile.
Ollmann’s tone throughout is bitingly ironic, but never cruel. He displays a real compassion for the misfits who people his stories; the humiliations and suffering he subjects them to are tempered by humour and generosity, and by what Flannery O’Connor called “the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace,” those moments when one character reaches out to another, or when the essential humanity of a character is revealed.
Ollmann’s visual style evokes the work of R. Crumb, but it is his careful attention to the details of his drawings that sets him apart. Note the sign on a Greek restaurant manager’s office door that reads “Mount Olympus,” for example, and the baleful look in a son’s eyes as he surveys his aged and alcoholic mother’s liquor stash.
Comic book or not, there are moments in this collection as powerfully evocative as any I’ve come across in recent fiction.