June 11, 2021

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The Portrait of the Artist as an Unappreciated Son in Joe Ollman's Fictional Father

 

What do we really know about the creators of our favorite comic books and comic strips or even think of them? Most likely, we relate to them through their work. So Charles Schultz must have been one of the warmest and most caring men to have lived in the last 100 years. Bill Watterson has to have an unbridled imagination. And Jack Kirby was one tough S.O.B. It’s easy to realize that what we think reflects the artist in the work they do, especially when one work like Peanuts or Calvin And Hobbes defines that artist’s legacy. So in Joe Ollman’s Fictional Father, Jimmi Wyatt must have been the greatest father of them judging based solely on his beloved comic strip Sonny Side Up. The daily escapades of a father and son in that strip defined the ideal parent/child relationship for generations of newspaper readers. So Jimmi must have been a great father, right? Jimmi’s real son Caleb may want to set the record straight on that one.


Joe Ollmann's new book shows a middle-aged man living in the shadow of his father’s success and neglect. Caleb is in an unsteady position of wanting to strike his own independence from his father while also wanting to be his father in a way. For better or worse (no comic strip pun intended there,) Sonny Side Up is the family legacy that Caleb finds as complicated as his relationship with his father. The father Caleb saw daily in his father’s strip was not anything like the father that he had to live with. Like us with Charles Schultz, Jimmi’s audience believed him to be the greatest father around. What they didn’t see was Jimmi’s womanizing and neglect of his son and his wife. It’s like Jimmi Wyatt put all of the fatherly care he could into his comic strip and had nothing left at the end of the day for Caleb.


In a lot of ways, the story of a son failing to live up to his father’s expectations is just a standard family drama story. The father is cold and distant. The son is a bit of a mess, yet he still has to find a way to grow up by the end of the story. Ollman knows it is the details of the story that adds a richness to it. It’s not the fact that Caleb is a disappointment to his father (or at least thinks he is) that makes this a unique story. Other elements of Caleb’s life define him as much as, if not more than, his parentage that helps create the conflict and the growth for Caleb. 



In many ways, Caleb fills the role of the second and least favored son in Jimmi’s life. Sonny Side Up came first and Jimmi had his success before Caleb was even born. Caleb came along when things were good and never quite fit into Jimmi’s life. So Caleb grows up with an emotionally abusive father, a mother caught up in a strained marriage, and without any kind of support. So of course he rebels, getting caught up in drugs and even lashing out at his father by creating an underground parody of his father’s life work. But eventually, he pulls himself together a bit and falls in love with James, who tries to support Caleb as much as possible. Caleb also tries to help other addicts get their own lives together at a local rehab center. It’s not like his parents don’t support him but they remain so wrapped up in their own lives that Caleb, even as a middle-aged man, has the same lousy relationship with his father that he had when he was a child. 


So that’s the story here- a man struggling to gain his father’s love. Ollman makes the story relatable and real; you could almost believe that there are autobiographical parts of this story because that’s just how real some of the moments of this story feel. And there are real elements about the story but they just don’t come from Ollman’s life. In the introduction to the story that helps to establish the foundation of the book, Ollman recounts how he told Peter Bagge this story as he was coming up with it. “ I have this idea about a fictional cartoonist. He’s very famous and beloved, and his strip’s about a father and son but in real life, he’s a terrible father…” Bagge jumps on that summary and informs Ollman “That’s Dennis The Menace. You’re doing a book on Dennis the Menace.” So Caleb’s story is not Ollman’s personal story but there are similarities to his story and other people’s lives. 




This other aspect of Fictional Father is fascinating as Ollman plants the Wyatt’s in a world filled with cartoonists we know. Jimmi isn’t Hank Ketcham, Dennis the Menace’s creator, and Caleb isn’t Ketcham’s son but that connection creates this entry point where Ollman gets to explore comics on a larger scale than just the more simple tale of a father and son. He gets to explore our relationship with these stories, these characters, and their creators. Caleb struggles to live up to the expectations of Sonny Side Up even as Jimmi drinks in the fame and persona of himself as “Everybody’s Dad.”


Ollman places his audience into the position of being the audience of Caleb’s life. Through his steady lens, we’re placed to be observers around Caleb, always there to see the good and the bad. Caleb is no saint- he has his own demons that he’s dealing with and we’re there to see him screw up; we see this happening right in front of us and we’re as powerless as Caleb is to change the events. Ollman gives us the benefit of having a bit of distance from this story but he places us so close to Caleb that the comic frame becomes a peephole for us to watch this story through. We’re not voyeurs but we are witnesses to Caleb’s life. 


Jimmi Wyatt loved being “Everybody’s Dad,” not because of the responsibility of fatherhood but because of the fame it brought him. It filled some spiritual hole in Jimmi’s soul and Caleb spends this book trying to fill the same hole in his soul. Like father, like son. Ollman’s book shows a man struggling with being his father’s son as it asks why we venerate the people who entertain us. It’s hard to understand that art is not always the artist just as the son is not always the father.



Fictional Father
Written and Drawn by Joe Ollmann
Published by Drawn & Quarterly