The AV Club | Noel Murray | February 25, 2011
The Onion AV Club’s round up features SCENES, MID-LIFE AND DENYS WORTMAN’S NEW YORK!
Cartoonist Adrian Tomine was one of the great success stories of the ’90s mini-comics scene, wowing fans of DIY pop-art with both his breezy autobiographical strips and piercing literary short stories. Over the past decade, Tomine’s done well for himself as an illustrator and graphic novelist, but while he’s been performing on bigger stages, he’s done less of the kind of work that made him such an early standout. That’s what makes Tomine’s Scenes From An Impending Marriage (Drawn & Quarterly) such a treat. Originally written and drawn as a gift for the guests at Tomine’s wedding, Scenes From An Impending Marriage consists of short, funny vignettes about all the chores of getting hitched, like making an invitation list, hiring a DJ, and striving to look presentable. The book is an unexpected return to the mini-comics form—not unlike a serious rock band stepping back from concept albums to knock out a fun 45 again.
The expanded, hardbound Scenes is still small in size, which befits the light tone and the spare, character-focused art. And though the book isn’t meant to be taken too seriously, neither is it completely frivolous. Among its strengths: Scenes From An Impending Marriage accurately captures the peculiar blend of public and private that marks the beginning of a marriage. The betrothed couple is overwhelmed with thousands of tiny details, nearly all of which have more to do with how they’ll be perceived by their families and friends than with the couple’s actual preferences. (Throughout the book Tomine shows himself doing things he wouldn’t ordinarily do to prepare for the wedding, all while muttering, “This nonsense stops the minute we’re married.”) Tomine includes scenes of him and his fiancée dealing with their guilt over wasting so much money on a party they’re barely going to get to enjoy, and scenes where he imagines their friends greeting the news of the happy occasion with a shrug. It all feels very honest, and though Scenes From An Impending Marriage isn’t exactly revelatory, in a way that’s to be expected, because a newlywed’s rites of passage are familiar by design. If anything, it’s reassuring to know that even an artist as talented as Tomine had to suffer through the same crap as any other young groom.
Joe Ollman’s graphic novel Mid-Life (D&Q), on the other hand, does feel revelatory, because the protagonist’s situation is so particular and painful. The hero, John, is a 40-year-old art director for a general-interest magazine who finds reasons every day to lose his cool: his job, the two snippy grown daughters from his failed first marriage, or his exhausted new wife and their toddler son. When John becomes obsessed with a Laurie Berkner-like kiddie-music star named Sherri Smalls, he risks his family, his career, and his self-image to meet with her while on a business trip to New York. But even without the potential affair clouding his thoughts, John would likely be on the brink of self-destruction, because he’s constantly depressed about how much of his youth he’s squandered on a lifestyle he never really wanted.
Ollman (who previously wrote and drew the Doug Wright-winning story collection This Will All End In Tears) works here with cramped nine-panel pages, conveying both the drudgery and the clutter of John’s life. Ollman’s character designs verge on the grotesque at times, and his perspectives on both the children’s entertainment industry and middle-class family life seem overly influenced by clichéd notions of “cool” and “square.” (Sherri describes her own fans as “an audience of spoiled kiddies and their yuppie parents,” which is reductive even for a character who’s not happy with her career choices, while one of John’s biggest worries is that his son will never know that he was once a hip, vital guy.) But Mid-Life is remarkably nuanced within its rigid parameters. Ollman is a whiz with facial expressions and body language, depicting emotions as varied as uncontrolled rage, guilt, self-pity, and affection with just the right placement of an arm or an eyebrow. Plus, his characters are genuinely aware of how many of their decisions are based on bullshit obsessions with self-image.
What makes Mid-Life work so well both as fiction and as comics is the way Ollman has John and Sherri engage in running dialogues with themselves, with the better parts of their nature represented in a caption while the worst parts come out in what they actually say and do. The book approximates what it’s like to be at the halfway point of life, with memories and past regrets bleeding into daily interactions, even as middle-aged folks retain enough optimism about the future to keep pushing ahead. The second half of Mid-Life considers whether John’s flirtation with Sherri counts as an example of that optimism or as proof that he’s given up. And as Ollman pushes toward the resolution of his maybe-romance, his raw-looking art and frank writing build tension to rival any Hitchcock film.
Denys Wortman drew cartoons and illustrations for multiple New York magazines and newspapers between the ’20s and ’50s, but never became as well known as some of his peers, perhaps because his dense panels, sketchy lines, and whimsical captions lost some charm when reduced to a quarter-page. The James Sturm and Brandon Elston-edited Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait Of The City In The 1930s and 1940s (D&Q) arranges hundreds of Wortman originals—saved in a shed by his son—into a tour through the city over the course of a single day. The impressions of city life over a half-century ago are invaluable, but even better, Denys Wortman’s New York features one panel per large-sized page, which does due justice to the artist’s detailed, dynamic drawings of fire escapes, busy lunch counters, jumping dance halls, and dimly lit parlors.