Comics reviews return to The A.V. Club with a round-up of the latest in graphic novels and art comics. In two weeks: The latest in superhero and other mainstream books.
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.
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.
The prospect of reading a 200-plus-page book about two dying old people in early-’90s Los Angeles may seem less than enticing, but Special Exits is rarely morose. Farmer jumps between matter-of-fact details and amusing anecdotes about the grind of end-of-life care, while turning the book into a celebration of two people: her father, a cheerful man who was so determined not to complain that he let serious health problems slide for months, and her stepmother, a steadfast woman whose pragmatism warred with her vanity. Farmer covers the frustrations of dealing with hospitals and assisted-living facilities, but she also writes and draws about her parents’ fonder memories, weaving those moments of pleasant reflection into the slow business of saying goodbye. Aging and dying are rare topics in literature and cinema, let alone in comics, which makes Special Exits an automatic standout. But it would be an excellent book even if the shelves were full of fictionalized memoirs about elder care. Maybe someday Tomine and Ollman will offer their own perspectives on what it means to get old. If so, they have a model to aspire to.