There is a slew of broken hearts in Joe Ollmann’s comics collection Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People. These stories — some previously released, two created specifically for this book — span the day-the-day for Ollmann’s misfits, anxiety cases, alcoholics, or just regular folks pinned down in sad, familiar predicaments. The Montreal-based artist’s pages elicit both chuckles and deep sympathy for his “well adjusted people,” who are often plagued with oversized heads and bulbous, protruding facial features.
A story called “Big Boned” chronicles the life and intimate relationships of an overweight woman named Charlene. A building super named Karlson in her chapter is trollish in character and appearance, although his unruly eyebrows and pasted-down, oil-slicked hair don’t prove as objectionable as the cringe-worthy come-ons he’s eagerly deploying in the hallways. Those foul remarks are as close as Charlene gets to compliments — she binges and purges, and battles stifling guilt for it. These sequences are obviously hard to take, but they bump up against wacky back-and-forths between Charlene and her perennially hairnet-clad mother, who bellows from upstairs things like “It’s ten o’clock. Come and watch ‘The Practice’!” Exclamation points are a frequent device, and as they are in his funny, relatable Science Fiction, Ollmann’s characters are often at the mercy of excitement, peak-anxiousness, and social meltdowns.
The title for “They Filmed a Movie Here Once” refers to a remark that Ollmann’s diner waitress Amy makes about her neighborhood’s brief flirtation with stardom, albeit made-for-TV low-budget horror. This one hones-in on a small town and a young woman navigating her way through religion, dating, and her relationship with her father following her mother’s death. Peripheral cast members get endearing profiles, but the Happy Stories creator pays particular attention to Amy and a mysterious new kitchen hand named John. They bicker and flirt, and a potato-peeling exchange gets real pretty quickly halfway through. Tensions flare as skins gather around the characters’ sneakers.
In “They Filmed…,” “Angela” is a bespectacled heavy smoker, who wears exactly two spit-curls pasted to her forehead. Ollmann uses a wealth of lines to render wrinkles in her neck and just above her lips. Her mouth is usually fixed in one position, and she’s frequently craning her neck so that her chin juts out past most of the front of her body. Angela looks miserable, but that could be attributed to her “aversion to watching people eat.” Given all of the awkward moments, the two-toned pages (I loved the swathes of blue over half-faces for evening walks; the tactful use of silhouettes in the church confessional panels), and the frank conversation, I was reminded of Mimi Pond’s Over Easy, a 2014 fictionalized graphic memoir from Drawn & Quarterly (and one of the best books I read last year). Like Pond’s, Ollmann’s wait staff is flirty (“Oh my god but that boy does give me a tickle in my trousers”), while in the back, stout and sweaty line cooks lean over a grease-rimmed fryer. The chatter is the strongest element at work here, and in this story, whether this cobbling of authentic and occasionally weird figures is toiling in the kitchen or ordering the scrambled eggs special, the diner is an ideal stage. But I’m convinced Ollmann has regular people all figured out no matter where they’ve settled.
Images © 2014 Joe Ollmann. Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People is available from Conundrum Press.