Illustrator of the Underdogs

Cartoonist Joe Ollmann Releasing Comic Dealing with the Human Condition

photo courtesy by Conundrum Press.

Cartoonist Joe Ollmann is releasing a new graphic novel that meshes his vision of human nature with dark humour.

Don’t be fooled by its title— Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People is anything but. Ollmann, a Doug Wright Award-winning illustrator, depicts the lives of characters whose experiences and anxieties confirm life’s greatest truth: uncertainty.

A hyperawareness and sensitivity to life is a common trait in artists, but what sets Ollmann apart is his ability to notice the underlying humour in even the bleakest of situations.

“I think any good cartoonist or writer is good at observing human nature. I’m constantly watching my surroundings and what I observe; I try to get [it] down on paper as best I can,” Ollmann said.

Passionate about comics from an early age, Ollmann would go to great lengths to read them.

“I loved comics from the first day I could remember,” he said. “When I was a kid, I would steal money from my parents, I would blow money I earned just to buy them. I was a comic-junkie.”

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People is an omnibus of the cartoonist’s best work. His characters appear ordinary at first glance, but slowly their insecurities and unsavoury traits are exposed. Despite the apparent distance between the two-dimensional characters and the reader, Ollmann draws raw, relatable and touching figures that individuals can quickly identify with.

A sample from Ollman’s book Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People.

“People say that the stories I draw are bleak, while others say they are incredibly funny,” Ollmann said. “One reviewer said that despite the present bleakness of the topics, there is a glimmer of hope at the end, a possibility of something good happening.

“Even in the darkest moments there is something funny. That to me is the human condition.”

“Big Boned” and “Oh Deer” are the stories that have resonated the most with his readership. The first tells the story of an overweight girl whose deep insecurities about her physical appearance are exhibited through her stream of consciousness. The second is about a white collar man whose life takes a wild turn when he’s pressured to go hunting by his co-workers.

“Having a lot of empathy allowed me to craft these characters,” said Ollmann. “It’s more interesting to feature stories about people with problems because they are more relatable to the vast majority of us. I find it more interesting to draw and represent the underdogs.”

Though most of the stories’ plots were created from Ollmann’s imagination, his personal traits and experiences have trickled down into his characters.

“I’m not an overweight angry woman, but I can relate to her personality in many aspects because of her thoughts,” Ollmann said.

The author intended to leave the endings in the hands of his readers.

“Everything that is neat and perfectly packaged, I hate that,” Ollmann said. “I like things to be ambiguous, that there is a possibility that it doesn’t end the way it’s expected to, and that’s like life.”

Ollmann’s illustrations convey an eerie atmosphere, enhanced by their monochrome tints. Reviewers have described his style as grotesque, gruesome and busy. But because the images flow smoothly and the stories are captivating, reading his work feels like watching a cinematographic piece.

“I stick firmly to panels with nine grids, which I think bothers people because there is no variation in sizing, but I like to treat my illustrations as a movie screen,” Ollmann said. “It’s more about function than form.”

Ollmann explained that he was influenced by a great number of cartoons throughout the span of his artistic career.

“I think every single cartoon I’ve ever read has influenced my style. I don’t want to name any because I have a million that I adore, but I consider myself more of a writer than a drawer, since I feel my art is limited,” he said.

“There is a saying that goes, ‘your limitations become your style.’ Well, that is my style and I wouldn’t compare myself to anyone.”

Book launch for Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People by Joe Ollmann // Oct. 11 // Drawn and Quarterly (211 Bernard St. W.) // 7:30 p.m. // Free