Here's the 40-year-old hero of Canadian cartoonist Joe Ollman's new graphic novel Mid-Life, waxing cynically philosophic on the subject of adultery:
"You can be reasonably sure if you make a decision and you feel miserable and are having no fun, then you've made the right decision."
Okay, John Stuart Mill might have put a loftier moral spin on it, but you get the gist.
Consider our protagonist's plight, such as it is: He's got a new baby with his considerably younger second wife, and lately he's been ruminating on all the new and unexpected ways his body is already beginning to fail him. He's picturing himself growing older, frailer and flabbier — waning even as his son waxes into robust manhood. He's feeling emasculated by a household full of surly cats, an overtired spouse and a small, crying, pooping human. And then there's having to carry diaper bags around.
Which is to say: He's whining. Rather a lot.
Drawn and Quarterly
Page 9 of Mid-Life Drawn and Quarterly
But here's what saves Mid-Life from falling into the maelstrom of self-pity and self-justification that devours so many novels, memoirs and comics written by or about men at this stage of life: Both the author and his hero know he's whining.
In Ollman's hands, his hero John is a creature of reflexive self-recrimination and regret: His attempts to rationalize his rapidly metastasizing crush on children's performer Sherri Smalls are ridiculous to us -and to him. It's this ruthless, self-satirizing humor that fuels the book, and rounds out his character. It endears him to us, even as he goes about pursuing his crush (in a furtive, halting manner full of darting eyes and flop-sweat.)
Ollman's cartoony style, all sharp angles and oversized heads, lampoons John and his situation, but it also stirs our empathy: Ollman sticks to a claustrophobic nine-panel grid and uses it to convey John's sense that his job and family are stifling him.
The other thing that Mid-Life does that many other, similarly themed works can't be bothered to do is give a voice, and a life, to the object of John's crush. Half of Mid-Life is told from Sherri Small's perspective, and Ollman makes her palpably real.
She's got her own things to deal with: Her children's show is about to be bought by a network that wants to make some changes - changes like dumping her sidekick Mr. Peanuts (played by her boozy ex, in a monkey costume). As she struggles to broker that deal with a TV executive (caught between a monkey suit and a monkey suit, as it were), she finds herself intrigued by a note from a fan named John....
Mid-Life is bracingly (and occasionally cringingly) smart and funny about men, women, marriage and singlehood and it's told with humor, specificity and style.