A Week in Culture: Joe Ollmann, Cartoonist


The Culture Diaries


I live in a neighborhood in Montréal called Parc X. Now, I confess this sounds a lot more ghetto-y and gangsta than it actually is. It’s really a hard-working, largely immigrant neighborhood that is in imminent danger of being overrun by white hipsters.

We do literally go through a hole in a fence from our slum to take our son to his school in the neighboring wealthy Anglophone area, but the fact that he wears a fancy school uniform does slightly tarnish our street cred, I admit.

Montréal’s ostensibly a French-speaking city, but the French language is rarely heard in my mostly Greek and Pakistani neighborhood. I am neither French, Greek, nor Pakistani and speak none of their languages with proficiency, so I’m perpetually an outcast, though I am, by nature, a bit of a Zelig, attempting and failing to ever fit in. Always the pale, white, cultureless bridesmaid.

It was Easter recently, which this year not only coincided with Greek Easter, or “Greece-ster,” as I sensitively and cleverly have named it, but also Passover. In the French-speaking world of Quebec, Passover is noted on French calendars as “Paque Juive,” or Jewish Easter (!), which my Jewish homeys find offensive based on the fact that Passover preceded Easter and therefore should not be relegated to Easter-spin-off status. Oh people, why can’t we all just get along?

The Greeks use any excuse to go berserk and celebrate all things Hellenic at the drop of a Greek fisherman’s hat in my neighborhood. Greek Easter is no exception. The Greeks get crazy. There is continuous mournful Gregorian chanting emanating from tinny RadioShack speakers at the Orthodox churches, which, at exactly midnight on the eve of Easter, turns into an as-close-to-happy lilting as Gregorian chanting ever gets, and the people circle the church, holding lit candles with which they carry home the same Paschal fire. Then they set off firecrackers and freak-out in general.

The next day, the backyards in my neighborhood are a charnel house of roasting baby-lamb carcasses, blackened baby-lamb heads, and unblemished white baby-lamb teeth rotating on oil-drum spits and tiny, curly-headed Greek children tearing off hunks of half-cooked flesh with tiny bare hands at the behest of their mustachioed pappoúdes. Seriously, my son and I witnessed this as he rode his tricycle about with his Easter basket “looking for people to give Easter eggs to.”

The Greeks in the New World do display a tendency toward pride and chest-puffing in general, and I wonder if it’s gratification from a history rich with Hercules, the Parthenon, Socrates, Plato, et al., or if it’s an inferiority complex from living in the shadows cast by these titans, as seems to be suggested by Canadian author Marian Engel in her 1973 novel, Monodromos (which I am currently reading on my commute), which is set in the Greek islands. Incidentally, Engels won the Governor General’s Award (the Canadian version of the American NEA, which gave wholesome taxpayers’ money to create Piss Christ) for Bear, a novel of a middle-aged librarian’s sexual relationship with a tame bear in northern Canada. I read that book as a teenager, in a sweaty, guilt-ridden erotic fever in a farm-community library, and recently I was asked by Seth to illustrate a couple pages from that book in comic-book form for the aged and respectable Canadian literary journal, Canadian Notes and Queries.



Rereading the book as a more intelligent, less excitable forty-plus-year-old man, I was able to detect the satire and wit in Engel’s novel amid the bear-rotica, and I suggest that most people read her work. I recently bought her entire output—sadly, mostly out of print—and what I’ve read so far is equally good and sexy but without the bear-on-human bizness. In Canada, we’re polite and upstanding and create film and literature that is sublimely perverse.

None of our neighbors would take an Easter egg from a four-year-old on a tricycle. Come on, people …


I attended the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, or TCAF, as it is more commonly known. It has quickly become one of the biggest indie-comics shows in the world. It’s a weekend for the alternative cartoonist to shine. As a friend said patronizingly to me, I’m so glad there’s a chance for you comic nerds to have your day. But the insult is that this guy is a writer of science fiction.

I hung out with a lot of bearded men with glasses.

The fantastic Chester Brown released his amazing new book, Paying For It, a memoir of being a john and an argument for the legalization of prostitution. It’s a real testament to Canada’s reputation as a nation of polite, sexual perverts that the line awaiting Chester’s signing had the feel of a church picnic and people lining up to throw a huckleberry pie at the minister for charity. Crowds of his adoring fans stood in line for hours while he signed their books and drew a picture of himself, “clothed or naked, your choice.”

My publisher, Drawn and Quarterly, brought out all of their big cartoony guns to celebrate Chester’s book launch; Chris Ware, Seth, Adrian Tomine, and Chester all signed after me at the same tables at which I doodled in books for a few people. There was a humbling sensation to be the decidedly smallest of fish in a pond that included my heroes, many of the greatest cartoonists in the world today, as their legions of fans, clutching sweaty books for signing, shuffled like impatient zombies waiting for me to vacate the space.



I drank a lot at the after-parties and went to bed soused at 2 A.M. but still managed to arise at 5 A.M. to drive to Toronto’s neighboring city of Hamilton, or “the Hammer,” to have a hungover Mother’s Day breakfast with my mom. Though it wasn’t my intent (I do this every year at TCAF), I apparently scored many Brownie points with my compatriots for being a good son. But to tell the truth, I was a good son in a slept-in rumpled suit, reeking of smoke and booze, and I brought no gift.



As I drove back to Toronto in a car loaned to me by my old friend, Andy Brown, publisher of Conundrum Press (he once signed a release for the producers of the I-suspect-I-wouldn’t-like-it film Sideways, which used a fictional publishing house by the name of Conundrum). Old Browny is a gentleman publisher and a guy that moms like and grandmas like and respectable people everywhere like, but the guy has an old-school rap habit, and I spent the drive back from my mother’s listening to the seminal Ice Cube album, Death Certificate. This record covers the gamut and checks all the rap boxes: sexist, racist, celebrating violence, homophobic, but it is also filled with—and this is what they warn recruits about at Sunday school—incredibly clever and, dare I say, dope rhymes. I was talking to the dear, sweet, insanely talented cartoonist Pascal Girard (incidentally, winner of the Doug Wright Award the night before for best book) about how surprisingly good ol’ Ice Cube was, and I was caught in this guilty pleasure by genius cartoonist, old-timey, nostalgia aficionado Seth.



I was on two comics panels at TCAF, and I think I’m not a comics-panel guy. At the panel on marriage and comics, two really nice married couples, who work together in comics, were paired with me, an unshaven, hungover man who wrote a semiautobiographical book about having a fictional adulterous affair. I was the odd man out, as revealed by my answer to “what fictional comics couple do you most identify with.” The answers by the others were sincere and heartfelt, but I embraced my outsider status and went with it.



Chris Ware, my hero for many, many years, stood within inches of me many times this weekend, but I never spoke to him. I’ve learned to embrace the dignity of the silent, staring, madman fan when I am near my heroes. I have nothing to say that could express what their work means to me, and I lack the cojones to pull off the glib “Yo, I like your stuff, and we’re both human, so whatever, right?”

I am so torn, because I really wanted to tell Chris Ware how I love his work and that some of his recent stuff is his best ever in a career filled with high points. Instead, I tightened my jaw muscles and bulged my eyes at him at the table and once, disturbingly, as we stood at urinals together.

Years ago, after I heard Kurt Vonnegut speak in Stratford, Ontario, I went out in an alley beside the theater to smoke, when stage door opened and Vonnegut emerged. We both lit cigarettes, each equally afraid of the other, and, hands holding cigarettes, covering our mouths, we both nodded to the other with relief. Me, relief that he existed and wrote. He, that I didn’t speak to him or pull out the copy of Galapagos that protruded from my pocket for him to sign.

Joe Ollmann is the author, most recently, of Mid-Life. Check back this week for the next installments of his culture diary.