I have been a big fan of Joe Ollmann's graphic novels. Both of them have appeared on my end-of-year favorites lists, characterized by strong characters and extensive research. Fictional Father is no exception to this pattern. It is a compelling look at Caleb Wyatt, a 40-something-year-old artist and recovering alcoholic who lives in the huge shadow of his dad Jimmi. Since 1966, Jimmi Wyatt draws the wildly successful comic strip called Sonny Side Up, about a single dad trying to run a restaurant while raising his son. It's a sort of combination of the everyday life of Peanuts and and the more cloying sentiment of Family Circus, and it makes Jimmi into a rich celebrity known as "Everybody's Dad." There are TV adaptations of his cartoons and tons of merchandising featuring the strip's characters and catch phrase "Wanna Share My Cookie?" Jimmi is the sort of guy who golfs with Tony Bennett, counts Barack Obama among his fans, and has countless affairs. He's not a good husband or dad, but he is good at living a life of excess.
Caleb does benefit from this fortune, being largely pampered and financially supported, though there were a tough couple of years when he was in art school and published a small-press, limited run of underground comix lampooning his father's famous strip. Still, his long-suffering, acerbic mother, who remained married to Jimmi through it all, does bail him out. Now, in middle age, he finds himself aimless, painting abstract art for view in galleries propped up by his dad, working part-time as a sponsor for a local recovery clinic, and being a bad partner to his long-term boyfriend James. He is still dealing with the fallout of his childhood, but he is also old enough to know better. He still attends weekly dinner with his parents and depends on their largess while wanting more but doing nothing about it. He makes lots of capricious and poor choices, and part of what makes this book so compelling is watching how he keeps making a pig's ear out of a silk purse.
What also makes this book compelling is the extent Ollmann went to in constructing this narrative. The main plot is accompanied with "original art" from Sonny Side Up, which accentuates the drama and tone of the book. It fabricates a believable set of connections between the characters and the real world, and personally I loved all the references to comics creators from the classic newspaper strip days as well as from the alt-comix heydays of the 1990s. I know that many readers might not get these industry in-jokes, but I really appreciated them. So much has gone into constructing this fiction, and I admire its craft and attention to details.
The artwork mirrors the horrible aspects of the characters, and it is beautifully ugly. Everyone seems old and haggard, reflecting all the turmoil and troubles they have both endured and inflicted on others. There is not a lot of happiness in this book, at least in terms of the story and characters, but I saw a sort of delight in the realization of this tale. It's a marvelously crafted book and story: Once I started reading Fictional Father, I could not put it down.
All of the reviews I have read about this book have leaned positive. In a starred review Publishers Weekly called it "a complex look at an artist’s evolving relationship to the past." Brad MacKay wrote that "thanks to Ollmann’s confident, assured storytelling it’s a journey well-worth taking." Colin Moon opined, "Fictional Father is perhaps an imperfect work, but nonetheless a compelling one, so long as you can get over the preposterously whining tone it sometimes steeps itself in."