Do we always become the thing we hate most or do we pre-emptively hate that trait because we sense it in ourselves?”– Caleb Wyatt, Fictional Father
For about as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a dad.
As a kid, whenever I received that annoyingly inevitable question about what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was always the same. Sure, most children my age would’ve answered with some future career aspiration like an astronaut, firefighter, or Prime Minister. But me? Nah. I was never sure what I wanted to do career-wise until I was much older. What I was sure of, from a very early age, was that I wanted to be a dad.
Growing up in the 1990s though, meant that inevitably some schmuck would say something like, “being a dad isn’t a job!”, “How are you going to support your family if you don’t work?”, or (my personal favourite), “that’s cute, but what do you really wanna do?”. These responses and others, many framed from within the expectation of traditional family roles and misogynistic assumptions about a father’s duty, were so frequent and deflating that I would either stop answering that particular question when it was asked of me or I’d make up a new job each time I was asked. (“Mountain Goat Herder” was my go-to for a long time until I eventually stole “Human Speed Bump” from a friend, which always elicited awkward chuckles and sideways glances).
Fast forward to 2016, and my beautiful wife, Victoria, and I are welcoming our first-born son, Dante, into the world. In 2018, Dante became a big brother when baby Lorenzo (we call him Enzo) joined our family. It might sound cliché, but the days that they were born share equal prominence as the “Best Day of My Life”, and each moment that I get to share with them is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given. I absolutely love being their dad. One of our favourite things to do is cuddle up in Dante’s Batmobile bed (one day, when he lives in a boring bedroom with a boring bed, he’s going to look back and think, “I lived in the Batcave when I was little!”) with him under my right arm and Enzo under my left while we read comics together.
For my boys and me, comics are a pretty massive part of our life. They know that when daddy “goes to work”, that means one of only a handful of things: a) he’s holed up in his office working on his Ph.D. dissertation on comics; b) he’s writing something about comics; c) he’s reading books about comics, or; d) he’s pretending to do one of a) through c), but he’s really just reading comics. (Oh, occasionally I teach high school English or pre-service teacher education classes, too. See, that whole career thing worked out in the end.)
The boys love coming into my office and playing with my “toys”, which include a complete set of Lantern Corps lanterns and rings, a giant revolutionary Cyclops statue from the Bendis/Bacchalo run of Uncanny X-Men (2013-2015), a Mister Miracle posable action figure, various superhero Funko Pops (including SHAZAM, Red Hood, and the Scarlet Witch), and many, many Batman statues. Sometimes, Dante will sit on the couch in my office while I work and flip through his copy of Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolf’s Batman: Li’l Gotham, Vol. 1 (2014). At some point, he’ll look up from flipping through the pages and pictures and ask me to read with him. I’d be lying if I said I always answered with “yes”, but I certainly try to take the time whenever I can.
The same cannot be said, however, for the character of Jimmi Wyatt in Joe Ollmann’s new graphic novel, Fictional Father (2021). Wyatt, a world-renowned newspaper cartoonist, never really has any time at all for his son, Caleb. Working tirelessly on his masterpiece, a daily newspaper comic strip called “Sonny Side Up” that tells the heartwarming story about the loving relationship between a father (Pop) and his son (Sonny), Jimmi is wholly incapable of sharing any of his precious time with his own real son. Part of the tragedy that is Ollman’s Fictional Father is that even though Jimmi knows how to be a good dad, as demonstrated by the relationship he has built for the father-son duo within his comic strip, he chooses not to be; the commitment to his work supersedes the commitment to his son.
In one particularly painful memory, Caleb’s mother drags the young boy into his father’s studio, breaking the forbidden rule of entering while dad is working, to show him a drawing that he made of Jimmi’s characters, Pop and Sonny. After expressing frustration at the interruption, Jimmi momentarily “praises” his son’s work (“These are pretty good actually”) before his assistant “rescues” him from his family’s presence. (“Hoo boy… Thanks, Mel.”) Young Caleb leaves the studio dejected (“Oh, that ‘actually’ was the essence of my father: pure shock that I could in fact do something.”) and rips the drawing out of his notebook, while the adult Caleb narrates: “And it wasn’t like this was the specific day I decided I would never take over my father’s work. But every day like this moved me toward that conclusion” (Ollmann 28-31).
The primary narrative crafted within Ollman’s graphic novel is adult Caleb coming to grips with how the complicated and messy relationship that he has with his father has impacted and shaped who he is as a man. He tells the reader that “I’m not my father. I’m nothing like him,” and that is partially true (p. 89). When the comic begins, much of Caleb’s personality is crafted in opposition to the man that his father is. Caleb is a painter, not a cartoonist like his dad. He is committed to his partner, James, not a rampant flirt collecting infidelities like his dad.
Yet, by the end of the comic, the similarities between Caleb and Jimmi are far more numerous and noticeable than the differences, despite Caleb’s multiple attempts and best efforts to prevent that from happening. As I closed the book after my first read-through, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Does Ollman’s comic promise that all sons grow up to become their fathers despite their best efforts to define themselves as individuals? The infamous opening lines of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” began to echo in my mind as the question ricocheted inside my head.
As I pondered this question, I spent some time looking back at other comics that have, in some way, incorporated an exploration of fatherhood. I wanted to see how other cartoonists and creators had used comics as a way to explore the impact that fathers had on their children and who their children become. Scholarly work at the intersection of comics and fatherhood has been underway for some time now and is exemplified by Mihaela Precup’s ground-breaking exploration of autobiographical comics and fatherhood in The Graphic Lives of Fathers. Her book is a treasure trove of insight and critical discussion focusing on “representations of fathers and fatherhood…that explicitly attempt to define good parental conduct, both from the perspective of the child and that of the father himself” (Precup 2).
With chapters on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), Carol Tyler’s Soldier’s Heart (2015), Laurie Sandell’s The Imposter’s Daughter (2009), and even Joe Ollman’s Mid-Life (2011), as well as discussions about Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-1991) and “perhaps the most memorable paternal figure from the North American comics scene”, Vladek Spiegelman, Precup’s insights into how autobiographical comics reveal, probe and question notions of fatherhood opens the door for continued discussion (2). Since Precup had so thoroughly interrogated the genre of autobiographical comics, I decided to limit my exploration to fictional representations of the relationships between fathers and their sons.
Luckily for me, fiction comics have a long and storied history when it comes to this sort of thematic focus. For instance, Batman and Superman (characters that I have been obsessed with for years) share a common origin founded upon a relationship with their parents, and most recently, both have become fathers themselves. The X-Men (my favourite Marvel comics property) is rooted within ideas of “found family” and features a father figure in Professor Xavier, as well as numerous parent-child relationships that, having been explored innumerable times over the years, can be called complicated, to say the least.
But I didn’t want to perform a simple survey of comics that included themes of fatherhood. Instead, I wanted to explore the comics that had both focused on or incorporated elements of paternal relationships but had also been personal, meaningful, or impactful to me as a reader and father. What had I taken away about being a father from those comics that have meant the most to me? I don’t want to go as far as to suggest that comics have “taught me” everything I know about being a father; I’ve been privileged enough to have an amazing, loving, and caring father, as well as numerous impressive father figures, in my life who have taught me much of what it means to be a dad. Still, I believe that reading comics about fathers and their children has often acted to “remind me” about the things that I’ve learned throughout my life.
So, I decided to look back at the comics that have shaped my experiences with the medium and probe them for questions about what they either revealed to me or reminded me about my role as a dad. As a scholar, many of these texts are ones that I’ve written about elsewhere or studied intensely. As I wrote this reflection, it becomes undeniable (if it wasn’t always) that the work I’ve gravitated towards was heavily focused on relationships between fathers and their children. It would seem as though I’ve been focused on answering the question for much longer than my present inclination to explore it would suggest.
Since Ollman’s Fictional Father was so fresh in my mind, I also decided to draw connections between this story and those that I considered. What follows is an intensely personal rumination on my life with comics, my favourite job as a father, and what art of any sort can remind fathers about loving and raising their children.