Joe Ollmann: Fictional Father (2021) | featured image

Joe Ollmann’s Jimmi Wyatt and Other “Fictional Fathers” in Comics

Inspired by Joe Ollmann’s Fictional Fathers, I ruminate on my life with comics, my favourite job as a father, and what Art can remind fathers about loving and raising their children.

Fictional Father
Joe Ollmann
Drawn and Quarterly
May 2021

“It’s All a Joke”:

Our Children’s Future and a Punchline

I remember reading Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and Dave Higgins’ Watchmen (1986-1987) for the first time because I naïvely thought that, if I wanted to be a serious comics scholar, I had to have read the comic book that many argue demonstrates the best qualities and abilities of the medium. While the comics’ enduring appeal for most people seems to rest largely on its unrelenting deconstruction of the superhero genre, I couldn’t help but become transfixed by the messy, complicated, and traumatic story of a daughter, Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre II), and the father that she didn’t know was hers, Eddie Blake (the Comedian) (Abad-Santos). Despite their many differences, Eddie and Laurie share many similarities with Jimmi and Caleb.  

Those who know Watchmen know that the Comedian was not a good man. The comics tell of the horrors and atrocities perpetrated at his hands, both in and out of war, including the attempted rape of Laurie’s mother, Sally Jupiter, years before she Laurie born. Knowing the awful things that this man had done made it that much harder for Laurie to accept the truth when it is revealed that Blake is her father. She says: “Blake that bastard, and my m-mother, they… they pulled a gag on me is what they did! My whole life’s joke. One big, stupid, meaningless… aw shit…” (Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins 10.26).

Unlike Laurie, who witnessed her father’s cruelty from a distance before being forced to confront it, Caleb experienced his father’s firsthand. I don’t draw this connection to suggest in any way that the actions of Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins’ homicidal Comedian and Ollman’s Jimmi Wyatt are comparable, but rather to suggest that, in the eyes of a child, disappointment in who one’s father is and how he behaves can feel earth-shattering regardless of scope. 

Yet, in neither case did that disappointment prevent Laurie or Caleb from becoming their father. In Laurie’s case, that means picking up her father’s spiritual mantle: “’Silk Spectre’s too girly, y’know? Plus, I want a better costume that protects me: Maybe something leather with a mask over my face… Also, maybe I oughtta carry a gun.” (Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins 12.30). Caleb not only takes over his father’s comic strip (for a short while) but, as I’ve mentioned before, even begins to reflect him in his personal life; by the end of the graphic novel, he has become many of the things he claimed to hate his father for throughout. 

The primary difference that exists for me between these two fathers and these two children is that one regrets how he’s lived his life and the other dies unrepentant: “Christ, we were just talking. Can’t a guy talk to his, y’know, his old friend’s daughter?” (Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins 10.23). When it is revealed that Eddie is Laurie’s father, this line echoes in her mind and allows the reader to renegotiate the interaction previously understood as predatory to one of paternal longing.

Eddie wanted to make a connection at the end of his life, however superficial with his daughter. Though he and Jimmi both dedicated their lives to their work, at the expense of all else, I believe that Eddie regretted that choice in the end while Jimmi seems to never give it a first thought, let alone a second. Regardless, both fathers leave their children to handle the aftermath of their death and reconcile their feelings in their absence.

Taken together, Watchmen and Fictional Father’s lesson about fatherhood is a simple one: Embrace every single moment that you have with your children because, if you don’t, one day it will be too late.

“I Can Always Escape”:

Simulated Fathers and Reality Checks

The first peer-reviewed journal article that I ever had published was about Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ Mister Miracle (2017-2018). In it, I argued that the narrative presented to the reader was not “the real” world, but rather a simulation created by Darkseid in an attempt to wrench from Mister Miracle control of his life. By simulating a false reality where Scott Free could have everything he ever wanted, including a happy life with this wife, Barda, and most importantly, his son, Jacob, Darkseid effectively “trapped” him in the false world; since Jacob is a construct of the simulation, the only means of escape would be to leave it and sacrifice his son, who would be unable to follow him back into the “real” DC Universe (Rondinelli 76).

Throughout the comics series, Scott and Barda share the responsibilities of working parents, so unlike Ollman’s Jimmi, Scott is there for his son and wants to spend time with him. He takes Jacob to the park, he sings lullabies to him, he throws him a birthday party, he is an active part of Jacob’s life. However, if Jacob is nothing but a simulation, is Scott Free even really a father?

I’ve previously suggested and would do so again that even though “Jacob’s function within Mister Miracle is to reinforce the false reality” created by Darkseid, Scott’s interactions with his son are entirely “real” to him (Rondinelli 80). By extension, even if Jacob is a simulation, he too must be able to experience this “realness” in order to form the meaningful bond established within the pages of King and Gerads comics.

By contrast, Caleb fails to experience any real connection with his father because Jimmi’s paternal reality is lived through his comic strip, Sonny Side Up. All the love that Jimmi has to offer is filtered into his work through Pop to Sonny; there is never enough for Caleb to share in. In much the same way that Jacob-as-fiction receives love from his father, Sonny-as-fiction is also a recipient of a simulated love, but that leaves Jimmi’s real son left in the cold. For Scott, there was no real-life son to dote and care for, hence why the simulation is so effective at “trapping” the superhero escape artist.

Jimmi has the opportunity to turn the love that exists within his work into a reality. He could have escaped from the confines of his work and the simulated relationship he’d created within by offering it to Caleb. He simply chose to remain dedicated to his work. In the end, neither Scott nor Jimmi can escape the simulation, but while Scott’s decision to stay in the simulation establishes a “real” father-son bond between him and Jacob, Jimmi’s identical choice means that neither Jimmi nor Caleb can ever truly experience the same meaningful father-son relationship. 

Ultimately, Mister Miracle and Fictional Father remind me that a “real” relationship between fathers and their children is built upon shared experiences. A dad is not made simply by the act of becoming a father but rather by the decision to share your life authentically and meaningfully with their children.

Our Father Who Art in God Country:

Memories and the Stories that Succeed Us

I read Donny Cates, Geoff Shaw, Jason Wordie, and John J. Hill’s God Country (2017) just shy of a year after Dante was born. It was one of the first comics that I remember reading that focused explicitly on the relationship between a father and his son. The story tells the tale of Emmet Quinlan, a man whose house is destroyed by a shadow demon from outer space and whose Alzheimer’s is cured when he holds in his hands the magical blade known as Valofax. It combines sci-fi, fantasy, and westerns into one of the most memorable tales of fatherhood in comics. Dedicated “For Dad”, the book promises from its very first pages to explore the relationship between fathers and their sons. 

Like God Country, a comic built on a narrative told as a story being passed down from one family member to the next, Fictional Father is a first-person narration filled with memories and stories about Jimmi told through the eyes of Caleb. The comic is bookended by Caleb’s fictional appearance on the Word Balloon podcast, on which he recounts a rather unflattering story about his father. He says, “Look… You’re enamoured with my father’s work like everyone… You can’t separate the man from the work, you know? No matter what I say, I’m going to look like a dick…” (Ollmann 4).

There are very few memories told by Caleb about his father that could be considered positive, heartwarming, or representative of a healthy father-son relationship. Instead, the positive memories are shared by those who didn’t even know him. Superfans of Sonny Side Up share touching anecdotes about how much the strip meant to them growing up, reinforcing the enormous divide between Caleb Wyatt’s dad and “everybody [else]’s dad.”

The stories told about Emmett Quinlan, by contrast, are those passed on about him through his family. As the series ends, we learn that the narration is told by a great-great-grandchild of Roy Quinlan: “So Roy told his daughter the story, the parts she didn’t know anyway. And Grandma Dee told her kids that same story. And then those kids grew up…and they told it to me” (Cates, Shaw, Wordie, and Hill n.p.).

But the stories they’re telling are vastly different than the ones Caleb tells. This nameless Quinlan says: “If we live our lives the way Emmett did…If we find the folks who love us, and we fight like hell to hang on to ‘em and love ‘em back the best we can…those people will always remember us. And none of us will ever truly be gone…” (Cates, Shaw, Wordie, and Hill n.p.). 

Both God Country and Fictional Father conclude by reminiscing about the men who exemplify fatherhood within their narrative. Emmett is remembered for his paternal bravery and familial dedication through stories passed down within his family from generation to generation. Jimmi is remembered positively by his adoring fans, but it is his work, not the man, who is truly being remembered. Jimmi does not, and will not, receive the same familial praise that Emmett does because Caleb cannot reminisce about a paternal hero in the same way that Roy can. While Emmet, the man, and father, is remembered glowingly, Caleb can only remember his father in less flattering terms. 

These two comics inspired me to think about the stories and memories that will remain when we are gone. Unlike Caleb, who was not asked to speak at his father’s funeral, I want my boys to stand up at mine and have something meaningful to share about our relationship. The memories we make together, the stories they tell about our time together, and how they pass those stories on to my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren, matter far more than how I’m remembered for my work. In other words, it’s up to us how we want to be remembered.