“He’s Run Out on Us”:
Memory and Living
in the Presence of Absence
Late last year, I was provided with the opportunity to review Clyde Fans for the journal Canadian Literature, thanks entirely to a friend and colleague, Dale Jacobs, Ph.D., who recommended me for the role. Though I knew little about Seth’s 20 years in the making comic at the time, I was pleased to discover that the story told the tale of two brothers, Abe and Simon Matchcard, whose elderly mother is struggling with dementia and whose father has long since abandoned the family. In my review, I describe Seth’s picture novel as “a brilliant and powerful story of loss, failure, personal family history/tragedy, memory, and learning to live in the presence of absence” (Rondinelli, forthcoming).
Though we occasionally see glimpses of what the titular patriarch of the Matchcard family looks like through the memories of his children, Clyde’s face is never depicted within the story. Photographs containing his face are ripped and torn to obscure it, and neither Simon nor Abe can muster up a recollection of his visage: “And just when did I forget his face?” (Seth 318). Yet, even though they can’t remember what he looks like, the Matchcard brothers live their lives managing their father’s fan business, prominently featuring his name, Clyde, on the store window as a constant, everyday reminder of their father’s absence.
The first book of the graphic novel features a prolonged sequence of Abe walking around the empty Clyde Fans storefront reminiscing about the past. It prepares the reader to understand that even in the absence of the father’s character, he is a ghost whose presence weighs heavily on all the characters we will meet, an inescapable force permanently present in his absence. Caleb experiences similar feelings throughout Fictional Father.
Jimmi’s absence is punctuated not by a reminder of his presence but by his actual presence. During one of Caleb’s memories, Jimmi’s studio door is remembered as a firmly shut green blockade with a “Do not disturb!” sign hanging from it (Ollmann 26). That image struck me as powerful, symbolizing the presence of Jimmi’s absence quite well. In that same memory, Caleb recounts how “[the family] did not go into my father’s studio when he was working. No one did. The exception to this was cartoonists…sports superstars were allowed…any movie star, especially young female movie stars, but never family members. His work time was sacred.” (Ollmann 26). Even though the only thing separating them was the wooden threshold between rooms, Caleb was forced to live with his father’s absence even in his presence.
Clyde Fans and Fictional Father reminded me that one of the worst cruelty’s a father can inflict on his child is the weight of his absence. This can come in many forms, by being only partially present, by thinly veiling a disinterest in what is important to your children, (etc.). In any case, children quickly begin to understand that they are not what is important. A dad can undoubtedly have many priorities, but none should be above his children.
“Surely I Can Do Better Than This?”: Fictional Fathers and the Lives They Choose to Live
After deciding to take over Sonny Side Up at Jimmi’s passing, Caleb begins to do research on his father’s strip by re-reading the old ones and thinking about other comic strips that have featured fathers at their centre. Beginning with his father’s Sonny Side Up and Hank Ketchman’s Dennis the Menace, Caleb wonders how neither creator was “ashamed at the hypocrisy of drawing these caring, present fathers while being selfish dicks in reality” (Ollmann 117). Yet, as he considers other famous strips, The Family Circus, Hi and Lois, Dagwood, For Better or Worse, and of course, Peanuts, he comes to the realization that, though he’s always read the strip with the understanding that his father identified with Pop, there is the possibility that he was instead identifying with Sonny.
Fathers are, of course, someone’s son. Though the circumstances surrounding the ways we are raised always differ, and the experiences shared between fathers and sons are never the same, many fictional stories about fathers have demonstrated that the bond between fathers and their children has wildly far-reaching implications. Though all of the stories I’ve discussed can be read through the lens of fatherhood, they could also have been read through the lens of other family relationships. Mothers. Brothers. Sisters. Grandchildren.
Each of these different relationships was impacted somehow by the one that forms between a father and son. Whether it is Emmett being granted the opportunity to know his granddaughter, Abe and Simon’s inability to understand the person that the other has become, or Laurie’s transformed relationship with her mother, each of these children had their lives and connections with other loved ones influenced by the decisions, choices, and actions of their fathers.
When I began this journey of self-reflection and exploration of fatherhood, I wondered whether Ollman’s Fictional Father reiterated the future promised by Larkin in his famous poem. Through the writing of this essay, I’ve come to realize that Larkin was almost certainly half right. Many of the fictional fathers that I’ve discussed were… problematic, to say the least. Many sons of these complex fathers took on problematic traits and tendencies that directly correlate to the faults or shortcomings in their parenting. But that doesn’t mean that those sons didn’t possess endearing qualities or their own, independent of their fathers’.
Of course, we also saw examples of devoted and caring fathers, men who put their children and their needs above all else. In both cases, their stories remind us about what we should aspire to be as we raise children today. Ultimately, our children will take away with them what we give them.
Together, reading these comics has reminded me that there is no easy “one-size-fits-all” approach to raising our children. All we can do is live by a conscious and intentional set of principles. If we’re willing to open ourselves up to critique and if we accept that we don’t always do the right thing, it might be possible to take valuable lessons away from the comics (or any art, in truth).
Voyeuristically entering the fictional lives of these fathers and children provides us with the chance to see the potential futures of our children and critique the choices/decisions made by the fathers that raised/didn’t raise them. In this way, we might reinforce our own paternal beliefs and values as we recognize them emulated by the fictional fathers of these texts. Alternatively, we might be able to challenge and critique a behaviour within ourselves that we see causes pain and hurt to the fictional children of these stories and re-evaluate our approaches to similar situations in our daily lives.
So, after re-examining all of these comics, what has that self-reflective experience looked like for me? Well, I’ve been reminded of a few principles that I try to live by. I know that I want Dante and Enzo to understand that they will always come before my work, that I will strive every day to share my true and authentic self with them and know with every fibre of their souls that I will always be there for them with support and love. I know that I’ll never get it all right all the time; it’s an impossible ideal. But I believe that if I consciously strive for those achievements, I’ll have at least accomplished enough so that when I’m gone, the memories and experiences that we built together will remind them each and every day how special and important they were to me. If Fictional Father and the other comics discussed here have taught me anything, it’s that all you have to do to be a superhero to your children is to be a good father them.
So, excuse me, but it’s time that my sons and I read some comics together.
Abad-Santos, Alex. “In 1986, Watchmen Skewered the Way We Love Superheroes. It’s Still as Relevant as Ever.” Vox. 18 October 2019. Accessed 22 May 2021.
Cates, Donny et al. God Country. Image Comics. 2017.
King, Tom and Gerads, Mitch. Mister Miracle. DC Comics. 2017-2018.
Moore, Alan et al. Watchmen. DC Comics. 1986-1987.
Ollman, Joe. Fictional Father. Drawn & Quarterly. 2021.
Precup, Mihaela. The Graphic Lives of Fathers: Memory, Representation, and Fatherhood in North American Autobiographical Comics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.
Rondinelli, Zachary J.A. “‘C’mon. Sell Me Another One: Simulation, Sacrifice, and Symbolic Revolution in King & Gerads’ Mister Miracle.” tba: Journal of Art, Media, and Visual Culture, vol. 1, no. 1, 2019, pp. 72-85.
Rondinelli, Zachary J.A. “‘Time Not Space’: Temporality, Memory, and Living in Absence.” Canadian Literature, no. 244. forthcoming.
Seth. Clyde Fans. Drawn & Quarterly. 2019.