Joe Ollmann is a funny cartoonist who makes the most out of his scribbly, expressive drawing style. I thought his last book, Mid-Life, was a bit on the bloated side despite some very sharp character work and lots of gags. There are times I get the sense where he falls too in love with the sound of his characters' voices when a "less-is-more" approach would be more appropriate. He also had the tendency to lay on the shtick too thick to the detriment of his characters. That's why I thought his latest book, Science Fiction (Conundrum), was so successful. Just over a hundred pages, Ollmann has plenty of time to set up protagonist Mark and his girlfriend Sue, planting hints regarding their mildly dysfunctional relationship before he drops in a plot-advancing bomb.
That bomb, revealed a quarter of the way through the book, is that while watching a movie about alien abduction, Mark has a near nervous breakdown. The reason is because the movie triggers a memory of being abducted by unknown beings when he was younger. The genius of the book is that Ollmann never does anything to confirm nor deny this belief of his. Though entertaining, that's really a mcguffin for the book. Instead, this book is about how differing beliefs can drive a wedge between couples, especially if that couple has poor communication skills to begin with. At its heart, the book is about empathy. Though from an objective standpoint, Mark's belief is insane, the fact that he's a lifelong stable skeptic makes that belief something to at least engage with. At the same time, he refuses therapy because of the absolute clarity he receives from the experience. Sue is unable to believe in his belief, and that essential wedge broadens the cracks in the relationship that were already there.
Science Fiction is a fascinating account at the ways in which little lies and deceptions can accrue It's also a fascinating account of the ways in which an obsession can drive a wedge into a relationship, alienating the partner who simply can't relate to this all-consuming relationship. When Sue comes home from work to find Mark (who has not bothered to show up to work in weeks) on skype with fellow abductee "survivors", it drives the wedge in a little further. She's driven to seek solace in the attentions of her boss at work, who turns being a good listener into a chance to try to start an affair that ends when she kisses him. Mark suspects the affair but Sue deflects that back to Mark's crazy behavior, further hammering in that wedge. Again, it's the accumulation of details that make the book work so well, because Ollmann painstakingly reveals the couple's daily rituals and then details how those rituals are systematically wrecked. Perhaps the most emotionally painful admission that comes from Sue is just how low-stakes her relationship was and how willing she was to accept something boring but stable as a way of not being alone, even if she had the inkling that she was more in love with him than he with her. Ollmann leaves the fate of their relationship an open question. It's in tatters by the end of the book as more revelations come out but more lies are told (some with no ill will meant), but Ollmann also demonstrates just how much of a factor inertia can play in keeping a relationship together. It takes this incredibly powerful wedge of ironclad delusion to smash the relationship; the question that Ollmann leaves with the reader is if Mark and Sue care enough about each other to rebuild the relationship from scratch. Ollmann punctuates this despair with humor, bizarre details and character voices that are fully realized and further advanced by his scratchy character design that owes a bit to Peter Bagge.