When Losers Win

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It's time to address the relationship between comicbooks and "losers." It almost seems like the entire American comics industry revolves around people with unfulfilled potential. Marvel Comics, the industry's biggest publisher, built its entire pantheon on the concept of schlubs turning into muscular "winners." Meanwhile the underground press got its start by appealing to the counterculture's "turn on, tune in and drop out" attitude of the time. Both narcissistic and utterly self-loathing, unhappy outcasts need never look very far in the comix rack for cartoon versions of themselves.

Each of the nine stories in Joe Ollmann's new black and white paperback, "Chewing on Tinfoil," (Insomniac Press; 155 pp.; $15.95) feature some sort of (un)lovable loser. The alienated high-school kid, office milquetoast, pretentious layabout, lapsed art student, and bowl-hair-cut kid: all these and more appear in its pages. Ollmann's work is new to me, and it has the leaps and falls of a new artist extending himself. Some of the tales are artless swipes at the usual archetypes, but enough of the stories surprise you with odd details or an unexpected twist to make them a treat.

"Like Something Akin to the Sistine Chapel, But with Cows…" features Paul, who uses his art degree to design business cards at a copy shop and, since he lives alone, eats instant mac-n-cheese out of the saucepan. When Cindy, his old high-school sweetheart commissions him to paint a mural in one of the "Dairy Freez" stores she manages, Paul flies from Toronto to Georgia to oblige. Since both of them are single, they begin flirting, with Paul teasing her about her Dan Fogelberg CD. But when Cindy sends Paul, who is black, on an after-hours errand to the closed Dairy Freez he gets picked up by a pair of racist cops. This unexpected change-up highlights both Ollmann's admirable ambitions and his difficulties. The cliched depiction of the southern cops seems as equally prejudiced as the racism they are meant to represent. Still, Ollmann's desire to explore important subject and his ability to provide an emotional payoff with sympathetic characters put this work above the grade.

Ollmann's cartooning style is at once conventional and grotesque. He works in a strict nine-panel grid system of tight little boxes. This makes his work very TV-like, with nearly every panel featuring a close-up of a character. Wide angles, experimental layouts, and non-action panels are generally shunned, making it easy to read for novice comix readers, but rather conservative to sophisticates. With what he does depict, though, Ollmann has an excellent grasp of caricature. Faces are what Ollmann does best. Frequently covered in zits, freckles and pockmarks, his character's faces are detailed in their expressiveness without being overly polished.

The least successful tales are the one-joke pieces like "God," where the Almighty appears to a "painfully average" office drone in the guise of a fat man floating on air. The joke is that God appears as a fat man. Snooze-ville. A sharp editor would have axed it in favor of expanding some of the other stories that seem under-developed. "Cake," for example, about a disgruntled teacher who starts sharing urine-spiked cakes with his co-workers, strains to keep its head above the quicksand of the central sick joke. Only at the end does it start to get interesting when the teacher sits down with an attractive therapist. Then, abruptly, the story ends with his dismissal of her as, bizarrely, "a Freudian."

Abel faces his dad in Joe Ollmann's

The best of the stories, "Giant Strawberry Funland," features Abel, a high-school loser and would-be rebel stuck in a strict, conventional rural town. While his crude older brother tries to save the family's strawberry farm by turning it into a theme park, Abel sneaks away and reminisces about his frustrated relationship with a cute alty-girl who moved away. With no central gimmick to distract him, Ollmann fleshes out Abel and his world with thoughtful details like the way Abel's mother "used to laugh more when we were little but she wears her hair pulled tightly now and preserves everything in pickle jars." In the end Abel comes home to a rage-filled father and an absurd, giant, paper-mache strawberry out in the yard. Symbolism, narrative arc, unexpected details and interesting characters are what make for the best short stories and "Giant Strawberry Funland" qualifies.

"Chewing on Tinfoil" uses its motley assortment of losers to get at something real and funny. Fortunately you don't have to identify yourself as one them in order to enjoy it.

"Chewing on Tinfoil" can be found at superior comic shops.

TIME.comix will return on April 11.