I vaguely recall Roger Ebert once being asked whether he's ever troubled by all of the depressing art-house movies that he's required to watch. His response was wonderful: "No good movie is depressing." (Granted, this means that bad movies with depressing stories are all the more depressing, but that's a topic that I don't feel inclined to pursue...)
For whatever reason, this line flashed through my mind after I finished Joe Ollman's "This Will All End in Tears", the winner of Best Book at the Doug Wright Awards. A collection of 5 short stories, each ranges from mundane to miserable and offers little or no obvious (that is, cheap) consolation to the reader. Likewise, the characters range from the tragically flawed to painfully flawed. And just to show that the trifecta is in play, Ollmann's art - arranged in a tight, regular grid as if they were comic strips in a newspaper - does little to provide us with the sorts of visually appealing (or at least idiosyncratic) characters that we tend to find even in small press comics. I wouldn't even classify Ollman's art as 'realistic'; if anything, his characters are actually grotesque.
Recontextualizing Ebert, briefly: I was talking about this book with a friend, and I remarked on the disturbingly large number of indie comics that batter us with the same sort of tragic or bathetic characters in sad circumstances, books that crank the EMO-factor up to an 11 and leave it there until we either find ourselves either a) unable to continue or b) masochistically compelled to finish. But the best of these books never actually depress or enrage us, never leave us wondering why we misspent our time making ourselves feel miserable. And if it wasn't already obvious, "This Will All End in Tears" is one of the best.
One brief example: in "Hanging Over", the final story, Ollman concludes - very suddenly - at the moment that one might suggest is leading directly into what should be, structurally, the expected climax. At the moment when Dennis is no longer able to defer or delay his decision and must decide to take care of his brother or send him to a home, the story ends. Dennis picks up the phone, says "Hello?", and we flip the page to find... some notes on each of the various stories. It may be a cop-out - Ollmann, as well as Dennis, is saved from the responsibility of making a choice - but where can the story go from here? Dennis decides to take care of his brother or he decides to hand him over to caregivers. If Ollmann would choose to be dishonest, then the choice would be between disappointing us by proving Dennis an asshole or disappointing us by going the cheeseball route and having the brothers live happily ever after - an option that Dennis openly mocks on the second last page. More likely, though, and in the case of either potential ending, Dennis would come to begrudgingly accept but regret his decision. But ending (that's not really right, is it? it's not an ending, but i don't know what to call it) the narrative in that moment provides a sort of liminal space - however small, however tenuous - in which the decision doesn't ever have to be made.
Does it violate the spirit of a verisimilitudinous story, or is it unfair to the reader who demands some sort of narrative closure? I don't think so. In fact, it's a solution that seems to reconcile both our readerly desire for some emotional satisfaction and Dennis' own desire, expressed on the final page, to find "an idyllic, utopian" space where he doesn't have to make hard, hurtful decisions. It's unrealistic, yes, but only because that's the point.