Wednesday, June 28, 2006

MOME 4

Fantagraphics has finally published a decent issue of their quarterly anthology, Mome. I remember being very excited about Mome when it was announced. David Heatley! Anders Nilsen! Jeffrey Brown! Paul Hornschemeier! Marc Bell! Truly, this was a fantastic lineup. And those were just the people I was pretty familiar with. I was also excited to see more Kurt Wolfgang, Gabrielle Bell and John Pham. I was less familiar with their work, but bolstered by the former 5, anything they did would be icing on the cake. I was also curious about Martin Cendreda and Jonathan Bennett. This was the first time in a long time that Fanta was making a concerted effort to expose a decent-sized audience to young cartoonists and give them some space to grow. And it would be in b&w AS WELL AS full-color. Mome sounded like the best thing since sliced bread. Also, there was Sophie Crumb.

Then the first issue came out. Marc Bell vanished like the fifth 9/11 airliner. Heatley was doing fascinating dream-inspired comics (culling material from Deadpan). It was hard to see what Hornschemeier was doing, but it was obvious that this was just the begining of a long narrative. It was even more difficult to see what Pham was doing, but its landscape orientation, color palette and delicate line made it intriguing. Bennett did a strange little piece that showed the most potential. He was serializing anything, so we weren't getting the tip of a slow iceberg, but a ten-page story. That and his 'fully formed out-of-nowhere' cartooning made his work jump. I like Nilsen's sketched figures with scratched-out heads expounding philosophical bit, I just don't like it as much as his more 'finished' work like Big Questions, so seeing it here was a small disapointment. Gabrielle Bell's story was servicible, but not very interesting. Brown phoned in a piece about having nothing interesting to say. I don't remember if Cendreda was in the first issue. Wolfgang did some short pieces that looked wildly out of place (big, bold and rough), but weren't as good as his best stuff. I just don't have anything good to say about Sophie Crumb's comics.

Then the second issue came out and it was more of the same. The tips of icebergs turned out to be the tips of tips of icebergs. Work that stood out in the first issue was less exciting in the second and I waited for someone to deliver one out of the park. I knew that one of Mome's purposes was to allow us to watch these cartoonists grow and develop into full-fledged, uh, cartoonists. Except that several were already. And they were doing better work before. Or elsewhere. But I don't want to come down too hard on the cartoonists. Some people don't work well under deadline pressure. For some of them, Mome is a sideline gig and not the big show. The work wasn't culled from a best-of selection, but seems to have been published on a 'whatever these 8 people give us' basis. The interviews with Gary Groth at each book's center have been a bit slight and fail to really address a question that needs to be asked, "Why these cartoonists?" This isn't me saying, "Such-and-such should be in there instead of so-and-so," it's me saying, "Someone needs to explain what quality these artists have as a group and as individuals to make the editorial process make sense."

The third issue came out and it was better than the first two, largely due to the fact that a few cartoonists pulled out and David mutherfuggin B. was brought in to 'fill the space.' See, this is what's confusing about the editorial process. David B. isn't a young cartoonist who has yet to do a 'major' work (neither are Brown or Hornschemeier, but maybe B. is older — he's certainly somewhat 'majorer'). And he didn't create his story for Mome. This was a story done for one of his French publishers, was a full-length 40pg. story and drove it home. A great little piece that was not his best work but was perfectly suited to being an anchor-piece in a short story or comics-lterary magazine.

And it's as though David B. stepped in and just smacked the whole idea of Mome upside the head. Co-editors Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth do fantastic work in their day jobs as publicist and co-publisher of Fantagraphics, respectively. Fantagraphics (alongside Drawn & Quarterly) has pushed the idea of the 'literary' comic so hard, that it has sort of become their signature (and it's not that they don't publish other types of comics). It's where their biggest stars work, their highest-profile work sits and where they are most-consistently successful in terms of art. It was mentioned in early press that Mome was an attempt at a Paris Review for comics. This is a fairly laudable goal, and one that fits in well with the Fantagraphic aesthetic. But the Review culled some of the best excerpts, short stories and essays from around the world, it didn't print just anythig a small circle of authors wrote. There were people who's work appeared more than once, even frequently, and there was fresh new work by new, unknown authors — but the idea was always to publish the best work that fit Plimpton and co's particular aesthetic.

And that's what Mome needed to do. Groth isn't that good at breaking new cartooninsts. He pretty much skipped at least 15 years of even paying attention to new voices. If you look at the 'new voices' in Mome half of them aren't really that new, but no one seems to really know what the hell sort of book this is.

Imagine a book with strong short stories or excerpts of Hornschemeier, Heatley or Brown's longer, upcoming books, rather than serialized bits. Great foreign works like David B's stories. Interviews that seem to address the central issues of the artists' work and the book's focus. Throw in top-notch work by other cartoonists not part of the Mome stable. Some nicley done complete short stories from strong voices. A whole bunch of stories that fit comfortably within the Fantagraphics fold.

If you imagine something like that, you might find yourself with something resembling Mome 4 (Spring/Summer 2006). After doing some of his best Mome work and getting the feature interview in issue 3, Kurt Wolfgang misses this issue. It's a bit of a shame. Especially since Sophie Crumb has returned after a one-issue absence. There are a number of fantastic cartoonists who weren't invited to the Mome party who would be a vast improvement over Crumb, many of whom would even fit better with the other cartoonists. If it's a question of just having more female voices in the book, there's easily a dozen women better-suited than Crumb. If it's question of just having that NAME associated with the book, well, then you're not doing this for the right reasons.

Those are the only complaints I have about Mome 4. That's it. No Wolfgang, too much Crumb. Bam.

We get four short dream comics from David Heatley. Heatley's rubber-band line, flat approach to the picture plane and over-saturated color palette are like an adrenaline shot through the breastplate. His unflinching looks into his biography, unconcious mind and psyche are like car crashes that suck your attention until you're forced to appreciate a hidden elegance behind the carnage. Stepping aside from the extended serial of previous issues, Heatley smacks us around a bit with these one-pagers.

Anders Nilsen does something a little different, revealing an early transitional work that would later get transformed into the gorgeous Dogs and Water. While it works as a stand-alone piece, it also provides a peek into a formative period in the artist's career and acts as something of a suplement to that longer work. It's just the kind of extra that fits in so nicely in these pages.

R. Kikuo Johnson tells a story about John James Audubon. His gag work in 3 was fun, and this look at the seeming contradictions in the conservationalist's life is interesting. The thin linework and heavy crosshatching is totally appropriate to the subject matter. Not everything in the anthology has to be a standout, and this is a perfrct example of a solid story that helps balance out some of the more outrageous parts of the book.

John Pham makes his last appearance in Mome. It hasn't been easy figuring out where Pham was going with his college slackers/geriatric teacher/ghost story, but it's been nice to look at. He's moving to a solo book from Fantagraphics. Hopefully, that will give him a bit more space to work his story out. There were just never enough pages to really grasp what he was doing. It's still very pretty, and the characters are interesting, but something paced like 221 Sycamore Ave really needs to be told in bigger chunks. I'm glad it will get that chance, especially as it moves further into an even more dream-like reality.

Martin Cendreda gives us a nice short story about time and the stories of people frozen and preserved in time in La Brea Woman. He has a sweet, understated quality to his art and writing that humanizes without over-sentimentalizing his characters. There's one little thing that bothered me, the guys in the car listening to their rap music too loud turn out to be trigger-happy gang members for no reason. It's a slight mistep in an otherwise well-considered short.

Paul Hornschemeier returns after a one-issue absence to provide the third chapter of his Life with Mr. Dangerous. I have a feeling this is going to read a lot better in the inevitable collection, but Hornschemeier is keeping his chapter-lengths in mind. Each chapter feels like a complete scene, with it's own meditation on it's main character's overriding theme of slight detatchment and strange obsession. And, again, it's lovely to look at.

Gary Groth interviews Jonathan Bennett and it's Bennett who actually takes up the task of addressing my problem with these interviews. He talks about having a place where he can feel he can grow, about the challenge of creating work specifically for an anthology like this and what sort of work he thinks such a book demands of him. Maybe it's the fact that they've got a couple of issues under their belt and they're finally figuring out just what the damn thing is, but it's nice to see them discussing the why's and what-fors. It's also nice to see Gary talk a little more like an editor and actually let Bennett know what sort of work he'd like to see from him in the future.

Bennett's story is appropriately placed in this issue. This is the one with his interview, so it's nice to see him have the stand-out piece in the book. A man questions his own seemingly impossible memories and compulsively tries to reenact them It's not even all that well established that the character is aware of what he is reenacting or what that reenactment might mean. He clearly confuses fantasy with memory, but it's unclear what it is about (junior)high school health-class videos that make them so visceral even in middle age. His story isn't about loneliness, but the character is alone. His inner monologue is so strong I felt more like voyuer than a reader. I also felt that I had a lot in common with the character, and it's good to have that sort of personal connection. And a little scary, in this case.

Oh, Bennett's art is also looking even better than in previous issues. There's more life and a sense of sge in his linework.

Robot DJ is another Gabrielle Bell story about being a single woman who loved alternative 80s music and is trying to connect with the people around her. I think it might be her strongest to date, which goes to show you that maybe some of these cartoonists were rightfully chosen for their ability to grow. Her drawing is still nice to look at, and her tavels through her character's history reads as authentic, even if the band "The Reads" isn't. There's that sense of getting so lost in one's memories of lost hopes, that you miss something tellingly obvious that I liked here. And there's this wonderful line, "Over summer vacation he'd suddenly transformed from a background kidto a substantial and slightly disturbing presence." I liked the line on it's own, but when I realised what it would mean later, I found it strangely haunting.

I think What Were They Thinking is the title of a recent series of public-domain fifties romance comics rescripted for What's Up, Tigerlilliy hillarity. Jeffrey Brown presents his own What Were They Thinking mashing up a standard (if original) scene from a Godzilla movie with the sort of shoe-gazing, self-absorbing narration his works are often accused of endulging. I enjoy those comics of his, but I think Brown's star shines that more brightly when he does attacks genre conventions with his particular sensibilities. Be a Man, Big Head, Wolverine and his murder mysteries have been some real high-points in his prolific output. It's also fun to see him play with the expectations of his art. There are no visual cues that Jeffrey Brown is responsible for the somewhat jagged, thick, inky brushstrokes (possibly brushpenstrokes?), but the whole thing is so much like his non-autobio work that's it becomes unmistakenly his. "I'm a Novelist," made me laugh out loud, and the whole thing is just a lot of fun. Who is thinking these thoughts? The author? The soldier? Godzilla? Are the soldier and Godzilla having the same existential crisis? Wonderful.

Then David B. returns with The Veiled Prophet. With both of B.'s Mome stories, the cartoonist has been approaching myth or folktale or something akin to myth and folktale in a way that reminds me of Jorge Louis Borges. These are short stories (this one is 31 pages) of fantastically imagined visual depictions of stories that feel ancient and almost beyond the realm of parable or symbolism. These are stories so big they encompass worlds and gods and monsters that we can barely fathom. If any artist is up to the task of representing size, numbers or images that can't even be imagined, it's David B.

When great armies face off against one another, distinctions between sides disapear. When a tsunami of the dead rises up to flood the world, it's hard not to imagine B. capable of rendering each one. Characters come together in a sense of real space just as often as they pile up next to one another like those plastic, interlocking monkey toys just a step removed from the picture plane. Shapes and figures are flattened against that plane just as often as extreme perspectives or almost tactile textures are used. Images are sometimes assembled like collages of pen mark. But we're never opressed with over-rendering or super-representationalism, each image is as warm and inviting to the reader as anything B. has produced to date. So impressed was I by B.'s work here, that I'm not afraid to claim it his best work in English to date. And it's an amazing way to close out a book that has finally found its way.

Here's looking forward to the next installment.

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