Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Links To My Reviews of Mome 12-19

The links to my reviews of Mome #12 - 19 are still active, so I thought I'd take today to repost them all here in one spot. Tomorrow will see a new review by me of Mome #20 - 21.

Mome #12

Mome #13

Mome #14

Mome #15

Mome #16

Mome #17

Mome #18

Mome #19

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mome Week: Mome 6-11

In my first wide-ranging review of Fantagraphics' anthology MOME, I compared the structure of the anthology to that of a minor-league baseball team. That comparison has become even more apt with the six most recent volumes, as many of the original contributors of the anthology have quit and new, young cartoonists have taken their place in the lineup. Of the original group of eleven cartoonists that included Jeffrey Brown, Anders Nilsen, Paul Hornschemeier, David Heatley, Andrice Arp, Sophie Crumb, Kurt Wolfgang, Martin Cendreda, John Pham, Jonathan Bennett, and Gabrielle Bell, several of these artists have moved on due to having so many other deadlines. That includes Brown (who just had a book published by Simon & Schuster), Nilsen (several books from Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly), Cendreda, Pham and Heatley. I suspect Bell's output might be restricted to very short pieces in the future, while I wouldn't be surprised to see Hornschemeier move on after he's finished serializing his story "Life With Mr. Dangerous".

One of the initial goals of the series, to take a group of young cartoonists and bring them to public attention with a high-profile anthology, has been quite a success. That probably has as much to do with the book market snapping up cartoonists left and right and the expansion of publishers like FBI and D&Q, but MOME certainly hasn't hurt in that regard. In discovering new talent, another stated goal--making the anthology accessible to the general reading public in a way that something like KRAMER'S ERGOT isn't--has started to become less of a priority. The loosening of that priority has only made MOME a better series, since it's not only allowed for a greater overall diversity of approaches, it's also made room for off-beat artists such as Ray Fenwick and the great John Hankiewicz.

As in my prior entry on MOME, I won't review them volume-by-volume; instead, I'll look at them artist-by-artist. In MOME 6-11, the roster of participating artists has ballooned up to over 30, which has allowed editors Eric Reynolds & Gary Groth a lot of leeway in assembling a given issue. The series has also continued to anchor each issue with a heretofore unseen work (in English, at least) by a heavy hitter from the world of comics. David B was the first such star, while the latest issues included stories by Lewis Trondheim, Jim Woodring and Killoffer. Having more diverse and challenging material has made those well-known artists dominate the anthology a little less noticeably, which was a problem with David B in one issue. Overall, the anthology has really hit its stride and found a proper balance as it continues to nurture and showcase young talent.

Paul Hornschemeier: Hornschemeier has been one of MOME's stalwarts, contributing to nearly every issue. His serial "Life With Mr Dangerous" is done no favors by appearing in dribs and drabs, and I sense it will read much better when it's reprinted in one place. Having had a chance to reread the published chapters all in one sitting, it's Hornschemeier's most restrained and nuanced story to date. There's less of his usual formal exploration and pyrotechnics (exemplified by the remarkable THE THREE PARADOXES) here, instead focusing on the inner life of his protagonist Amy. This makes sense, because she's consumed by her own inner life and obsession with the cartoon character Mr Dangerous. As we get to know Amy, it becomes increasingly clear how very broken she is. This plays out in the way she clings to relationships that have ended but can't communicate with those around her. I do love the fantasy sequences that pop up here, as Amy's fantasy life merges with that of the cartoon, but usually in ways that go horribly wrong. It feels like the serial is starting to wind down, and I'm eager to see where the emotional narrative is heading.

Hornschemeier has also contributed some other pieces, including a couple of short stories. I enjoyed "The Guest Speaker", a sort of Updike-esque account of an artist who gives a speech at his alma mater, and MOME is a place that makes sense for this sort of thing from Hornschemeier. His strip "Now Then" in MOME #7 is a fun philosophical lark that touches on free will and moment-to-moment continuity, cleverly told with panel-to-panel transitions and the language of comics. As noted earlier in the article, I'd guess that Hornschemeier will move on to other projects after he completes "Life With Mr Dangerous"; I believe he'll be relaunching a solo series soon.

Sophie Crumb: I was critical of Crumb's lack of direction in her MOME contributions to date in my first overview of the anthology, but much of her more recent fare has been of greater interest. The exemplar is her whacked-out serial "Lucid Night-Mare", drawn in what appears to be ballpoint pen. The series has a sort of ghastly beauty in its depiction of a trio of street losers on the run from even more unsavory characters. Crumb's interest in street culture sets her apart from the other artists in MOME, but I still can't help thinking that she has incredible talent that she hasn't quite figured out what to do with as of yet. Her funny-animal work is actually some of her strongest, like the drug-soaked "Zozo and Zaza" strip in MOME #7. Her "Lust Ain't Just" strip in #8 is even better, a clever walk through a series of sexual fantasies of several individuals that circles around back to the originator of the chain in an amusing way. Her one-pagers in #10 went back to talking about street culture and were amusing but instantly forgettable.

One of the lingering problems with Crumb is that despite her obvious talent, chops and unique point of view, she still hasn't found her voice as an artist. Her strips have a familiar feel to them, as though Crumb is still cycling through not only her influences but her interests. The question that I'm left with after reading her strips is: does she have a burning need to do comics and contribute stories to this anthology, or does her commitment to the anthology force her to sit down and draw? Three years into her tenure on MOME, I'm still not sure how she's answering that question.

Kurt Wolfgang: Wolfgang's serial "Nothing Eve" is perhaps my favorite piece by one of the more underrated artists in comics. The killer concept (what a 17-year-old boy does on the day before the end of the world that everyone knows is coming) is cleverly explored through the eyes of Tom, as he navigates a city full of people trying to deal with the news in their own way. Wolfgang's use of Tom as narrator adds a cynical but still fresh voice to the proceedings, as he picks up all sorts of bad habits (smoking, going to an old man bar and drinking whiskey) as he measures the feeling of the crowd around him. Initially, the news had a deadening effect on everyone he met, but that later turned into a sort of relief. It was all going to be over very soon, so everyone simply started joyfully doing what they wanted--including a girl who gave Tom a kiss. The last segment in #11 found Tom stopping himself, realizing that he had some unfinished business. Wolfgang is now pinning a plot and a motivation to a great character study and concept that he's allowed to leisurely play out.

Wolfgang's command of the comics language is remarkable. His page design is clever, drawing the eye to his expressive, exaggerated figures that remind me a bit of Peter Bagge. Tom's blank eyes betray his essential innocence despite his tough veneer, and the sheer density of each panel gives the strip a certain weight. Even his lettering and his panel lines have a certain thickness to them, adding to its bleakly comedic power. The contrast between the heaviness of the subject matter with Wolfgang's smart-ass humor is perfectly mirrored by the dense cross-hatching and rubbery character design. I'm curious as to how Wolfgang will resolve both the main character's arc and the overall plot.

Tom Kaczynski: Kaczynski's stories in MOME have felt like part of a larger cycle of stories. They combine elements of cultural & economic critique with the paranoia and rawness of a JG Ballard story. His stories address aspects of modern civilization and the ways in which they break down. "100,000 Miles" in MOME #6 employs a sickly green background in its fantasy about the end of the world in the form of a worldwide traffic jam ending society as we know it. He takes that idea further in #7 with "10,000 Years", about a man in therapy who becomes twisted by the idea of creating a utopia on Mars, a dream held as a reaction to extreme alienation. Alienation is a key point in the brilliant "976 Sq Feet", about a couple who are driven insane by a high-rise condo built in their neighborhood. (The line the man utters when he calls 911 for his now-insane girlfriend [babbling about "double paned windows"] is priceless: "Uh, I need an ambulance...or an architect.") Kaczynski implies that the construction was less built than conjured or summoned, as though it were some sort of hideous otherworldly intelligence brought in by the nameless, faceless forces of global capitalism.

"Phase Transition" in MOME #10 involves a man devolving into a sort of reptile-brain state as a way of throwing off the yoke of technology. Kaczynski implies here that primitivism is its own form of false utopia, as the man becomes a megalomaniac at the end. Kaczynski tops himself in #11 with "Million Year Boom", about a brand expert who winds up working for a bizarre "green" company, trying to come up with a corporate logo as it prepares to go public. This is one of the top stories I've read in MOME to date, an insane stew of paranoia, devolution, corporate messiahs, and global capitalism fused with a tribal, scatological mindset. The final panel, where the protagonist's blood spewing across a door gives him the inspiration for the logo, was a stunning moment. Of all the cartoonists in MOME, Kaczynski has perhaps raised his game the highest to match the competition in the anthology. Every entry has been simply remarkable, drawn with a certain looseness in its line and modified either with simple color or effects like zip-a-tone. These strips are dark, unsettling and thought-provoking critiques layered with multiple meanings. He's exactly what MOME is all about: providing a platform for developing artists to grow and excel. What he brings to MOME is a point of view unlike anyone else's, a crucial factor for an editor trying to avoid repetition.

Tim Hensley: Hensley is the sort of 20-year overnight success that comes along rarely in comics. I've seen his work here and there over the years in various anthologies, but his dizzying "Wally Gropius" strips in MOME #6 were some of the most hilarious, dadaesque comics that I've ever read. Hensley's style of art is reminiscent of Harvey comics, Archie comics, and old-style cartooning and yet is its own entity. The flat 4-color art almost almost disguises the crazy eye-pops in almost every panel, much like a Will Elder. There's a twisted internal logic at play here, as we follow teen millionaire Wally Gropius and his various adventures. We see him with his rock band, the Dropouts, (looking like the Beatles in their cartoon show, and yet different), getting wowed by debutante Jillian Banks (who impresses him by singing the national anthems of Laos and Lithuania) and ignoring the scores of teenage girls who attempt suicide around him. There's a pitch-black streak of humor that pervades these strips, juxtaposing sometimes horrific acts (like the out-of-nowhere, John Stanley-esque argument between Jillian and her father that escalates into rough sex) with the almost painfully cheery and stylized character designs.

Above all else, Hensley's strips are funny. There are sight gags in every panel, non-sequiturs that are flogged and pursued to their logical ends, and a demented series of one-off strips that nonetheless are building a sort of forward momentum into a greater narrative. There's a lack of pretension in these strips, a lack of a sense that Hensley is being weird for weirdness' sake. This simply seems to be the way Hensley approaches the world and creates gags; there's a natural flow to reading his strips that sneaks up on a reader, which is a big part of its initial impact. They're even better on subsequent readings, because his economically-designed pages nonetheless have an enormous amount of detail and information packed into them. The familiarity of the style (though it's impossible to place exactly what that style is) subverts reader expectations, throwing them off as Hensley throws in a weird detail here (like eating a can of caviar) or bizarre concept there (like Wally titling an essay answer "Huey Lewis: Epistemology and Praxis"). He's only done a few strips since his big splash in MOME #6, and I hope that we'll see another outpouring soon.

Emile Bravo: The French artist has contributed four excellent stories to MOME so far. He takes an interesting approach to expressing language, using pictograms in his word balloons to get across his points in many of his strips. He's also sharply political without being didactic, like in "Frustration Land!" in MOME #6. A funny yet horrific take on a pair of Palestinian boys and the Intifada conflict, Bravo's expressive and cartoony pencils remind me a bit of Wally Wood crossed with Sergio Aragonnes. The story manages to sympathize with and condemn both sides simultaneously, culminating in a dark ending.

"We Are All Equal: The Equation" in MOME #10 is another grimly amusing strip about race & the effects of imperialism, while "A Question of Human Resources" in MOME #11 deals with the impossible puzzle of navigating global capitalism. His masterwork in MOME was "Young Americans" in MOME #8. This postmodern tactical nuke of a comic starts as a 4-page story about a jock teenager in 1950s America dealing with his blacklisted alcoholic of a father, aided by his girlfriend. The story ends tearfully, as the father embraces the son and the son promises the father that he was going to get educated. Bravo then throws a monkey wrench into the story, and repeats the same story with the same art, but this time its entire meaning becomes repurposed thanks to new, depraved dialogue. It's a hilarious mirror image, cleverly designed and perfectly delivered. Bravo's approach to making comics and his particular interests make him part of a continuum of politically charged artists, one that didn't have a particular representative in MOME. His humanity, his cleverness and the way he solves problems on the page make him yet another great choice for this anthology.

Lewis Trondheim: Trondheim is one of my favorite cartoonists in the world, so it was a special treat to see his story "At Loose Ends". This 75 page story was serialized in MOME #6, 7 and 8 and worked surprisingly well getting split into three parts. The story is autobiographical with a particular but personal focus. Trondheim had just turned 40 at the time he was creating the strip, and had just decided to end one of his long-running series and stop drawing another. This led him to wonder about the relationship between aging, creating art and depression. The story consists of a long series of ruminations and interviews with other artists about the creative process, and if there's a connection between being a cartoonist and winding up miserable. Trondheim's autobiographical stories always have a great deal of wit and playfulness mixed in with his observations and ruminations--both in his visuals and his ideas.

For example, he debates his ideas with an imaginary audience--and then kills them in brutal ways when they disagree with him. His line turns from realistic to cartoony to hyperexaggerated in the space of just a few panels, keeping the reader off-balance. There's also an amusing sequence where we see him confront Lapinot (McConey in English), his franchise character that he just killed off. Lapinot is resentful that he was a victim of Trondheim's mid-life crisis, but the artist is terrified of getting into a rut, a safe routine that would reduce his work to mere craft, not art.

Trondheim not only doesn't really come to a definitive conclusion, he also builds in every critique imaginable against this endeavor. He acknowledges that the whole exercise is self-indulgent and bourgeois in that many artists would love to be in his position--having a long & successful career. He acknowledges the possibility that there's no connection between age, depression and cartooning through the arguments of many others, even if he can't quite shake the notion himself. He acknowledges that while he raises and discusses important points, his exploration is incomplete and doesn't apologize for it ("I'm not a sociologist").

"At Loose Ends" by its very nature wasn't as funny as the LITTLE NOTHINGS collection that NBM published, but if anything the art is even freer and looser. While Trondheim alludes to it briefly, it's drawing from life and nature that keeps him going as an artist. There are many pages where he abandons his cartoony style to focus in on a countryside or animal, and it's clear that the pure act of drawing still brings him pleasure. While the trappings of being a professional storyteller can be draining, the mere fact that he felt compelled to publish a meditation on the possibility of creation as a comic proves that he has a lot more to say as an artist. For Trondheim, drawing and writing are equally important parts of an inseparable process. He feels compelled to participate in that process simply because he looks at, lives in and interacts with the world.

Gabrielle Bell: Bell has greatly scaled down her participation in MOME, but she's still had a few stories. In #6, she contributed an amusing observational comic called "Gabrielle The Third", about her relationships with animals. She relates anecdotes about her mother being a vegetarian, the chickens that used to enter her trailer home, and the family of pigeons that took up residence on her apartment's windowsill. There's always a sort of wry detachment in Bell's strips that I find enormously appealing, especially when it comes to her diary comics. MOME #7 has "Why Girls Love Horses", a single-page, 15 panel story that's one of her most straightforward. A rare Bell story in color, the shading of the horses involved in this anecdote and the green of the foliage that she whips through are an important part of the storytelling. Issue 9 has three one-page stories, each of which has fantasy elements. "Nightmare Rescue" turns from what seems to be a personal anecdote to a fantasy piece at the end, as Bell is about to be devoured by nightmare monsters. "Physical Knowledge" is about a doomed relationship where a man starts to literally shrink in response to verbal abuse, while "Long-Terms Investments" finds Bell with a briefcase full of money and trying to find the best way to invest it. I wouldn't be surprised to see more of these little flights of fancy from Bell in MOME in the future, using it as a place for those little ideas that don't have a specific home.

Al Columbia: Columbia is a phenomenal talent who has only published a tiny handful of his work. As such, it's a treat to see bits and pieces from his deranged imagination. He's always combined cartooning chops that are second to none, capable of drawing in any style, with disturbing, nightmarish imagery that has a visceral impact. MOME #7 features a series of drawings called "Chopped-Up People", which describes them to a T. Some of the figures are realistic and others are 20's style cartoon characters, but they all are flayed, maimed or disemboweled. "Fucking Felix" in #8 is exactly what it sounds like--a cartoon character walking into a room where he has rough sex with Felix the Cat. The juxtaposition of the familiar cartoon cat in this truly awful position (especially since he initially was in love with the long-necked, pear-shaped man who walked in) is almost painful to read.

"Pim & Francie" in #9 featured the cartoon children getting ground up and eaten in a Hansel & Gretel scenario as Francie is trying to stay as cheerful as possible. #10 has a creepy kitten on the cover that he drew specifically for that issue, while #11's "5:45am" is perhaps his most disturbing contribution of all. The reader silently moves from room to room in a house where that weird early-morning light is starting to infiltrate it. The reader is slightly taken aback when we see a length of rope attached to a headboard, and then stunned when we see a woman on a couch who has clearly been strangled by what looks like a scarf wrapped around her neck. Who did this and why this happened is left as a mystery. Columbia's solo comics have never exactly been my cup of tea, but seeing his enormous talent on display in an anthology like this adds a completely different dimension to the proceedings. An anthology editor wants a variety of styles and viewpoints, and there's no question that Columbia brings a singular talent and perspective to MOME. Like any good team, Columbia makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Eleanor Davis: Davis is one of the youngest cartoonists in MOME, but one can sense the enormous amount of thought that goes into her comics. They have an earthy quality to them, favoring browns, yellows and reds when she uses color. The subject matter is also earthy in its own way, dealing with sex, death and mysteries. Davis' stories are often situated in a fantasy setting of sorts, but more along the lines of the Brothers Grimm than what we think of as genre fantasy today. There's a certain creepiness and menace that pervades her stories, and they contain a subtext that ranges from ambivalence to something far more unsettling.

Her debut story in MOME #6, "Seven Sacks", introduces us to her imaginative and expressive character design, which often borders on the grotesque. A ferryman takes assorted awful-looking creatures across a river, each more horrific than the next. Each creature carries a sack, some of which are still moving. We never learn exactly what they're doing or what's in the sacks, but it's implied that there's some kind of mass human sacrifice. The clearly disturbed ferryman tries to talk himself into thinking that it was just rabbits in the sacks, but it's clear that he can't stop thinking about it. In #7, "Stick and String" sees a guitar player seduces a wild woodland woman-creature to follow him home thanks to the music he plays, but he soon realizes that she is more creature than woman when she scratches at the window later that night. Davis moves subtly here--the woman doesn't devour him or something obvious like that, but instead Davis shows the man with a dawning understanding that he's gotten himself into a situation he can't handle.

"Thomas The Leader" in #8 is another unsettling tale that gets at the heart of how brothers interact and roughhouse, with an ending that finds both brothers understanding that things went a little too far. Once again, Davis has an ambiguous ending where the main character has undergone an experience that changes the way they look at the world and themselves, and not really for the better. How exactly each character will ultimately process this is left unsaid, which is why her story endings have such a quiet power. "10,000 Rescues" is a comparatively light-hearted effort, putting two girl adventurers through all sorts of amusing peril as Davis only shows the climactic scenes of their escapades. I've followed Davis' career since her art-school days, and her strong sense of character, setting and the language of comics have made her one to watch for quite some time. Like some of the other younger cartoonists in MOME, she's definitely risen to the occasion and has contributed some of the very best work of her career.

Ray Fenwick: I've reviewed the Fenwick collection HALL OF BEST KNOWLEDGE, but I was introduced to his "calligraphic comics" through MOME. His earlier efforts are like little comedic sneak-attacks with ornate decorative touches. "Tough and Shocking Love", for example, uses a repeating motif of offering love to a kitten ("tough and shocking love") and then using a "surprise attack" by saying boo to it. There's also some pathos to his work as well, as in "The Saddest Wizard", a one-pager where a magician summons spirits because "I, your fleshborn master, am going through a real tough patch right now and could use a bit of a boost!" His strips in MOME #9 look like they were drawn on the back cover of old cloth-bound hardcovers; one strip, printed on a sky-blue background, is entitled "The Message". A floating balloon carries a note that simply says, "Fuck You And Your Blog".

MOME #10 has "The Five Oracles of Gossip", another sardonic piece combining ancient folklore with supermarket tabloid headlines ("In a river of flowing lava, the Moaning Skull of Kilauea draws strength from the searing wind and provides updates on the failing relationships of b-list celebrities.") MOME #11's "The Truth Bear" is yet another dadaesque entry, this time as a more traditional comic strip. A bear debates a talking truth stick, with both parties trying to convince the other to help them with their respective quests (eating everything in sight, seeking the truth), with the stick fibbing in the end in an attempt to get what it wants. Fenwick is a unique talent whose comics in MOME operate as sort of interstitial pieces that act as breaks between longer strips, brief shocks to the system that are funny, weird and beautiful.

Anders Nilsen: Nilsen's comics have been some of my favorites in MOME, using mixed-media in some strips and a totally stripped-down approach in others. They've been some of the most challenging strips in an anthology whose initial aim was accessibility for a general audience. His last couple of stories focused on ontological concerns, simultaneously engaging in the struggle to come to grips with the concept of being and mocking that effort. In "The Notary" (MOME #6), Nilsen's blank-faced figure does a monologue set against a world atlas about belief and doubt, checking "calculations" to see if his scheme can work. In "It's Okay, You Have Everything You Need" (MOME #7), we see two of Nilsen's blank-faced figures. One is haranguing the other about not being able to get over something and asks what he wants--until the scene is flipped and we realize that the first person is the one who needs help. There's a certain desperation in this scene as we see the first figure vibrate with what appears to be grief and anxiety, while the second figure stoically and quietly waits to give his solace. There's an emotional rawness to his work (especially everything he's done since DON'T GO WHERE I CAN'T FOLLOW) that he is able to bring into sharp relief with his blank characters. Nilsen is one of the most versatile artists in comics today, fully integrating his background as a conceptual artist with a strong understanding of the language of comics.

David Heatley: The bad news for Heatley fans is that he won't be finishing his "Overpeck" story in the pages of MOME and will instead be publishing the whole story with a book publisher. The good news is that he finished strong in MOME #6 and #7, which featured more of his disturbing dream comics. In #6, Heatley employs his cartoony style in dreams about Iraq, his father and his wife. In each, Heatley is dealing with fears of being judged, the nature of his relationship with his wife, and the warped logic of his father in a dream. In #7, in "Office Building" and "Uncle Tom's", Heatley grapples with disorder and mayhem in his life, which both dovetail closely with sex and sexuality along with a fear of aging. What sets his dream comics apart from others is the sense of how bold he is in presenting even the most disturbing or perverse images from his unconscious, all while presenting them as narratives that are entirely successful on their own terms with their own logic. Heatley's perspective is a uniquely skewed one, and it's unfortunate that he's moved on from MOME.

Jonathan Bennett: Bennett has a story in MOME #6 ("Dupes") and MOME #8 ("Meditation On The Grid"). Of all the cartoonists in MOME, Bennett's strips tend to be the most inward-leaning. He's very much living in his own head here, whether he's perturbed by discovering what appears to be a doppelganger of himself in a subway car or trancing out on grid patterns. Bennett's interior monologue is interesting because there's almost no possibility or interest in the possibility of communication or interaction in these meditations. While there's a scene where he's talking to his wife, that's only in flashback. Bennett's stories are about a particular set of moments, a particular set of observations in a given time and place. There's an awareness of self and setting that Bennett describes in detail so fine that it takes on the trappings of a phenomenological study.

In my last review of MOME, I wondered how long Bennett could mine this particular storytelling style without repeating himself. I had compared him to a young pitcher plucked off a farm who can throw a 98 mph fastball and noted that he'd need to vary his style somewhat to become a true great. What I've seen from him in his latest contributions is that young fireballer shaking off the signs for a curveball and instead delivering a 105-mph heater. Bennett was successful in these stories by going even further inside his head, removing all trappings of fiction and storytelling expectations and focusing even more on the moment and how it makes him feel. At their essence, his stories focus on his own emotional narrative--how Bennett not only sees the world, but feels about it. Those feelings drive the story as Bennett strives to let the reader crawl into his head as far as they are able, seeing the world through the point of view (in every sense of the phrase) of another.

Andrice Arp: Arp had stories in MOME #7, 9 and 11, all of which are completely unlike the other. "The Hollow Leg" in #7 is a funny dream comic done in what's her loosest, most immediately expressive style. What's funny about this comic is that it's about a dream where she's about to receive some very important information, feels like she's woken up, gets put back to sleep by her partner, wakes up again but is still unable to figure out what the message was. However, she finds the whole experience amazing and vows to do a comic about it, but feels like she can't express that thought out loud. Then she wakes for real and realizes "I guess it's not all that amazing"--but the fact that meaning was so elusive to her compelled her to transcribe it into comics form.

"To The Delaware Pilots" in #9 is more of what we've seen from her in earlier issues--adapting colonial America-era broadsides into comics form. This one, from "The Committee for Tarring and Feathering", implores the locals to give that treatment to a certain sea captain for double-crossing them. This story is a quick trifle of a read, but it's always amusing to see Arp run through the paces of creating imagery (often fantastical) that's evocative of that era. The most interesting of her three submissions came in #11, in the form of 4 single-page strips that are discrete yet related. They all involve a humanoid character either in or out of a giant bottle, being confronted by creatures or specters. The first image, titled "The Question Is, 'How Did This Happen?'" sees the character trapped inside a bottle for example. The images are grey and gloomy, but don't evoke dread so much as they do laughter--especially when combined with their titles. The changing nature of MOME makes Arp's approach stand out a little less than it did before, so I've enjoyed seeing her change up what she's doing. I hope to see more experiments like she attempted in #11.

Joe Kimball: Kimball's stories in MOME 8 and 9 are some of the most unusual and visually striking in the anthology to date. I confess that they kind of washed over me after a first reading because of their ambiguity and denseness, but there's certainly a lot to unpack here. Kimball is another rookie to comics, with "Hide & Watch Me" and "The Lifer" being his first published works. He mixes a feathery realistic style with 1920s style cartooning, making heavy use of black & white contrasts. There are also a lot of fantasy elements, like what appears to be time travel and possibly vampirism in "The Lifer" and all sorts of weirdness in "Hide and Watch Me". The latter story is silent, with a sort of narrative table of contents at the beginning. It involves a sorceress in a backwoods cabin, bizarre family relationships, her transformation into a bird, eventual death at the hands of a young boy and the consequences to the world as a result.

Both stories merit repeated readings, as the images start to make more sense as one is able to connect them and see details that were unclear earlier. Kimball's stories have an unsettling quality to them that's different than the sheer visceral fear that Al Columbia inspires; one gets the sense that there is magic and wonder in the worlds he's describing, but that it all comes at a terrible price. His work certainly merits the time needed to fully explore it. His presence, along with Dash Shaw, John Hankiewicz and others, signals that the editors have pretty clearly abandoned the tack of making MOME easily accessible to non-comics readers with standard narratives. It's not quite at the level of KRAMER'S ERGOT-style near-abstraction, but it is much more in line with Fantagraphics anthologies of the past like ZERO ZERO.

Jim Woodring: Woodring's story "The Lute String", published only in Japan prior to this, was serialized in MOME #9-10. This story is a must for any fans of Woodring's characters and it features Frank's friends/pets Pushpaw and Pupshaw. Woodring creates a strange, vibrant world full of cartoony creatures that don't really have a human analogue. That allows him to create his own sense of vibrant, hallucinatory logic in his stories. This story is actually pretty straightforward--Pushpaw and Pupshaw ignore Frank, who needs help digging up an offensive weed. They run off together to create all sorts of mischief, including picking on a smaller animal. They are observed by a powerful but childlike elephant god, who appears on earth to pull the same kind of stunts with them. They are not amused and chase the god, who trips on a rock and falls. A bit piqued, the god deposits the duo on "our" Earth, where they are frightened out of their wits by everything they see, including two children. The god then puts them back on their own world, where they gratefully help out Frank. Back on earth, the two children are inconsolable! Woodring's imagery is so well-designed that it looks less like a drawing and more like a set of photos from an alien world that popped straight out of Woodring's head and onto the page. The only problem came in running it in consecutive issues, because that disturbed the flow of the story, but there really wasn't a better alternative.

Sammy Harkham: Harkham was slated to be one of the original contributors to MOME, but editing KRAMER'S ERGOT and his solo series CRICKETS prevented that. He did manage to contribute a strip to MOME #6, a funny account of an anti-semitic cab driver telling Harkham that Jews control the world and started all wars, and at the end of the ride says "That'll be six bucks, you fucking war-monger". It's the kind of small incidental strip that he's pulled off so well in CRICKETS, but with his own spotlight comic MOME isn't a place that makes sense for him. The irony is that his comics are actually fairly straightforward (especially in terms of narrative), even if his own anthology pushes the limits of what comics can be--and that more straightforward approach was exactly what MOME was going for in its early days.

R. Kikuo Johnson: Johnson is one of the most interesting designers and draftsmen to contribute to MOME, and his oddball contributions have been missed. He'll hopefully be back in the anthology at some point. In issue 6, he contributed four single-page strips, each of them a takeoff on lurid romance comic covers, the funniest being "Love Gazebo". As her "heart pitter-pattered in coital anticipation", the clenching couple's tongues are sloppily (and hilariously) splayed across their faces.

Martin Cendreda: Cendreda got the cover spot for MOME 6, and his story "Hopscotch" was one of his best. This nighttime story of two kids who live in a dumpster was given atmosphere with its midnight blues and deep purples sweeping across each panel. Cendreda's flat, thin line is of the Clowes/Tomine school, though his subject matter and approach was frequently much more whimsical and less distant than those two artists. His particular aesthetic approach will be missed, though Eleanor Davis and Tom Kaczynski both have storytelling concerns that are in the same stylistic ballpark.

Jeffrey Brown: Brown's last story, "Everyday Terrorists" (MOME 6), was typical of his MOME contributions in that he tried to do something a little different from his usual fare, both in terms of the story and its visuals. Brown uses browns and thick blacks in this story in an attempt to heighten its tension. The story is a deliberately melodramatic account of street crime, involving a guy breaking up a purse-snatching and his struggle with the mugger. Brown of course is plenty busy with other projects, putting out books for multiple publishers. Most of his MOME strips weren't his best work, but I did like seeing him experiment and step outside of his comfort zone. Brown's career had already taken off when he started contributing to MOME, so it made sense that he viewed the anthology more as a lab than as a way to showcase himself.

Mike Scheer: Multimedia artist Scheer contributes something that's not exactly comics but is very interesting to look at in MOME #9. They're intricate, detailed ball-point pen drawings that are sort of Jim Woodring-meets-Renee French. They share Woodring's warped, fantastical character design, all twists and turns and bends. They have the same nearly graphomaniacal intensity of French's drawings, giving a sense of extreme realism to a series of subjects that have an almost alien quality. At the same time, these drawings don't inspire the same kind of dread that Woodring and French often create in their readers. Indeed, there's something almost warm and comforting about his cast of characters and a lot of whimsy in his descriptions, like "Conical, scaled creature attempting to will itself into a nineteen seventies television commercial..." This is one of the nice things about an anthology like MOME--it's the perfect place for works that don't otherwise have a real home for publication.

Zak Sally: Sally is mostly concentrating on longer narratives these days, but his adaptation of Brian Evenson's psychological horror story "Dread" is thick with atmosphere. Sally creates that atmosphere ithanks in part to his lettering, which makes sense since the narrator of the story is driven to insanity by the phrase "He no longer resembled me." Sally works in shadows, silhouettes and contrasts, seamlessly meshing word and image to transform its original text into a reading experience that creates a visceral feeling of the title feeling. Sally is a high-impact cartoonist who has a way of grabbing a reader by the shoulders and shaking them--or else punching them in the gut. This piece was much stronger than his first MOME entry, so it's unfortunate that he hasn't been able to contribute to the anthology more often. Between running his publishing concern La Mano and his Ignatz series SAMMY THE MOUSE, he does have a lot on his plate.

Dash Shaw: I've reviewed a number of Shaw's comics here, having followed his work since he was at the School of Visual Arts and had his mini series LOVE EATS BRAINS available at Jim Hanley's Universe, and I'm proud to say that I've had a chance to publish his work in Other magazine. Shaw is an interesting mix of aggressive formalist experimentation and an emphasis on the struggle of being human. As such, identity, sexuality and mortality are frequently his running themes, along with the difficulty of communication. In MOME, Shaw has dipped into the genre well a bit with science-fiction trappings for his stories providing a slightly broader but perhaps easier to digest canvas for some of his ideas.

In #10's "Look Forward, First Son of Terra Two", Shaw produces a stunning effort that's one of the best stories ever in MOME. It's a time travel story of sorts, where a man lives his life in reverse, arriving dead at the doorstep of a girl but then springing "back to life" as he ages backwards and everyone else moves forward in time. Shaw's use of color drives the narrative, as the man is in blue and everyone else is in yellow. The man is the Other in the most literal sense in this story, and the completely incompatible communication between the peoples of Terra One and Terra Two, running on reverse timelines, leads to inevitable tragedy. The tragedy comes about strictly because cause and effect become hopelessly mangled as the two peoples attempt to interact. There's a deep sadness and tenderness to this story at its core that anchors Shaw's huge bag of cartooning tricks.

Shaw's "The Galactic Funnels" in #11 is another story tinged with pathos, as a young man is inspired by a particular natural formation in the future (conical funnels in space), is strongly influenced by an artist who creates paintings inspired by them, and later disavows that artist when he starts his own career. The breaking point comes after the young man, Stan Smart, becomes the lover of the artist in question, Don Dak. Dak rejects him after being threatened by his lover's own talent along with a fear of loss of identity--Smart's stealing the ideas that have made him famous. Smart reacts to the rejection by pretending Dak meant nothing to him, both as an artist and person, finally rejecting his own aesthetic point of view later in life. Once again, the wrenching emotional core of the story is augmented but not overwhelmed by Shaw's pyrotechnics with color and composition. Shaw has backed off some of his more oblique past storytelling tendencies but hasn't sacrificed his desire to explore the limits of the comics form.

Robert Goodin: Goodin's work has yet to really grab me for reasons I can't fully articulate. He's a solid but unremarkable craftsman, but his actual stories have left me cold. That said, "The Ten Fools" in MOME #10 was a very funny interpretation of an old legend from India, about a king who sends an adviser out to find ten fools, since he's constantly surrounded by wise men. The adviser then quickly finds eight idiots engaged in a variety of stupid activities (my favorite being the man who buried his gold in the ground using a cloud as a marker), and then brings them back to the king. There's a funny punchline where the adviser proves to be too much of a smartass for his own good. I'll be curious to see what kind of story Goodin has in mind for MOME #12, because this one did have a certain amount of charm.

Jeremy Eaton: Eaton's "Winchester Cathedral" in MOME #10 is a straightforward account of an unusual boy whose lack of understanding of boundaries led him to terrorize his neighborhood. Eaton uses an unusual visual technique, using four panels on each page surrounded by text, all within alternating grey and white squares. His line is sketchy and rubbery, expressively portraying the grotesqueness of the title character and his family. It's a story that feels ripped out of the artist's sketchbook in its immediacy and surprising warmth, as poor Chester is certainly presented as a sympathetic character who is affected by forces he doesn't understand. There was something enormously satisfying about this story that's hard to articulate, though part of it lies in its context--it brought a sensibility and viewpoint missing from MOME, one that I wasn't even aware that it lacked til I read this story. Hopefully Eaton will continue to contribute to future editions.

John Hankiewicz: The inclusion of Hankiewicz's often enigmatic comics is the most direct indicator of MOME's sea change since its debut. Hankiewicz is a true innovator in comics, creating strips that have a rhythm and logic to them that bears a greater resemblance to poetry than conventional comics. His cartooning chops are simply remarkable, going from an almost painfully realistic style to a highly stylized iconic approach sometimes in the same panel. His images are charged with hidden meanings and his stories often require multiple readings to fully absorb.

In MOME #10, his "Success Comes to Westmont, Il" combines narrative captions indicating the narrator's disquiet with the gentrification of his small town with imagery that supports, warps and otherwise provides a different way of thinking about the text. The grotesquely grinning, iconically-rendered couple represents the banality of what he sees, and they seem to have a connection to someone he loves who is hopelessly scarred but in motion (represented by electricity). "Those Eyes" in #11 interpolates an anecdote from the life of jazz vocalist Anita O'Day with an evening spent by that same banal, smiling couple. O'Day's struggles with life outside of music are juxtaposed with the visual shorthand of the couple, dismissing an impassioned but desperate performance. Hankiewicz's stories could not be told as anything but comics, and he's in the rare position of adding to the medium's visual vocabulary in stories that are impossible to classify but demand multiple (and fruitful) readings.

Nate Neal: Neal's first contribution to MOME in issue #11 was quite a debut. "The 5 Simple Cosmic Do Dats" weaves in sex, sitcom tropes, classic comics conventions, underground comix overtones, politics, Jack Chick style tracts and religious crackpots in a series of discrete but interlocking strips. The whole thing winds up coalescing in an explosive but hilarious finale that features a breakdancing tract-peddler. Neal's intricately ridiculous story is a nice complement to creepier fare in this issue like Killoffer's tense black & white story or Al Columbia's still-but-unsettling entry. Neal's line is loose & lively, and it looks like he used colored pencil to create a simple palette (with the exception of one strip deliberately designed to look like a 50's sitcom). His earthy raucousness and sense of humor is also a nice balance to the more reserved strips in the anthology.

Conor O'Keefe: A true comics rookie, O'Keefe's first published comics came in MOME #11. "Shoes" and "Fly" both have a certain Winsor McCay sort of quality to them, containing certain fantasy elements with a deadpan delivery and a clever use of color. Layered on top of this whimsical world full of odd companions and creatures is a certain modern desperation. "Shoes" is an advertisement disguised as a narrative fable, with the title objects breaking into the narrative in a sort of product placement that actually winds up driving the story. "Fly" interpolates scientific diagrams with the hero of the story talking to a fly trying in vain to escape out of a window. O'Keefe is yet another great find for MOME, and I hope to see him contribute to the anthology extensively. The addition of cartoonists like Shaw and O'Keefe brings a very different kind of aesthetic viewpoint to the anthology, one that isn't afraid to explore genre tropes and rework them to new ends.
Killoffer: Known as a co-founder of French comics collective L'Association, Killoffer has little work published in America. His brutal and visceral self-examination 676 APPARITIONS OF KILLOFFER was a stunning work, and his entry here in MOME #11, "Einmal Ist Keinmal" is along those lines. Killoffer is a master of black and white contrasts on his pages, giving them a stark and immediate impact on the viewer's eye. The story concerns a woman who keeps seeing the same man's face on every male she happens to encounter. The face is nasty and loutish, even threatening. Interestingly, the only time she sees another kind of male face (an attractive one) is in a dream. There is quite a memorable sequence where she's about to give the dream man a blow-job; as he gets erect, we see that the head of the penis is the head of the man she's been seeing all along! After being called into a police lineup to potentially identify a killer (who all look like the same man to her), she winds up finding his dead body in her bathtub. There's a good bit of ambiguity to this ending--did she murder a lecherous, dangerous man and repress it? Did someone else find the body and put it there? Her lack of surprise at seeing the body and her subsequent reaction (calmly putting on lipstick even though she was nude) seems to indicate something along the lines of the former. It's quite an affecting story by an artist who will return for MOME #12.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mome Week! Mome 1-5 and Eric Reynolds Interview

Welcome to Mome week here at High-Low.  This week, I'll be reprinting all of my past reviews of the first 19 issues of Mome, the flagship anthology of Fantagraphics for nearly six years. I'll also be writing reviews of the last three issues of the anthology.
Five issues of Fantagraphics' new flagship anthology, MOME, have been published. I was immensely excited when news of it was announced, because a number of my favorite young artists were to be part of its regular stable of talent. The idea was that the same group would be in every issue, to both provide continuity for the reader and help the artists develop. The only explicit mission of the anthology was to make it accessible to the general but sophisticated reader of literature. In other words, KRAMER'S ERGOT-style formalism was out, and a slightly more conventional focus on narrative was in.

I can't help thinking of MOME as the comics equivalent of a baseball farm league club. You know you're good if you're invited by the major league club to come on, but there's an expectation of getting better, of being productive, of working hard in order to become great. And the creators in this book seem to range across a wide variety of ages and levels of experience, much like a minor league baseball team. Some are raw rookies, others have been laboring in obscurity for years and are just now getting an opportunity at the big time. The styles of some are easy to pick apart and compare to veterans, while others are either completely original or just unorthodox. Rather than review each issue separately, I thought I'd evaluate MOME instead author-by-author, stretching out this metaphor as far as it's fruitful to do so. Let's do this in alphabetical order:

Andrice Arp

Arp is a unique talent, fascinated with the past. Not in the nostalgic sense of a Seth, but rather with the obscure and mythological. In particular, Arp has done stories in MOME concerning ancient Japanese mythology and 19th century broadsides. There's a sumptuousness to her art and painted approach that is in sharp contrast with the more traditional linework to be found in the rest of the anthology; only David B's work is more visually arresting. It's like plunking down an old-timer like Tris Speaker in with a modern big-league club: it's incongrous but intriguing nonetheless. Her unorthodox, idiosyncratic interests throughout her career have made her one to watch, but it's difficult to predict where this will lead for her. I sense that there's a certain point where she'll need to go in a different direction in order to really evolve, but I have no idea what form that might take. Regardless, one never gets bored watching her work.

Arp has great skill in adapting old yarns using modern language. "The Jewels of the Sea" in MOME #1 and "Cormorant Feathers" in #2 combine tales from Japanese myth with contemporary slapstick, done in Arp's feast-for-the-eyes painting. Unlike most painted comics, each panel is composed like and contains the looseness of a penciled drawing. The static stiffness found in many painted comics is absent, partly because of her expressive figure work. "A Story of the Oki Islands" in #3 is more of the same, this time done all in blue. The only story of Arp's that's penciled is "To Capt Ayers" in #3, an adaptation of a letter detailing a man being tarred and feathered. Once again, Arp succesfully transforms an esoteric subject in an amusing fashion. Arp has found a niche that works well for her and provides an unusual voice for the anthology.

Gabrielle Bell

I've written extensively about Bell in High-Low, so I won't go into much detail in this article. Her presence here has been well-earned through years of development in mini-comics and other anthologies, and there's no question that she's destined for a long, productive career. She's no home-run hitter, but is rather like the baseball player who does all of the little things. She's the sort of player that coaches, other players and students of the game really appreciate but who don't necessarily get the big headlines. A close examination of her career shows her getting better and better, refining what she does to perfection. In the current graphic novel-driven market, it's tough for a short story-specialist to make the kind of splash that a Marjane Satrapi did, but Bell's work is more sublime in every way. Hopefully one of her future projects will draw similar acclaim and attention. In the meantime, every one of her contributions to MOME has been top-notch, including #5's California travelogue that is full of her wry commentary.

Jonathan Bennett

The sum total of Bennett's comics career prior to MOME was two very nice minicomics. He certainly displayed his technical proficiency as an artist in them (astonishing for someone with so little experience), as well as his greatest skill as a writer: his observational acuity. He's totally green compared to the most of the rest of the creators in the book. Going back to the baseball well, he's like a farmboy who can throw a 95-MPH fastball discovered by a scout passing through some small town. In an interview with him in MOME #4, he revealed that the pressure of a deadline and being in such a prestigious venue has compelled him to step up, forcing ideas out of him on the spot. The sheer craft he exhibits on each page is remarkable. The stories he's chosen to tell so far are all inward-leaning, and as he revealed in that interview, more-or-less autobiographical.

"Dance With The Ventures" in MOME #1 shows him obsessing over details of the past (especially his childhood) and worrying about what he might turn into. "Needles And Pins" in #2 sees him on a park bench feeding the pigeons and chewing his fingernails. In terms of the plot, that's literally all that happens, but it's an interesting read because of the twists and turns his reverie takes on that bench. He thinks about how odd it is for pigeons to eat a fried chicken leg, then thinks about how odd it is for him to eat his own fingernails. His stream-of-consciousness take on small moments in life is livened up by his linework. It reminds me a bit of the precision of Jason Lutes (BERLIN), but there are delightful surprises as when he transforms into a child, revealing a slightly more rubbery, almost manga-influenced style. One story has him simply wandering around the neighborhood taking pictures of images that fascinate him, and he uses an interesting technique of frames that look like they're being viewed through a camera scope.

The only problem I see with Bennett is that one wonders how long he can keep coming up with variations of this kind of story. In MOME #4, he almost takes this to its logical extreme, trying to recreate the sensation of what it felt like when he was born by stuffing himself between two mattresses. He may have that 98-MPH fastball, but he'll need to add a curve and a slider to really reach his potential, and so I hope to see him broaden the use of his keen observational skills in the future.

Jeffrey Brown

Brown is one of the most prolific cartoonists in this group, releasing nine books with Top Shelf as well as numerous deluxe mini-comics. He's known for his episodic, autobiographical comics that center around his relationships, but he's also done plenty of gag strips and even fractured superhero stories as well. For a new comics reader, his work is extremely accessible, with his minimalist (but quite assured) style and straightforward storytelling. Despite that, the entries he's had in MOME haven't necessarily been his best, and there's a self-awareness about this that pervades his work here.

The first issue saw him do a story about how he couldn't think of a good idea for the first issue of MOME, how much he hated deadlines and being harrassed about it by his friends. This is kind of an old dodge for writers when they're blocked, and it's a bit self-indulgent if amusing at times. He turns things around with "Our Jam Band Is Going To Be Sweet" in #2, a quasi-fictional story about a man who turns up missing, the search by police for him, and how he met his fate. It's surprisingly compelling and gritty, and reveals that Brown is quite adept at writing stories that are almost genre (murder-mystery here). "Hollywood Money" in #3 is a very funny take on a student-director trying to get Brown to sign over the rights to his book CLUMSY for a film. Still, Brown's work wasn't even close to being the most compelling in the anthology, though it was clear he was starting to get more comfortable with the format.

"What Were They Thinking, and Also, What They Were Thinking" in #4 is his best MOME story to date. It's about a Godzilla-like monster ravaging a city, but the real action takes place with each character's interior monologue. When it starts with Godzilla thinking "I'm very concerned with being good enough" and he waxes existential as he's crushing buildings, the result is a sublimely absurd contrast of serious musing and monster movies. #5 finds Brown going in a different direction, perhaps taking stock of himself both in terms of his role in MOME and his career in general. The story "I Feel Like I Don't Even Know You" also sees Brown working in color (mostly brown and yellow). The story is simple: Brown encounters a worm-like creature bearing his own image, engages it in debate, is devoured by it, and ultimately tears himself out if it. The debate is about reinvention and creation, as Brown tries to come to terms with how and why he creates. In my sports metaphor, Brown is the veteran who's being forced into a new and perhaps uncomfortable role, but works hard on trying to fit in.

Martin Cendreda

Cendreda is another established, if not widely-known, comics artist. He's also been published through Top Shelf, and what he brings to the table in MOME is versatility and chemistry. He's used a different approach in each issue, and his generally lighter touch has been a nice contrast to the more uniformly downbeat nature of most of the contributions. The obvious baseball comparison is a solid utility infielder, someone who can do just about anything when called upon and is also a steady clubhouse presence. He can go from simple and iconic figures in service to a gag to more realistic figures as part of a story about the relationship between a son and father through time.

MOME #1 featured him doing three almost New Yorker-style gags in color that were beautiful and broke up the longer stories perfectly. #3 featured a couple of anthropomorphic animals named Matthew and Buster in strips that bookended the rest of the issue. While they were gag strips, they were delightfully nihilistic. "Music For Midnight" in #5 was a nice little yarn about a mysterious figure who emerged from a sewer in order to make music, surf and eventually wade into the ocean.

Cendreda's best story was "The Magic Marker" in #2, a simply-drawn tale about a man who finds a marker that is literally magical and uses it to draw designs on his shirt. Initially, he writes "Hi" on the shirt and someone says hello to him. He then draws a dollar sign on the shirt and a robber hands him a sack of cash. When he draws a heart, a beautiful woman goes to bed with him. The final payoff gag is quite clever. His other strongest effort was "La Brea Woman" in #4. The narrative is quite simple: a divorced father goes to the La Brea tar pits on his visitation day with his son. What makes it clever is that the omniscient narrator reveals either the fate of people we meet in the years to come, or how things came to be. It's a quiet but effective story; the stillness is indicative of "quiet desperation", though not all is hopeless for every character in the story. Cendreda may not be the first creator one thinks of when reading MOME, but there's no question he makes every issue better.

Sophie Crumb

The daughter of comics legends Robert Crumb & Aline Kominsky-Crumb, she's the one cartoonist who doesn't quite belong in this line-up--at least for now. It's obvious that she has a world of talent, but it's unfocused and she doesn't seem comfortable with this format or this group of artists. I say this as a reader who enjoyed both issues of BELLY BUTTON, her debut series from Fantagraphics. This venue brings much more pressure, both in terms of deadlines (she's one of several artists who has had to skip an issue) and content. Even in her BELLY BUTTON work, Crumb let on that she wasn't sure what kind of style she wanted to work in, what sort of stories she wanted to tell. That confusion has continued in MOME, but perhaps in some ways this is exactly the right venue for her to work on her rawness as an artist. It's very much sink or swim here, and while her early stories in the anthology were pretty much inconsequential, she seems to have started to find her way with her strip in #5.

Crumb is a young artist who is caught in a quandry: should she be out living life as hard as she can, or should she be striving to improve as an artist? It's clear that she's torn. Her interest in Manhattan youth culture is evident, from her anthropormorphic Eddy Bear character living on the streets to her straight-up bio of an art student in MOME #1. There was more of the same in #2, with "The Kid Who Faked His Own Death" and a satirical strip about a poser named "Parker The Vegan Bike Punk." She goes to the taboo well with "Smone Bean the Premature Teen", a strip that tries to be funny and shocking but just falls flat. Crumb can really draw, but it's evident that she's also in search of her own style.

There was a telling one-page strip in MOME #4 wherein Crumb is confronted by one of her own characters. She rails against "boring" autobiographical comics and the people who make them, but goes on to say "I'm too busy having an interesting life and I don't take enough time to write and draw!! I'm not a bored suburbian (sic) loser! My life is so weird and crazy, I wouldn't know where to start!" Figuring out the answer to this problem would seem to be the key. Does she care enough about comics to really commit to becoming great, or will she get stuck somewhere half-way?

A possible answer was found in MOME #5 with the first installment of "Lucid Nightmare". The first striking thing about the story is that it's all in purple, giving the whole story a slightly nauseating feel (in a good way). The tale concerns two street youths who come across a woman passed out on a sidewalk. They steal her car and decide to take her with them as they leave the city. It turns out that the woman is a junkie and prostitute whose life was in danger. After one of the kids scores some junk and everyone gets a fix, the now-flying trio stops at a beach to frolic. The story combines a lot of Crumb's earlier story interests but reframes them and manages to attach them to an interesting narrative. It remains to be seen where the story goes from here, but for the first time I'm actually eager to see Crumb's next contribution in MOME. The baseball comparison is a pretty obvious one: Crumb is the anointed young legacy star who has trouble maintaining focus early in her career, but everyone knows that if she buckled down she could go far.

David B.

He's one of the greatest cartoonists in the world. His masterpiece, EPILEPTIC, is one of the best comics ever published. David B. in MOME is like a big-leaguer coming down to triple-A for a rehab assignment, or perhaps a visit from the major league club's hitting instructor. He's mainly here because there were some short stories that he did that were dying to be translated and published in English, and this was the best vehicle for Fantagraphics to do that. His stories certainly don't disappoint here.

"The Armed Garden" (in MOME #3) is a gloriously demented take on an alternate-world branch of Christianity that leads to a violent and hallucinatory confrontation between factions as they both seek to rediscover paradise. "The Veiled Prophet" in #4 is even better, detailing the conflict between a prophet with magical powers and a caliph lined up against him. David B is obsessed with the intersection between magic, religion and war, and his feverish imagery is perfectly realized. His presence almost overwhelms the rest of the anthology, both because of the length of his stories and the impact they have.

It's a small price to pay as a reader, but it's clear that the initial premise of the anthology has pretty much been abandoned, since new contributors are added with each issue and not all of the original group has appeared in every volume. I suspect this has as much to do with deadline issues as anything. The need to keep the book running on time has spawned a different aesthetic for the book. We still get most of the familiar artists appearing in each issue, but new contributors are carefully chosen in an effort to create balance and chemistry for each individual issue. Much like a manager tries to juggle a lineup on a daily basis in an effort to develop a winning team, the editors of MOME must balance the original mission of giving young talent room to grow with finding other creators who complement those artists and make each issue satisfying on its own.

Robert Goodin

Goodin came aboard with MOME #5, and his first story, "3 Legged Myrna and her 2 Lovers", is unremarkable. It's a straightforward tale about a woman with 3 legs, 2 vaginas and 2 lovers, the visions she had when she climaxed, and the child that was born as a result. Ultimately, it was difficult to see what the author was trying to do here. It wasn't especially shocking, despite the sexual imagery. It wasn't very funny either, despite the absurdity of the set-up. Taken at face value, the story wasn't especially compelling. Taken on its own or perhaps in a lesser anthology, it might have played better, but Goodin's story simply didn't stand out in a field this strong. He's certainly a good draftsman, so hopefully future stories will allow him to show what he can really do.

David Heatley

Heatley is best known for his dream comics, but his "Overpeck" serial is a completely different animal. It has a certain dream logic quality to it, and is sort of a hallucinatory version of Short Cuts dealing mostly on children. Heatley's comics have always focused on sexuality and taboo subjects, and "Overpeck" is sort of his magnum opus on the subject. He leavens the intense sexuality and confrontational nature of his images by drawing them in a cartoony, almost child-like fashion. The colors are bright and cheery, almost completely avoiding any dark colors (with one notable exception).

The story roams from character to character. The most important seems to be Sadie, a young woman who was forced by her father to have sex with her dog, and who now wanders around the city naked, invisible to most, transforming into a duck from time to time. Then there's Shaniqua, an African-American girl who befriends Stefanie, a mentally retarded girl with a talent for art. Shaniqua's brother Marlon is obsessed with riding his bike in a vacant lot, while young Damian leaves a church camp to go join in the sexual shenanigans of a group of nearby boys and girls. An old woman who abuses and then kills children dies in a fire after trying to abduct a boy in love with Damian. Sadie encounters a boy in a military installation who gives her advice on how to live.

The story's images are powerful, genuinely shocking and even disturbing at times, but Heatley's style prevents them from being exploitative. There are harsh truths in how he portrays children, particularly with regard to their obsession with sexuality. While the story asks the reader to take some rather outrageous events at face value, Heatley stays consistent with the tale's own internal logic and language. It may not be for everyone, but it's self-assured and unapologetic. "Overpeck" is certainly unlike anything else in MOME, and that works both to its own advantage and certainly to MOME's. Heatley also contributed three of his dream comics to MOME #4, and they concerned sex, children, violence and race--much like "Overpeck". Going back to baseball once more, Heatley is like a pitcher with a weird delivery and eccentric habits on the mound (Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, the player who used to talk to the ball on the mound comes to mind) but who is highly effective nonetheless.

Tim Hensley

We've only gotten a small taste of Hensley thus far, with just a couple of pages in MOME #2 and a few more strips in MOME #5. Both of the pages in #2 were hilarious, done as old-style fake comics ads, down to the 4-color palette. He carries that sort of 70's comics sensibility to his strips in #5, featuring the exploits of "Wally Gropius, Teen Millionaire". He's a sort of warped Richie Rich-type character, taking this narcissistic sort of character to its logical (and often absurd) extreme. The genius is in its details; like R.Sikoryak, Hensley is a gifted style mimic whose design sense makes these strips work both on their own and as satire. There aren't exactly a lot of laugh-out-loud comics in MOME, so Hensley's appearances helped to balance things nicely. Like Martin Cendreda, he adds to the chemistry of this bunch.

Paul Hornschemeier

Paul H. is a long-time favorite of mine. So far, he's contributed 4 installments of a serial called "Life With Mr Dangerous". It's a bit different from much of his other work in that it's eschewed aggressive formalism. It's a full-color strip, but the colors are subdued for this quite grim story. It's about a woman named Amy, who is having a particularly bad week. She's quarreling with her boyfriend and decides to break up with him, and when she makes that call, he can't agree with her fast enough. Then she has a depressing birthday dinner with her mother, who inexplicably buys her a pink unicorn t-shirt as a gift. She's pining for a friend of hers thousands of miles away and then flashes back to all of her unsuccessful relationships.

Hornschemeier shows off his usual chops with regard to composition, color and design. He even attempts to give every episode a punchline of sorts; in the first issue, she simply yells "What the fuck was that!?" when her now ex-boyfriend quickly dismisses her. Hornschemeier is spinning a tale about a woman who feels alienated, inept and incapable of doing anything with her life, who takes refuge by doing things like watching her favorite TV show (a cartoon called "Mr Dangerous"). Of course, stories about alienated and neurotic people are not in short supply in the world of alternative comics, so I'll be curious to see exactly what else he's bringing to the table in this story and why he chose to do it in such a straightforward manner. The story gains a bit more depth with each episode (and the segment in #5 where Amy creates a "theatre" to flash back to her old boyfriends was quite clever) but I'm not sure where all of this is going. Returning to baseball, Hornschemeier is a star-quality player who's proven himself in the past, but whose most recent production seems a bit spotty. Still, his talent and dedication have never been in question, and one assumes that he knows what he's doing and will produce in the end.

R. Kikuo Johnson

Johnson burst onto the comics scene with his debut graphic novel THE NIGHT FISHER, a rather downbeat story of a high school student in Hawaii. He wasn't one of the original MOME crew, but rather came on with issue #3. That issue saw two very clever pages featuring a character named Cher Shimura. Told in the style of old newspaper comics, Cher (who somewhat resembles Olive Oyl) is a lonely young woman in Brooklyn who develops a crush on a guy she meets on the subway. Each strip ends with a gag of sorts, each one an awkward moment. MOME #4 sees him go in a completely different direction as he does a quick biography of conservationist John James Audobon, who in fact killed many animals in his efforts to record and preserve images of the birds of his time. Once again, it's pretty much unlike anything else in the anthology, which certainly works to its advantage even if the story is a bit slight. At this point, Johnson's just taken a few practice swings, and we've yet to see what he's capable of in a short story format.

Anders Nilsen

Nilsen is another long-laboring mini-comics artist whose talent and diligence earned him attention from one of the major indy comics publishers. His BIG QUESTIONS series was picked up by Drawn & Quarterly, who also published his DOGS AND WATER. Rather than repeat what he's doing in those venues, Nilsen is using an ultra-minimalist and mixed-media technique. The result is comics that are almost conceptual in nature, with a wicked sense of humor. Nilsen and David Heatley stand out in MOME with narratives that unapologetically follow their own internal logic.
He set the tone with "The Beast" in MOME #1. It's narrated by a nearly blank figure (no face, sketched out in white) who is in handcuffs. His story about his aesthetic theory, his time in prison and his anti-government paranoia is set against photo backgrounds of cities, mountains, fields, and oil derricks. "Event" in #2 stretches the bounds of narrative, as each page has just a few geometic figures combined with text ostensibly describing the "action". The first page features a beige square, below which it says "What you said you would do." The story goes on from there to describe "Your reasons for not doing it/stated" and "unstated". The shapes and colors of each figure are clearly carefully chosen, and the result is the comics version of abstract expressionism, or perhaps neo-plasticism (think the paintings of Piet Mondrian). Stripping the narrative down to literally its barest elements forces the reader to confront its emotional core. But it's all done with a wink and a nod--while the narrative is about the ways guilt fester, there's a certain sense of the absurd that accompanies each of the numerated events. "On Whaling" in #3 is an even more tongue-in-cheek story about artistic inspiration. "Me and The Buddha" in #5 is another funny story about killing the Buddha in the middle of the road and what happens afterward.
Nilsen revisits old art school material in issues 4 and 5, and this material isn't nearly as rewarding as his earlier contributions. "Nothing So Far" in #4 combines single-panel images imposed over a photo, with the photo image acting as a background. It's an interesting idea that doesn't quite sustain a full story; the formal elements alone aren't quite enough to make it compelling and the narrative elements are somewhat overwhelmed by the visuals. "Art History Notes/Hoax Paper" is exactly what it sounds like: it's a bunch of doodles he made while in graduate school for art in a class he disliked. There's also a paper he submitted to the professor of that class where the assignment was to write about a work of modern art in a museum, and Nilsen instead wrote about an electrical grate with a straight face (and the professor took it at face value!). It's all very amusing and perhaps even a bit self-deprecatory given the conceptual nature of the comics he's doing here, but it's not quite a story.
Nilsen's like a big-time but unorthodox hitter who's using this venue to go back to the basics, to reinvent his game from the ground up. Nilsen already has other venues for publishing, and it's good to see him use MOME as a lab of sorts. Not everything he's tried has worked so far, but his willingness to experiment helps MOME avoid a uniformity of presentation and adds a bit of the KRAMER'S aesthetic.

John Pham

Of all the young creators in MOME, Pham has the most potential for greatness. He's aggressively experimental and loves playing around formally but also writes vivid and memorable characters. Pham is still working through the formal influences on his style, but the content is uniquely his own. It's the product of an unusual point of view and a powerful imagination. It's obvious that Chris Ware has had a strong formal influence on Pham, especially in terms of page composition and design. However, his figures look a lot more clear-line than Ware, and while there's certainly a downbeat quality to his stories, Pham doesn't trade in the same kind of melancholia. Pham's major work prior to this was EPOXY, and the creative leap he made from issue-to-issue in that title was nothing short of astounding. He went from clearly talented but tentative in the first issue to producing one of the better comics of the year with his third. Pham getting a regular series (both here and in the upcoming Fantagraphics series SUBLIFE) is a major boon for the comics world, because the only thing holding Pham back was lack of a regular publishing venue.

Pham's serial in MOME, "221 Sycamore Avenue", has run in only three issues and will continue in SUBLIFE. Like a number of the other serials in MOME, each installment is a bit baffling if read out of context. Read all at once, a number of threads tie together rather nicely. The story concerns a number of people who apparently live in a boarding house. One of them is a student named Mildred Lee, a neurotic young woman who is behind on her rent and tries to steal money from another occupant of the house. That would be Terence, a schoolboy (and son of the apparent owner of the house) who inexplicably goes around with a sheet over his head as though he were a ghost. Then there's Vrej Sarkissian, a big deli worker obsessed with smells and trying to find love. The dominant figure in the story is Hubie Winters, a Catholic school teacher tormented by his students who suffers from increasingly powerful dizzy and fainting spells.
In each episode, Pham goes back and forth in time. When we see Mildred encountering Terence in the first episode, we get a replay of that in the third episode from Terence's point of view. Indeed, Terence is the link to the other characters, as he's in Hubie's class and helps Vrej with his dating website profile. Yet Terence hardly says a word throughout the story, while the other three characters either can't shut up or instead we get access to their internal monologues. The only time we get true access to Terence is through his dreams, which are vivid and beautiful, and incorporate the other three stars of the strip.
Despite the careful design and clear-line style, this strip is anything but antiseptic. Indeed, there's a strongly visceral quality. Mildred's stomach is constantly aching, partly because of the constant stress she feels. Vrej is obsessed with smell, to the point where positive smells bring him great pleasure and rank smells depress him. Hubie's dizziness and weariness with life is brought on largely by his own weakness. Every character's storyline is tied to something sensory and physical, and how that connection to the world can be debilitating. There's a tension at work in Pham's stories at every level: between the format and the subject matter, between characters, even in terms of the color scheme. The slightly sickly orange that accompanies the waking world is a sharp contrast to the dark but soothing blue that is dominant in the dream sequences. That tension, that which is unstated but still present, is what I find so intriguing about Pham and why he has so much potential. There's simply no ceiling for his talent, because he already has all the tools. Pham is like the young ballplayer who just needed a chance and regular at-bats in order to become a star.

Zak Sally

Readers of this column may remember that I thought Sally's RECIDIVIST was the best comic of 2005. He had a brief entry in MOME #5, but it won't be his last. He took advantage of the format to experiment with color (mostly yellow and brown) in a story about "two idiot brothers." The images are about the brothers romping through the outdoors (a common motif for Sally) as an omniscient narrator's words literally crowd the panels. Exactly what is happening and how the story ends is ambiguous, but the air of doom pervasive in so many of his stories (yet leavened with a bit of cynical humor) is certainly present here. Sally is a better fit in MOME than someone like a David B; the chemistry is better despite his enormous talent, and it doesn't hurt that he's a short-story specialist. I think the reason the fit is more suitable is that while his sensibilities as an artist are similar to most of the regulars in MOME, his style is unorthodox and stands out from the rest of the group. It was also a stroke of genius to put him in the same issue as Tim Hensley, balancing Hensley's light-hearted satire with Sally's almost apocalyptic vision. Indeed, it seems like having a unique voice is a prerequisite for the new entries into MOME. This can't be an easy task, given MOME's other mission as a publication that's supposed to be entry-level reading for literate readers not familiar with comics. That mission is being pushed to the edge by some of MOME's contributors.

Kurt Wolfgang

Wolfgang is another artist who's paid his dues in the minicomics world and is getting a well-deserved shot at the big time. He's known for his hilariously brutal commentary on comics in the pages of his LOW-JINX anthology, and also incongrously the creator of sweet, wordless stories like WHERE HATS GO. His comics here are a merger of sorts of his smart-assedness and his tales of the very young and very old. "Passing Before Life's Very Eyes" in MOME #1 is a good example of the latter. It starts off as one of his wordless stories, where an old man dies on his hospital bed and his spirit leaves his body, traveling through time to view events from his past. But he realizes something's not quite right when he realizes a memory is inaccurate. He encounters himself as a younger man, and is told that he's dead and his brain is coping with the pain of dying by hallucinating. The story's abrupt and nihilistic ending is made all the more effective by how charming and light-hearted it was at the beginning, and the rust coloring throughout adds to this hallucinatory quality.
"Toughskins '77" was an interstitial feature in MOME #2, where a page or two of the strip would appear intermittently throughout the issue. They feature kids lazing around on a summer day and are in full color, meant to catch the reader's eye as they appear in the issue. Each section has its own punchline, usually something amusingly and unexpectedly profane or disturbing, countering the sweetness of its initial set-up. These are nice throwaway strips, good for a laugh, but they don't really resonate.
Wolfgang changed that trend with "Odd Petal Out" in MOME #3. This is perhaps my single favorite story published in MOME to date, and features Wolfgang at his best. The story is simple: a teenaged boy and his best friend, a teenaged girl, walk around the city looking for a place to smoke cigarettes. What makes the story so memorable is Wolfgang's dialogue and a slightly different visual style. While his backgrounds remain as detailed as ever, he simplified his character work, concentrating on facial expression above all else. The faces are more iconic here than in his other comics, but he's still able to get across feelings with great subtlety. The dialogue is hilarious as the boy tries to pretend he's not in love with the girl, even as she's making him intentionally jealous.
I feel that Wolfgang is most effective in black & white, which may be why "Odd Petal Out" and his new serial, "Nothing Eve" worked so well. The latter story (started in MOME #5) is about the end of the world. A young man and his grandfather react to hearing that the world was going to end in 22 hours, and try to decide what to do with themselves. It's a great idea (explored to good effect in the film Last Night), and framing it from the perspective of the young man gives the story focus. The main character is also drawn a bit more simply & iconic than everyone else, with blank eyes, drawing the reader's eye to him.
Wolfgang is the personification of MOME's mission: an overlooked artist given an opportunity to grow. Given that opportunity, Wolfgang has really taken off as an artist, and his serial has enormous potential. While many of the other artists in MOME employ a variation of clear-line art, minimalism or quick sketchbooky techniques, Wolfgang uses a lot of blacks, a lot of cross-hatching and heavily detailed backgrounds. This grounds the exaggerated and rubbery nature of his characters, and provides a balance for his nasty sense of humor. He's certainly the funniest of the regulars in the book, and as such has served as the book's anchor since the very beginning. While not an obvious can't-miss prospect, he's like that player who languished in the minors until he suddenly got called up, and then everyone couldn't understand why he hadn't been in the bigs all along.

Here's an interview I did with Eric Reynolds right around the publication of Mome #5.

Rob Clough: What were your original criteria in selecting artists for MOME?
Eric Reynolds: Really just good cartooning, good storytelling. Also, the idea was that these cartoonists didn't have a regular venue to publish, although that agenda sort of got away from us between the time we conceived Mome and the first issue -- in the year or so that passed there, some of the contributors, like Anders Nilsen or Jeff Brown, did have other venues, but we liked them enough and they were into Mome so we didn't worry about that so much.

RC: Were there artists you had to throw out because you and Gary disagreed on them?
ER: I'm sure there were, to some extent, but more to the point, there were enough people that we did agree on that we focused on them.

RC: What was your initial vision for MOME as an anthology?
ER: I feel like I've answered this question often enough that it's become a sound bite, but I just wanted an accessible comics anthology that would bridge the gap amongst people who were buying high-profile graphic novels in bookstores, like Jimmy Corrigan or Locas or Palestine, but didn't know where to go next. Something that would lead someone from, say, Ghost World to Mome, and then Mome might introduce them to a whole host of other books and artists.

RC: What led you to abandon the initial concept of the same artists in every issue?
ER: Necessity.

RC: In what ways has adding new artists transformed your vision, and are the criteria for adding new artists different than the criteria for selecting your original group?
ER: The 'vision' -- if you can call it that -- continues to evolve. Really, I just want each issue to be a solid and surprising read, and each issue requires different solutions to achieve that. The critieria for new artists remains the same, really.

RC: Was there a worry that translating the works of experienced talents like David B would overwhelm the other stories in that issue?
ER: Yeah, there was at first. I was a little resistant, but frankly, I finally bought in to the David B. idea for mostly commercial reasons, even though he's great. We ran that first story of his in Vol. 3, which is a crucial issue in any series -- if sales dip precipitously, it can be an extremely uphill battle to build them both up. I thought David B. would be a great way to give the series a boost and help cement the long-term viability of the series and ultimately give all of the cartoonists involved a boost as well. I mean, that's pretty good company to keep, David B. And now we have a Trondheim story debuting in Vol. 6 that again, I somewhat resisted at first because Lewis is so well-established. But the story, a very existential autobio story about approaching middle age and striving to retain some vitality as an artist, somehow seemed to fit perfectly. The juxtaposition of this story against a backdrop of all of these other younger cartoonists who are still very much in the formative stages of their careers has a resonance with the whole book that is greater than the sum of its parts.

RC: Who has been the most pleasant surprise in MOME to date?
ER: For me, probably Jonathan Bennett. Jonathan had probably done the fewest amount of pages of any of the Mome contributors when invited. It was definitely Gary who pushed for his inclusion -- I really hadn't seen enough to feel like I could even know if he would be a good addition. But he's been a pure joy to work with -- his work has consistently surprised me, it's so fully realized and displays such an intuitive grasp of the language of comics that it kind of awes me. And I really get along with him personally, he's one of those guys who just seems to see comics more or less the same way I do.
Jessica Abel once told me that my aesthetics were so refined that she doubted I would ever find a cartoonist that I like as much as the cartoonists I grew up loving -- Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, the Hernandez brothers, Chester Brown, Jim Woodring, etc. -- and Jonathan is the type of cartoonist that gives me hope that she might be wrong. Tim Hensley and Gabrielle Bell are two others that have consistently knocked me out. I would publish them in Mome forever if they were game. Tim Hensley's "Wally Gropius" is about as perfect a comic as I have read the last few years, he's just a phenomenal writer, thinker and cartoonist.

RC: Who has the most room for improvement?
ER: I don't know if I'd feel comfortable singling anyone out. But really, I hope they all have room for vast improvement.

RC: Common wisdom in the comics industry is that anthologies don't sell. What have sales been like for Mome so far?
ER: Sales have been incredibly strong, knock on wood. We just reprinted the first issue, which I think we initially printed 4000 of.

RC: What new artists are you planning to bring in for future issues?
ER: T. Edward Bak is going to begin a serial in either Vol. 8 or 9. Zak Sally is working on some material. There are several other folks we're talking to but I'm not sure I should mention them yet, as much as I'd love to. There is a young cartoonist named Jim Woodring who we're talking to who will probably take Trondheim's slot once his "At Loose Ends" story wraps up.