Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Game-Changer: Mome #12

Rob reviews the twelfth volume of Fantagraphics' flagship anthology, MOME.

(This article originally appeared at sequart.com)

I've been reviewing the MOME anthology in bundles thus far. I'm reviewing volume twelve on its own because it's a stand-alone edition in every respect. None of the serials currently running through MOME appear in this issue. In fact, of the original MOME roster of artists, only Sophie Crumb and Paul Hornschemeier appear in this issue--and neither one really does comics in this issue.

This issue seems to complete a slow but steady transformation of the anthology. Originally conceived as a means to nurture a particular set of young cartoonists, many of the original members dropped out after a few issues. While series editors Gary Groth and Eric Reynolds continue to bring in new talent (five new contributors alone in this issue), the nature of that talent has shifted. Beginning with David B, MOME has also become a place for great artists to publish shorter work. #12 has the greatest concentration of such talent, with stories by David B, Killoffer and Belgian artist Olivier Schrauwen. There's a broader mix of narrative styles and intents, and more work that's purely decorative. New contributor Kaela Graham's crude, charming incidental illustrations are an interesting contrast to Sophie Crumb's ultra-detailed portraits. Al Columbia's "Invasion" is three pages of blue cats roaming through an eerily silent town, perhaps at dawn.

Nate Neal returns with another epic series of interrelated stories. These stories are a spoof of "serious" comics and the urge to create same; given that he's obviously been influenced by the id-first nature of underground comics, it's no surprise that he pokes fun at this greater cultural interest in comics. He goes from a cartoony character forced to face "reality" to "Reality Comics" that consist of single panels involving the most mundane activities imaginable (down to clipping toenails). In "Reality Apart", Neal switches to a third person narrative style to tell the hilariously warped story of a doomed relationship. Neal ties all three strips together by using the same color scheme. Neal walks the line between landing funny blows and belaboring the obvious. His criticisms aren't exactly novel, but he at least is funny in presenting them.

That humorous approach is something that's grown in MOME, which was much drier in its early issues. The addition of Ray Fenwick was a key moment in making MOME funnier, and he continues to get more into straight cartooning with another Bear & Truth Stick series of strips. While his lettering/calligraphy still dominates the strip, his panel-to-panel transitions show excellent comic timing. Jon Vermilyea joins MOME with a hilariously, shockingly violent story called "The Breakfast Crew". It begins with a bunch of bored kids complaining about their breakfasts and being stunned to see a gang of giant, anthropomorphic breakfast items smash through their wall. They become even more terrified when a rival breakfast gang (The Breakfast Bunch) bursts in, leading to a visceral and vicious showdown. Seeing an anthropomorphic creature have its eyes gouged out or getting disemboweled was quite a sight, and Vermilyea's tight line and flat layout give the strip a look that resembles a commercial. That familiarity is what makes the strip creepy and funny.

Sara Edward-Corbett is another newcomer to MOME. A member of the Partyka comics collective, Edward-Corbett's chops are sterling and her sense of humor is dry. She likes doing strips about children (the characters in her story in this volume are from her See-Saw series) and the horrible things they do to each other in school. The result is something lighter than most of the rest of this volume, but still retaining a certain tartness as well. Her work reminds me a little of Steven "Ribs" Weissman.

Dash Shaw and another MOME newcomer, Derek Von Gieson, both contribute slightly less straightforward stories. Von Gieson's "Paralleograms" is a silent, splotchy, black-dominated story about a certain woman on a park bench and her rather predatory nature. The story flashes between parallel narratives involving the same woman over a number of different years and her eerie appeal to young men. Shaw's "Train" begins with a therapist working with a young girl with some kind of neurological/ psychological disorder (an entirely cerebral process) to that therapist being determined to jog in the middle of the city. Arriving at a graveyard, she sees a train crash spectacularly into the middle of the graveyard. The survivors rush at her until she realizes that they're not really there. The shift from trying to understand the girl's world and perspective to a completely physical experience and back to trying to understand her own unexplainable hallucination is exactly the kind of whipcrack transition that Shaw employs so well.

Tom Kaczynski is the kind of artist that MOME was created to spotlight. He's grabbed that opportunity with astonishing story after astonishing story about humanity's relationship with its technology and the spaces it inhabits. When his work is finally collected into one volume, it's going to cause a bit of a stir in the comics world because of the way he speaks to the collective neuroses of the new millennium. There's no one quite like him in terms of his perspective and narrative voice. In #12, Kaczynski contributes three superb one-page stories about sound. In "Noise: A History", Kaczynski boils down the history of the world in terms of random events and how many decibels it measured out to, from the big bang to the falling of rustling leaves. He links past to present through the use of that measure of sound, providing an interesting shorthand for understanding the world in its greatest, worst and most indifferent moments. "Hotel Silencio" is about a man who creates a hotel that employs sound-baffling technology, creating a sensation that quickly abates after its inhabitants go crazy with the lack of sound. "100 Decibels" is about how the perception of sound can be quite subjective in its own way. It's a perfectly-executed and arranged suite of stories that fit right into the ideas he's been exploring all along in MOME.

The main event of this issue was the trio of foreign heavyweights. Schrauwen's bizarre "Hair Types" is his first story translated into English, and it's unlike anything I've ever read. The color in the story looks faded, as though the strip were decades old. That fits in with this story about the pseudoscientific classification of personality as a function of hair, a sort of follicular phrenology. Schrauwen intercuts the central conflict of the story with diagrams explaining the "theory" behind the hair type theory. In the mind of the protagonist, the diagrams of the "crazy hair" brain morph from words describing it (inertia, idiocy, laziness) to pictorial figures embodying the concepts. The concepts then break out of their compartments to interact with each other in an explosive manner. The story concludes with one of the members of the "hair salon" modeling different kinds of hair and showing off different drawings of the same girl--an imagining of external, arbitrary roots for artistic choices and inspirations. This is a story about self-fulfilling prophecy and the way categorization is often prescriptive, not descriptive.

Killoffer's "Dirty Family Laundry" is true to its title: an escalating series of scatological neuroses that Killoffer relates to a lover in bed. It's hilarious and horrifying as his quite literal anal-retentive tendencies play out in increasingly awful ways. His mother, depicted as a sort of cubist nightmare creature, is unbalanced in abusive in a shocking manner. The panel at the end of the story, showing his lover's stunned expression, is priceless. David B's "The Drum Who Fell In Love" is another in a series of stories creating an alternate, fabulist version of Christianity combining magic, war, dreams, art and sex. It's about a sect leader who dies but is brought back to life as a war drum that his followers create. He falls in love with a girl, tired of being used strictly for bloodshed, but their love is doomed. David B excels at these sorts of fantastic war scenes, creating a new kind of fairy tale.

This issue of MOME was far more visceral, scatological and funny than any previous volume. Given Gilbert Shelton's upcoming contributions to the anthology, I suspect that MOME will continue to evolve in this direction, at least for now. The quirkier, more organic editing touch that Groth & Reynolds are using to select contributors has aided the anthology's evolution; they're very much letting the talent drive the anthology rather than trying to box it in too much. There's no other anthology that's as aggressive in terms of translating the work of non-American masters while maintaining a commitment to find and grow younger talent. It continues to be essential reading.

1 comment:

  1. Ah yeah!
    That Shrauwen guys' book he did last year (?) "Mein Junge" (only in german though) is darn creepy and unsettling to read. There is also some thing by him on ELECTROCOMICS a webcomic site by Uli Lust.

    Great review!