Rob reviews the fifteenth issue of MOME, edited by Eric Reynolds & Gary Groth (Fantagraphics).
MOME 15 felt like another transitional issue, given the number of serials that either ended or reached their penultimate chapter. Tim Hensley's deranged WALLY GROPIUS series wrapped up here as the titular hero was double-crossed by his would-be crush Jillian Banks in the most bizarre and hilarious manner possible. Hensley's flattened figures and John Stanley-inspired character design & color choices immediately throw a reader off-balance as they enter a carefully-crafted world with its own rigid internal logic. The most surprising aspect of this story was that there was a deeper master plot that explained some of the serial's weirder moments (like Jillian and her "father" engaging in rough sex in an earlier issue). Hensley ends it with an out-of-nowhere bit of weirdness that nonetheless touched upon a seemingly random series of bits throughout the series. Hensley's introduction to MOME in #5 was a key moment for the anthology, because he represented a level of absurdity and a cartoony sensibility that had been absent from the series. It represented MOME's first big risk and first sign that they were abandoning their more literary but mainstream model aimed at drawing in non-comics readers.
Speaking of endings, this issue featured the penultimate chapter of Paul Hornschemeier's "Life With Mr Dangerous" serial. The story had been appearing in dribs and drabs for over four years and will require a longer look once it's finally been completed. It's been a story about stasis, as the story's female protagonist feels completely stuck in her life and relationships, and explored them through her particular set of pop-culture obsessions. For Hornschemeier, the story's use of color and its formal pyrotechnics are a bit more muted than usual. This chapter revealed a pertinent bit of information about her vaguely-defined relationship with a long-distance friend, a revelation that proved to be devastating for her (portrayed in a typically emotionally distanced, slightly bumbling manner). The flatness of color and affect in this story often made it an awkward fit in MOME throughout its serialization, especially when the anthology started to go in more challenging directions. That's why I'm eager to reread the story in a different context.
Gilbert Shelton and Pic's "Last Gig in Shnagrlig" also wrapped up after a three-issue run. My distaste for Shelton's work has been recorded elsewhere, but one can't deny Shelton's talent as a cartoonist and the sheer craft on display in this story. I find the humor to be a bit corny and dated, but the influence it had on future cartoonists is undeniable. There's no question that Shelton's work ethic, caricature design and skill at depicting slapstick are all top-notch. When he plays to those strengths, the story is at its best. When he's attempting to deliver political satire, the story falls flat.
As always, series editors Eric Reynolds & Gary Groth intersperse serials with shorter pieces that are interesting in their own right but also provide a balance of color, content and approach. Andrice Arp's paintings of Japanese mythological characters were an interesting choice to kick off the issue; her unusual and curvy stylized drawings are one of the most distinctive in the world of comics, though I'm eager to see more actual comics from her. The first half of the issue is heavy on brightly-colored comics, like Sara Edward-Corbett's delightfully drawn child adventures. There's a viciousness in the way her characters interact that reminds me a bit of Steven Weissman, and a flatness to her composition that makes an interesting companion piece to the Wally Gropius stories that preceded it in this issue. Ray Fenwick's palette is more muted in one of his text/illustration pieces, a narrative that is a tutorial on a craft project involving finger and toenail clippings that exposes the neuroses of the narrator. Fenwick has been another key figure in MOME, given his unique visual approach and sardonic sense of humor. The underrated Conor O'Keefe closed out the color section with another of his Winsor McKay-inspired meditations. O'Keefe also employs a muted color palette that focuses in on dark greens as the narrator mused on ducks, water and the way nature flows.
The main events of the issue (other than Hensley's stories) were a new short story by Dash Shaw, the first part of an intriguing new serial by T. Edward Bak and a bound-in minicomic from Spanish artist Max. Shaw's "My Entire High School...Sinking Into the Sea!" is another in a series of unusual color experiments from the artist. The story is a cross between a Steve Ditko homage and the film "Titanic", as the story is otherwise self-explanatory. Shaw draws himself back in high school as it's being swept away and he's desperately trying to stay alive. Shaw bleeds color across panels in an expressionistic manner, mixing them like watercolors in a tray to evoke extremes of emotion. It's an enormously clever experiment, mixed in with Ditko-style stiff character poses and an ending that mixes the end of "Titanic" with Captain America's 60s origin story.
The first chapter of Bak's "Steller" detailed an ill-fated expedition to Kamchatka in his signature black-on-white style that mimics woodcuts. The story alternates between flashbacks to Georg Steller's education and the development of his interest in botany, mineralogy and exploration, and an eerie, visceral account of the expedition that ended his life. Bak captured the stark, alien beauty of that environment with his line drawings while alternating it with frighteningly intense but cartoony drawings that resembled cave drawings as much as they do comics. There's always a harsh but epic sweep to Bak's comics, a journey across an bleak landscape that leads to inevitable hardship. Seeing his work serialized in MOME just adds another unique approach to a deep roster.
Max's "The Confederacy of Villains" was originally printed in Spanish in 1987, and appears in MOME in its intended format. It seems to be a noir/conspiracy story involving secret cabals and Hollywood mysteries, but it's really an affectionate ode to character actors of eras gone by and a condemnation of McCarthyism. It's drawn in a bigfoot style in a minicomics format, bound into the back of the issue (a clever solution to a publishing problem) and dominated by cerulean and aubergine color tones. The story is interspersed by black & white pin-up pages of classic, villainous character actors and is the sort of obscure nugget that's distinguished MOME throughout its run.
Of the remaining stories, Noah Van Sciver's "The True Tale of the Denver Spider-Man" stood out the most. It's perhaps Van Sciver's best career effort to date, a creepy true story of a man who killed an ex-benefactor and lived in a tiny crawlspace. Van Sciver's scratchy, nervous line nicely captured the account of this killer with a sad and twisted life story. Nate Neal's "Delia's Love" is not unlike his most recent MOME contribution in that it's about a character recalling a series of seedy encounters. This story reminded me a bit of Dennis Eichorn's stuff: hard-drinking, hard-living people in the weirdest of circumstances. Neal drew his characters as slightly grotesque: lumpy, pimply, saggy and worn down by the world. What was unusual about this story was the end, where the stories told lead to a fracturing of a relationship. Finally, Robert Goodin contributed another of his folk tale adaptations that was exquisitely drawn but a bit disposable. It's a bit of pleasant fluff that doesn't detract from the issue but doesn't add much beyond a few nicely-drawn pages.
MOME seems to go through transition points every five issues or so. I suspect the next issue will be yet another changing of the guard, with a number of new artists and perhaps even some surprises along that line. The key to the anthology's continued success has been flexibility regarding its mission. It's still a place where young artists are sought out and spotlighted; the inclusion of Van Sciver this issue is a prime example of that commitment, but contributors like O'Keefe, Edward-Corbett, Laura Park, et al also demonstrate this. It's also a place where key foreign comics can find a home. For a piece like Lewis Trondheim's "At Loose Ends", MOME was a perfect home for it because it was too obscure to risk as a regular release, but it also drew big-time Trondheim fans to the anthology. Lastly, it's a place where great American cartoonists can publish their short stories, like Shelton and Jim Woodring. This variety of approaches helps keep the anthology coming out on a regular schedule (a big key in helping to drum up a regular readership) and positions it as a sort of descendant of WEIRDO and RAW. It may not represent the absolute cutting edge of comics the way that KRAMER'S ERGOT does, but it's still the widest available survey of alt-comics in publication and will be increasingly valuable in that regard as it continues to evolve.