Monday, October 26, 2009

Back to Zero (Zero): Mome #16

Rob reviews the 16th volume of Fantagraphics' flagship anthology, MOME, edited by Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth.

I had noted in my last review of MOME that it was starting to become a callback series to Fantagraphics anthologies of the past. In particular, we're starting to see more contributions from artists who submitted work to ZERO ZERO, a series that had some outstanding and unusual work from a variety of artists before getting canceled. This issue brought us new work from Archer Prewitt, Ted Stearn and Renee French. Prewitt contributed a "Funny Bunny" strip that was a bit more restrained than usual, but set the tone for the rest of the issue in terms of its raw, visceral qualities. There wasn't a lot that was delicate in this issue of MOME, and the few strips in that vein felt a bit out of place. The strips that stood out were either vicious, gritty or even borderline garish in presentation. Aesthetically, it made this issue of MOME different from the rest. Indeed, each of the issues post #10 or so have all stood out as individual statements, as opposed to the anthology's initial identity as an incubator for a select group of young talents. While that paradigm hasn't been in effect for quite some time, issue #16 felt like more like an issue of BUZZARD (a 90s anthology noted for weird juxtapositions) than any past issue of MOME.

For example, the Stearn piece (the first chapter of a graphic novel that will run in the anthology) was a classic Fuzz & Pluck story. The chicken and stuffed-bear duo are trapped on a boat, starving and antagonizing each other. When Pluck cuts off a bit of his own tail to use as bait, it leads to Fuzz nodding off and dreaming of a horrible scenario wherein Pluck keeps cutting off bits of himself and bleeding out, and Fuzz having all of his stuffing pulled out. It's a sequence that's simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, and added some gruesome laughs in a volume that mostly avoided that direction.

French's piece, also part one of a larger story, introduced us to a young boy living in a bizarre environment. With his sunken eyes and bowl haircut, he's a typically droopy and slightly grotesque French protagonist. This part of the story saw him walk to what appeared to be a cafe built into a giant, dead worm propped up on columns. He buys a poster that seems part-worm, part-mandala and ponders the existence of tendrils arising from water. No one is better at creating oblique environments that immediately shunt readers into new ways of seeing than French, and the first part of this story is no exception. She combined her usual fastidious, pointilist style with a looseness of line with regard to the character, giving him a sort of fragility not unlike her Edison Steelhead character from THE TICKING.

Todd Bak, in the second part of his epic storyline about Georg Steller, employed a similarly visceral storytelling style, with white on a black background helping to depict the desolate and hopeless Arctic landscape the explorer and his men found themselves in. The strip is part straight history (especially in the flashbacks), part philosophical musing and part mystical conflict with one's environment. Bak's comics are all about exploring environments that are at once beautiful, mysterious and relentlessly hostile. There's an interesting element of fatalism to them as well, as the characters feel inextricably drawn to their adventures, even when they know it could be their end.

The COLD HEAT strips, by Ben Jones, Frank Santoro and Jon Vermilyea, all leaned on the inscrutable side, forcing the reader to simply accept the images laid out before them and follow them as best as possible. The first strip, about a girl luring a jock to a sexual encounter with a demonic creature, keeps the audience off-balance by working entirely in shades of brown, pink and dark pink. When the jock is drugged, the way that pink and white were interspersed in the panels was dizzying, creating a desired hallucinatory effect. In the second strip, which is essentially a slice-of-life strip involving two aliens, the dullness of their daily life on a mission is juxtaposed against the garish colors of their environment. It feels alien, with the colors clashing so as to create dissonance for the reader. We're viewing someone's home, where they are comfortable--but the reader is made to feel decidedly uncomfortable.

That sense of discomfort can also be felt in the strips by Laura Park and Sara Edward-Corbett. Park tackles the horrific feeling of social anxiety in this strip head-on, as every encounter with anyone she meets winds up with her hearing the ways in which she is a failure, an asshole, an awful person. When it extends to her beloved pets and even animistically to objects in her apartment, she reveals that all she can hope to do is ride the feeling out. The blue-grey wash she used was a perfect way to illustrate these OCD & depressive thoughts. Edward-Corbett's contributions to date in MOME had been amusing but comparatively lightweight. This issue saw her submit some interesting autobiographical material from her childhood, recontextualizing her older strips about children. There's a coldness to her line that informs her strips that are about the ways in which children are cruel to each other, and that certainly held true for these matter-of-fact reminiscences. She simply presented a series of anecdotes that clearly held some meaning for her, but did so with no additional layering of sentiment. While both of these strips were comparatively restrained visually to the rest of the weirdness in this volume, they were no less visceral or harsh.

The three other color strips had different intents and effects. Conor o'Keefe did an extended take on his Winsor McCay riffs, deliberately attempting to evoke classic cartooning with the washed-out colors and simple line. His strips in MOME have mostly been a colorful contrast to other works, but they haven't really stood out until we got to see him flesh out his world a bit more in this issue. He also worked a bit bigger in this issue, with larger panels and bigger characters. He's not necessarily an artist whose work I turn to first when I read MOME, but he's occupying a very specific niche that works well when considering the issue as a whole.

Nate Neal has quietly been doing all sorts of interesting visually things during his tenure at MOME (his first strip in particular was a deconstruction of quotidian comics), and this issue found him creating a new sort of iconography for language. "Mindforkin'" was just that--a man thinking of various things he could do in a given day, the various events that could occur as a result of his actions, and his varied responses to those events. They are all told in a cartoony style that leaned heavily on color to provide mood and help the reader decode the symbology. The symbols he chose were not arbitrary; indeed, he created a language for this strip, and one can decipher bits and pieces of it both from repetition, a partial key on the first page and visual context.

Dash Shaw had the third color piece, a comic strip adaptation of an episode of the crassly comedic TV show Blind Date. That's a show that depicts a blind date and runs all sort of pop-up commentary along the way at the expense of the daters. Shaw took that formula, softened it with a sea-green wash, and stripped it of the snark. The result left only the pathos of the experience, with two people desperately looking for a connection but having vastly different ideas of what that connection might mean. That became especially clear at the end, when the woman is taken by the man, but he said he didn't feel a spark that he had vaguely defined earlier in the story. Shaw makes heavy use of shadow in this story, almost as if the reader is seeing the characters through a thick window. The effect is both distancing and yet strangely intimate, as though the reader was spying on a couple they cared about. This is a comparatively minor Shaw story in terms of scope and ambition, but it certainly fits into his recent interest in the use of color to drive narrative in different ways.

The stories that felt like odd fits were Nicolas Mahler's "Is This Art" and Lilli Carre's "It Was Too Hot To Sleep Indoors". Which is not to say that they weren't good stories, but rather that their presence here was jarring. That was especially true of Mahler's charming, minimalist story about being an cartoonist and having to prove to an IRS agent's satisfaction that this meant he was an artist. On the other hand, Carre's story was yet another home run in a series of home runs she's swatted as a cartoonist in the last couple of years. It's as though she and Shaw are in some kind of competition to become Most Exciting Young Artist, because the two of them love playing around with the language of comics, finding new and interesting ways to explore their themes of interest. In this issue, Carre's story is a quiet one about the yearning of a teenaged boy and the mysterious presence of an older girl hanging around him at some sort of beachside house. Carre's stories always have an element of mystery to them, as though there's a secret the reader is not quite privy to but we nonetheless experience during the course of the story. The mystery in this story was embodied in literally shedding skins due to sunburn, and the way we leave marks on others without understanding what we've done. The final image of a story done in greyscale is a striking one, with burnt-pink legs revealing the extent of a prank indicative of deep feelings.

One of the best things about MOME is that, as a reader, I feel like I'm getting work from each artist that's their "A" material. Carre' and Shaw have many other outlets for publication, but it's clear that they take a special delight in having an outlet for their short story ideas. Neal and Kurt Wolfgang have MOME as their primary outlet for publication, and clearly go all-out in every story. If early MOME had a flaw, it was that some of the artists were phoning in some of their contributions because they had so many irons in the fire. I'd like to see young artists like o'Keefe and Edward-Corbett grow more ambitious and perhaps even serialize a story in the anthology. Of course, seeing outstanding work from old favorites along with translated short stories of European artists has been another welcome trend for what continues to be a must-read book, issue after issue.

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