Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Let Us Be Perfectly Clear

I've been following Paul Hornschemeier since his minicomics days. Of course, the aggressively ambitious & experimental artist made minis with production values that were astonishing. Some of the results can be seen in The Collected Sequential (AdHouse), which included compositional experiments like an improvised story where he printed only certain page numbers in one issue, then more pages in the next issue. It was an interesting experiment for both artist and reader alike, forcing both to form new connections for images that were deliberately fragmented.

Hornschemeier since then has gained a lot of notice from Mother, Come Home, a story collected by Dark Horse. Since then, he joined Fantagraphics and has a regular series in Mome and a new graphic novel, The Three Paradoxes, coming out shortly. There's a certain grimness and melancholy that's dominated his major works, but I always found his humorous pieces to be every bit as involving. Let Us Be Perfectly Clear collects his shorter works from the first issue of Forlorn Funnies, the AdHouse short work Return of the Elephant, and several other stories from other sources.

The book is split into two sections: one half is called "Let Us Be" and the second (requiring a full flip over and upside down, a clue as to the very different content that will be found) is "Perfectly Clear". The title of the former is perhaps a reference to the cast of characters that we meet: loners, weirdos, outsiders and predators. Most of them would prefer to just "let be". The best stories in the first section are "These Trespassing Vehicles" and "Wanted". Both are dazzling examples of Hornschemeier's facility with page design, color and narrative techniques.

The former is about a dyslexic man who sets out to kill his sister and best friend in a cabin, but gets the wrong address and shoots two complete strangers instead. The opening pages where we see Dennis narrating, the blue background behind the panels is almost soothing, belying his menace. When Hornschemeier flashes to the couple, he fast-forwards into their future with an omniscient narrator telling us of their unhappy fate. The layers of detail are deliberately confusing at first since we think the couple are the sister & the friend, but the narrator then reveals their names and Dennis' affliction. We then flash to a law student studying the case, flash back to a diagram of the shooting, then see the surprising aftereffects of the crime. What I like most about this story is its intricacy and the way it yo-yos back and forth between emotional distance and the immediacy of Dennis' unbalanced mind.

The latter story is designed to look like a couple of wanted posters, nailed to a wooden wall. This old-west feel (Hornschemeier seems fascinated by this trope) is turned on its head by the story of a sheriff who moves to the city with the woman he loves, going against his every instinct. When he sees a woman's purse with a horse design on it, the story switches to the poster overlaid over the first sign, and goes from full-color to two-color as he flashes back to his decision to leave. Flashing back into the present, we know that it's not going to end well.

While the rest of the stories in this section are at the very least attractive (especially his use of coloring in "We Were Not Made For This World"), the ideas seem a bit thinner. There's such an undertone of grim fatalism in his stories that some of the other offerings feel like they're laying it on a bit thick. This sensibility seems to work better when he's experimenting a bit more wildly or cutting it with more humor.

Which brings us to the other side of the book, "Perfectly Clear". That title may refer to his "clear-line" style in use here, a deliberately cartoony line meant to invoke other comics. There are three stand-outs here: "Artist's Catalogue", "The World Will Never Be The Same" and "Men And Women Of The Television". The first story is a series of conceptual jokes at the expense of fine art and philosophy: "Cocaine And Pillow Fight In Polar Bear Heaven" is an all-white page, while a page of sketches and philosophical gibberish are the "studies and notes" for "Dialectic on Preference", which turns out to be a crude joke. Best of all is a series of upside down & mirror-scripted strips about art that are then mercilessly slammed in a "guest critique". This is really the sort of thing that you can only do once, but Hornschemeier goes all the way with it. The second strip is a dead-on and nasty strip about man's inhumanity to man, before and after 9/11. The main difference depicted here is that Americans started wearing more patriotic clothing while being racist, sexist and ignoring the plight of the poor. While not the most profound observation, it's still pretty funny and sharply recorded.

The final story is probably my all-time favorite from Hornschemeier, and echoes of it pop up in his current Mome serial. There's a dreamy goofiness as every character, real and fictional, finds themselves constantly thwarted and near extinction, but tries their best to muddle through. We begin with a traditional, mustachioed western villain who seems to have cornered his arch-nemesis ("Taylor Handsome: Marshall") only to find he's gotten a man looking for a place to defecate. The villain, after accidentally blowing himself up, goes home to read an absurd children's book ("Thesaurus: The Literate Dinosaur") and later heads into town.

As he wanders into the crowd, he suddenly merges into a crowd on a modern street and we switch from his thoughts to the thoughts of everyone simultaneously in the narrative boxes. He passes a woman (whom we will later come to know in Mome) whom we suddenly focus on who seeks to dull her pain with TV. Specifically, a cartoon show called "Mister Dangerous". After the show ends, we follow Mister Dangerous offstage, where he is called on by the network gods and told he's being cancelled. He escapes into other TV shows and finally takes a small role in the next story, which returns to an earlier character in the book. The story is clever, visually inventive and balances humor & pain expertly. Hornschemeier's later work has not had quite had the same kind of fervid experimental quality, partly because he needed to focus more on character and story. I'll be curious to see what his newer comics will look like, and if we're due for another round of unbridled innovation from Hornschemeier.

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