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.

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