I've been following the comics from the Meathaus collective for quite some time and have been impressed by the group's evolution and commitment to innovation. The group began as a way for some graduates of SVA (The School For Visual Arts in New York) to stay in touch and continue to hone their cartooning chops. Most of the original artists came from either illustration or animation backgrounds, so while the early issues were stylish, the writing often ranged from thin to incoherent. Around the fourth issue or so, things started to click and each subsequent issue became more ambitious and innovative. There was a sense that the artists understood that people were actually reading and paying attention to these comics, and this was matched by a greater commitment and seriousness by the artists.
It's interesting that the Meathaus group evolved in parallel to the Kramer's Ergot anthology, which similarly started from humble beginnings. I'm not sure if Meathaus was influenced by Jordan Crane's Non anthology, but there are similarities in terms of the anthologies being cohesive and statements of purpose. These aren't just random groupings of artists, they're a testament of a certain kind of commitment to storytelling.
As the anthology has progressed and expanded, many of the Meathaus members have gone on to success. Tomer Hanuka is an accomplished illustrator and just had a collection of his comics, The Placebo Man, published by Alternative. Farel Dalrymple has done quite a bit of work for Dark Horse and is doing the art for Jonathan Lethem's Omega The Unknown revival for Marvel. Becky Cloonan has illustrated series like Demo and American Virgin along with her own graphic novel for Tokyopop. James Jean is an in-demand cover artist, while Jim Campbell, Dash Shaw, Tom Herpich and Brandon Graham have all gone on to success with their comics.
The success of so many of these artists was perhaps a contributing factor to why Head Games was such a disappointment. One thing that Meathaus has always lacked is a strong editorial hand, the kind that drives Kramer's and drove Non. While this allowed for a lot of freedom and resulted in quite a bit of interesting work, in this book it felt like a lot of creators were distracted and not fully committed to the anthology. Look at Hanuka's contribution: it's simply two pages of what seems to be an illustration assignment. Many other of the stories are fragments at best--bits of a sketchbook, or perhaps much older work. The fact that the last edition of the anthology came out in 2003 is a clear signal that there was a sense that everyone involved just wanted to get this one published. In addition, it seemed that not everyone either had the time to devote to it or the commitment to the anthology that others had. That this was the first edition of the anthology to be released by a publisher (Alternative) and thus get wider distribution is all the more unfortunate.
All of that said, there are certainly highlights to be found in this edition. Brandom Graham's stylish synthesis of American comics, urban folk art and manga takes us through skewed perspectives and strange character designs for a bit of unusual slice-of-life. Tom Herpich contributed just two pages, but as always his quirky composition and enigmatic text made for a fascinating combination. He also did a full-cover inside back cover strip which was enormously clever. Jay Sacher's art is deliberately cruder than the others in the book, but the stiffness of his figures is a perfect counterpoint to the odd and uncomfortable circumstances his characters get into. The sci-fi story by Matthew Manning & Robert Donnelly is perhaps the highlight of Head Games, a beautifully weird, futuristic murder mystery that's also a clever comment on consumer culture. Phonzie Davis' densely penciled story was a bit of a throwback, a wordless story about a Christian puppet show gone awry. While I was mostly unimpressed by the contributions of the new artists here (especially Jim Mahfood, Scott Morse and Jim Rugg, none of whom fit in with the rest of the book), Jonique Williams' strip about her mother was expressive, tender and evocative.
What was most disappointing about the book was not that it was a fiasco, but that it could have been so much more. With the wave of beautiful and carefully assembled & edited anthologies that have been published in recent years, Head Games simply doesn't measure up. This isn't because the core group of artists isn't capable, because they are. It may well be for the reasons I've mentioned--distraction, a lack of time, a sense that the anthology wasn't as important to all of the contributors as it once was. It's obvious that this anthology shouldn't exist unless the members are truly devoted to it, and willing to push themselves as storytellers. To that end, I understand that the next edition will be out much sooner, will have a number of stories in color, and will be a response to the deluge of handsome and ambitious anthologies that have been released in the past few years. I look forward to the possibilities that their next volume will bring us a coherent statement of purpose from a group whose sense of style is its calling card and whose ambition to push the edges of their skills and the art form has always informed their work.