Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fragments: Mome #13

Rob reviews the latest volume of Fantagraphics' premier anthology, MOME.

The last few volumes of MOME have brought in a startling number of new contributors as the original lineup is mostly phasing itself out or going to a more irregular contribution schedule. Only Kurt Wolfgang remained in this issue from the original group as he continues his "Nothing Eve" serial. I love the increasing density of his line and his irresistible character design. The way he draws his main character's best friend (and unrequited love) Edie is in a ragged, exaggerated manner that makes the reader fall in love with her just like Tom, the protagonist. It's interesting that in a story about the end of the world, the real core of the story turns out to be this romance with loose ends. One gets the sense that all of Tom's adventures prior to recounting his relationship with Edie were just distractions until he could force himself to think about her, see her and get some kind of final closure. Wolfgang is a nice fit for this anthology because his sensibility has always been somewhere between Peter Bagge-style shenanigans and unabashed romanticism.

Volume 12 of MOME was the best of the series in part because of how loaded its "veteran" contributor lineup was. With translated stories by David B, Killoffer and Olivier Schrauwen, MOME had some stunning work from the first rank of European avant-garde cartoonists. These longer pieces are MOME's anchors for the shorter works of newer cartoonists. MOME 13 has the first part of a story by underground legend Gilbert Shelton (with Pic) and a short story by scratchboard artist Thomas Ott. Both of these stories fell completely flat. Ott is a pulp/horror artist whose work has a certain nervous energy but is ultimately pretty shallow. The story here, about an astronaut lured by a space siren, wouldn't have been out of place in either an EC comic or Heavy Metal.

Shelton's work has never done much for me, perhaps because the taboos he breaks (especially with regard to drug humor) seem pretty tame today. There's a certain manic nature to his panels and page design and a loving level of detail, but it all seems so ham-fisted and obvious. The satire he employs is of the most obvious kind and the situations he puts "the world's least famous rock band", Not Quite Dead, all seem rather familiar. I can see Shelton as an influence on many modern cartoonists (Terry Laban comes to mind) but his work seems very much anchored to a particular time and place and didn't grow in the way that Crumb's did.

David Greenberger's contributions felt a bit out of place. I love Ray Fenwick's text-based comics, but Greenberger's (known strictly as a writer, not an artist) list of albums seemed like a weak way of getting into MOME. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing something more substantive by him in the pages of this anthology.

These grips aside, this issue of MOME featured the single best story published in its pages: Dash Shaw's "Satellite CMYK". Shaw of late has been digging into color as a formal storytelling tool, experimenting with its eye-grabbing qualities to either anchor the narrative, guide the reader or else depict clashing or contradicting ideas in a clever manner. This story is about deception and identity, as a man is depicted at three different ages in three different identities. He is tossed around by a group of rebels in a huge satellite where people living on certain levels believe they are at the lowest level, whereas the rebels know there are lower levels and keep trying to smuggle people down to them and give them new identities. Of course, our protagonist has no interest in being part of this struggle--he just wants to live his life, and resents having his loved ones and memories taken away from him.

The clever thing about the story is that each identity is represented by a different color from the offset printing scaled of CMYK: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. That entire world is in that one color (and even goes in that CMYK order), with that "subtractive color" a handy stand-in for that subtracted series of memories. The final page, where the protagonist is literally in the dark before seeing a brand new image when the lights are turned on, is a perfect demonstration of the way offset printing works to create new colors through combining plates, just as the protagonist is now living on a level where he is allowed to keep his memories. It's an incredibly clever idea that could really only be done in comics, and on print in particular.

This volume of MOME seems to have much more eye candy in it than past volumes; that is, stories that one just loves to look at as much as read. For example, Laura Park's ruminations about sleep and why she has always avoided it look gorgeous in color and carry that perfect combination of cuteness and despair that permeates all of her work. There's a bit of muddiness to be found here that is mitigated by the sheer commitment she has to her images; these are watercolor impressions of life, not detailed reproductions.

Sara Edward-Corbett's color work is precisely the opposite of Park's: high-contrast, sharp lines and a formal playfulness that demands the reader follow along as the story beckons on the page. "Hunting For Blueberries" is a charming bit of formal experimentation as Edward-Corbett fools around with both page and panel design, weaving objects & characters into and out of each other's way by breaking across panels. The slow, anchoring series of panels at the bottom of the page not only deflate the main action of the story, they serve to off-handedly answer a riddle asked at the beginning.

Then there's the ever-hilarious Tim Hensley's deliberately flat color work as he continues his wacked-out Wally Gropius story. His John Stanley-esque character design pushed against punchlines both warped (like suicidal girls falling for Wally) and surreal (like the baseball accoutrement in a recording studio) make for one of the weirdest and most wonderful comics experiences of the past few years. It was also more than a little disturbing to see Wally being grilled by his wannabe girlfriend's father after the out-of-nowhere and violent sex scene they had a couple of issues ago. As a reader, always make sure to study every detail of every panel of what Hensley's doing--you will be rewarded.

The last really visually striking piece was the latest scratchy, watercolor piece by Derek Von Giesen, titled "The Marriage Tree". It's a series of dark vignettes as two sisters each murder the husbands they are stuck with in an arranged marriage, and resent the fact that their other sister seems to be having a perfectly good time with her new husband. It's less a story than a series of ideas and images, and Von Giesen's blotchy style lends itself to a lot of ambiguity. If I'm not as crazy about his work as I am about some of the other stories in this book, I am happy to see a completely different visual approach being used.

More out of left field than Ott's space-horror story is Josh Simmons' "Jesus Christ", which imagines the savior as a gigantic creature that crashes to earth like a meteorite and rises to wreak bloody and violent havoc on the world. The loving level of detail Simmons pours into this story as the centaur-like divine being gets its bearings, belches fire and pulls a fiery sword out of its own throat is more funny than horrific, as though the world is getting its just desserts in wishing for miraculous beings to return.

Conor o'Keefe's "Bums In Love" is a comparatively modest entry compared to the pyrotechnics we see in this issue. His style here owes more to children's book illustration than alt-comics, though his sharp critique of consumer culture and values is in full effect. There's also a little Winsor McCay whimsy and fragility in his drawings, which makes for an interesting contrast with the distance and acidity of his commentary.

Lastly is the most straightforward story in the book, Nate Neal's "An Interview With Minnie Moverman". It's exactly what it sounds like: an interview with a woman who had a particular kind of music career--selling songs for TV shows. This is as much a story about the myths surrounding life in New York as it is the story of the subject, as well as trying to sell out and failing. The world-weariness of Minnie makes her a funny subject, even if some of angst of the anecdotes she's recalling don't quite seem well-earned.

All told, the highs of this issue were as good as anything published in MOME. It's remarkable that through its run, there have been very few artists whose work immediately turned me off for a variety of reasons. Shelton is just the biggest name where this was the case, but anyone who's a fan of his work will need to check out this story. I'm always excited to see where MOME is headed next as it continues to evolve into an anthology that showcases the best of the past and future.


  1. Great review, Rob, and I couldn't agree more with you about Satellite CMYK. Even compared to Dash's previous Mome stories, this one stands out. I actually liked Ott's story better than you did, but agree that Greenberger's album lists were weak.

    One thing that struck me was the way the very last panel of Gilbert Shelton's story and the very first panel of Josh Simmons' Jesus Christ were, essentially, the same image, and yet the two artists styles contrasted side by side like that showed just how different a basic idea like a city with mountains in the background can be drawn. I wonder if the editors meant to present these side by side, or if it was just coincidental.

  2. Thanks, Marc!

    The Ott story was OK, I've just always seen him as a kind of gimmicky artist. The gimmick, for me, wears thin after the first few times.

    Interesting observation about the Shelton/Simmons transition. I'm guessing it wasn't coincidental; it almost felt like one story bled into the other for a minute!