God, look at these cobwebs...

*Ah, sorry I haven’t posted for the last few days, folks (although I did put a short review up on the other site) – the scheduling bedlam that is the Labor Day weekend has inspired me to “drop out” of society for good and fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a poppy baron. It’s been tough, but I’m now posting from a glorious mansion, and the gold-plated pistols should be arriving in the mail soon. Looks like the perfect time for a pre-release review.

MOME 9: Fall 2007

This will be out soon, probably, but I don’t know when. It’s the newest edition of Fantagraphics’ continuing anthology of comics from people.

You’ve probably noticed that I review every new volume of this series; that’s something I don’t do very often. I can only say that I’ve become especially interested in the development of MOME, from its earlier editions’ mix of intermittent serials and standalone works from a (never quite) fixed group of young but still largely recognizable cartoonists, to its recent turn toward providing a more visible forum for talents rarely seen outside of their own minicomics, offering a wider variety of subject matters, with more emphasis on standalone works, balancing out the still-running serials. I like this new MOME a lot more, although there’s some irony in that the ‘new’ book seems to be fulfilling the stated mission of the ‘old’ book a lot better, in that it provides regular accessibility to lesser-known artists. Call it an ongoing correction.

There’s still the occasional problem, mind you, although the problem with this edition is a possibly inherent one that the series has nevertheless managed to avoid thus far. You see, for much of its run MOME has left a space open for featuring works by ‘bigger’ names – often, these pieces have been quite fine, especially that pair of David B. shorts that ran a while ago. Excellent, self-contained fables brushed with contemporary geopolitical anxiety. They were followed by a just-finished Lewis Trondheim serial, which was actually a single book crumbled into three pieces. I don’t recall if Trondheim serialized it anywhere else. Regardless, splitting the Trondheim piece up didn’t affect it that much; it was, after all, a temporally split-up rumination on cartoonist burnout that allowed for some rest in between rounds of reflection, particularly for most English-language readers, who’d probably benefit from flipping back and forth between each part and its individual MOME-exclusive glossary of names.

This edition, however, begins The Lute String, a two-part Jim Woodring story featuring his famous Frank character. The work is actually an earlier Japan-only Presspop Gallery release split in half. The circumstances behind this presentation are a bit unique – according to MOME co-editor Eric Reynolds, his original desire was to publish the work as a standalone book, but Woodring declined the plan. He did, however, consent to its publication in MOME, and the decision was made to bisect the 45-page story so as not to overwhelm the other contents of the volume.

But Woodring’s work is ill suited to such serialization, at least when he’s working in his wordless approach, as he is here. As with most Frank stories, a lot of the work’s impact relies on propulsion through Woodring’s universe of slapstick antics and mystic symbols, a sense of building that’s upset by the serial form. As such, this tale of our fuzzy ‘hero’ and his supporting cast being observed from on high by a beatific, childlike elephant entity, seems to slam into a brick wall halfway through, its character’s actions longing for a payoff that never arrives, despite Woodring’s immaculate visual storytelling pushing us forward through obscure vegetation and godly intervention. I realize that Woodring has serialized Frank material in the past; frankly, I never thought the work responded well to the format, even when seemingly designed for it. Here, the break seems all the more artificial, and all the more frustrating.

Even the surviving longtime serials of MOME aren’t free of such frustration – Paul Hornschemeier’s Life with Mr. Dangerous has almost doggedly refused to satisfy in drips and burbles, and its seventh chapter fares no better. A few more sequences are presented, some of them containing potentially vital turning-point material, yet its remarkably difficult to become invested in so isolated a passage. It’s just the next nine pages of a forthcoming Paul Hornschemeier graphic novel that we happen to be following as it’s produced, and while it doesn’t exactly invite criticism as per the work as a whole, it effectively renders itself invisible to the continuing reader disinclined toward pulling out all of his or her prior volumes, and likely outright uninviting to the new reader.

The other serials in this volume adopt different postures. Kurt Wolfgang’s Nothing Eve has carefully timed the movements of its lead character’s apocalypse-numbed state of mind to match its chapter breaks, and this installment is no different, ending on a crucial discovery of intent. Sophie Crumb’s Lucid Night-Mare, meanwhile, revels entirely in its serialized nature, presenting a lengthy recap in panel one and urging the reader to check back next issue for a big finale, wholly unconcerned with how it might look in a hypothetical collected form - it is purely a child of this anthology, and is apparently on track (if I’m remembering correctly) to be the first of the MOME-original serials to complete itself within the confines of the MOME itself.

And Tim Hensley’s excellent Wally Gropius cannily structures itself as a series of teen humor vignettes adding up to a larger saga, thus allowing for several tiny ‘chapters’ to disperse throughout the book. It serves the material very well. Hensley’s command of visual humor devices and comedic character poses is exact enough that his slightly stiff in-panel arrangements give the impression of magnets attached to a refrigerator, affording the work a distanced feel that compliments the deliberately bizarre thrust of many of the story’s jokes. You’re always aware that you’re not so much reading a teen humor comic, or a parody of a teen humor comic, as the impression of a teen humor comic as it exists in Hensley’s head, elements fragmenting and reassembling into surreal tableaus that nevertheless remain incredibly goddamned funny, and sometimes distressing. The story goes to a very… unexpected place this time around. I suspect that assembling the chapter pieces into a collected whole will only enhance the work’s impact.

The rest of this edition’s material is standalone stuff, much of it quite good. There’s no interview this time, although Reynolds does present a gallery of impressive ballpoint pen drawings by artist Mike Scheer. Gabrielle Bell makes a surprise return with a trio of one-page pieces that explore her interests in relationship metaphors and fantasy intruding upon reality. Andrice Arp adapts another broadside from centuries past to comics form. Eleanor Davis adopts a sharper, b&w style for a realist tale of youthful frustration, using her interest in ominous fable beasts as a symbol for personal frailty. Several stories lean toward outright horror. Al Columbia presents a mutedly colorful slice of fairytale nihilism stomping poetic idealism. Joe Kimball provides another strikingly rendered piece, this time on the concept of immortality as viewed among images of devouring, whether through vampire fangs or swirling natural growths. Brian Everson & Zak Sally convey Dread through shifting styles of text laid against shadowed outlines and black blocks, an approach that compliments Ray Fenwick’s typographically assertive single-page messages.

And then there’s Tom Kaczynski, who never fails to impress me. This volume’s 976 sq. ft. may be his best work yet, concentrating the psychogeographic war a gigantic new condo wages on the denizens of a traffic-flanked urban neighborhood into eight pages of rueful comedy and claustrophobic paranoia. All of Kaczynski's favorite themes are present, including plenty of capitalist malaise and notions of flawed man-made utopia. Luxury as the triumph of isolation! Marketing as hypnosis! MySpace as a metaphor for living space as a metaphor for internal space! From the outside, the tower steals the sun and the sky through its monolithic presence. From the inside, it annihilates the neighborhood through cozy amenity. If roads and cities are an imprint of human psyche on the wild, then bigger and bolder structures are powerful humans' impositions on the psyche of the rest of us.

"But in a sense everyone else moved in too... those that haven't yet , will soon, and they will forget what the block looked like before the tower..."

All of it conveyed in a visual style that dances between realist scene-setting, well-observed comedy of gestures, and joyfully shadowed suspense. I really can't get enough of this stuff, and its a credit to MOME's effort that such a talent is given a regular, relatively high-profile forum to display itself, and ensnare readers such as myself. If that was the goal of this anthology from the start, I can say it's achieving.