Out Tomorrow; Boiled Down

MOME Vol. 12 (Fall 2008)

This newest edition of Fantagraphics' house anthology -- $14.99 for 128 b&w and color pages -- offers a few noteworthy changes to its familiar structure. For one: no interview, more comics. Lots of new cartoonists too, and not so much continuation of ongoing serials.

Actually, none of the series' continuing stories manage to continue this issue (unless you count the 'continuation' of Ray Fenwick's mostly self-contained bear gags from last time), so admirers of Tim Hensley's Wally Gropius have more waiting ahead of them, I'm afraid. Eleanor Davis is absent as well, although Al Columbia brings another of his eerie home scenes and Tom Kaczynski has a suite of one-page comics on the topic of noise, among the offerings of other established contributors.

Meanwhile, a total of four new artists appear (five if you count Kaela Graham's incidental drawings), to the expected varying effect. I've liked what I've seen of Jon Vermilyea's work so far (which is to say, Cold Heat Special #1), and this is the first I've been exposed to his characters The Breakfast Crew, a thuggish gang of healthy eating mascots rendered in a too-fun-for-comfort cartoon style, all horrible bulging eyes and disconcerting grins. It's pretty great.

I can't say as much for The New Yorker illustrator Derek Van Gieson's wordless, ink-spattered encounter between a sharp-toothed woman, a smitten photographer, various animals (anthropomorphisized and otherwise) and a link of sausages, striking as some of its panels may be, nor New York Press and Paping artist Sara Edward-Corbett's chronicle of a day-long elementary school project, which is mannered in conversation and activity to the point of being both mildly confusing and utterly weightless.

But it's the fourth fresh presence that leaves the greatest impression. Granted, I'm already familiar with the works of Belgian cartoonist/animator Olivier Schrauwen; his 2006 book My Boy was easily my favorite book from last year that I got to really really late, a visually outstanding homage to early American newspaper comics (especially the works of Winsor McCay); it's spiced with primal parental concerns, and may aim to bruise your heart, but it also functions as both a cruel subversion of those old comics' loud slapstick mechanisms -- archaic so as to convert whimsy to surreal menace -- and a critique of the racism that charges so many classic works. Top-notch stuff, and it's too bad it's never been published outside of Europe; my edition is even in English, for that extra touch of authenticity!

Schrauwen's 13-page Hair Types -- his official North American debut -- is also in English, his own; I'm not sure if he even really knows English, but he's surely grasped enough of the stiff cadence of some early American comics that he can effectively set his sparse dialogue against an approximate 'period' visual approach (he actually frays some of his lines beneath muted colors and fuzzy image reproduction) for some good humor. The story (as it is) involves a group of cartoonists working side-by-side in a stretched studio (a bit like how Jon's apartment in Garfield is nothing but a long table); we dive in and out of their works as they react to each other's personalities and projects, generally in mean or strange ways, just like real comics artists.

It's a tough one to describe, but it's very good, dissolving its droll insult comedy into a sort of dream logic study of artistic influence. It looks and feels like nothing else I can think of, but it's something I absolutely want to see more of.

On the other hand, MOME typically draws a lot of its strength from its 'obligatory lauded veteran' slot in each edition, and there's a damn good one this time around. Doubly good, it turns out, since that extra space looks to have been spent on two such famed artists, both of them L'Association founders at that.

It's pretty much good to get any damn thing from (Patrice) Killoffer too, seeing as how I can still count his English-released works on one hand. This time it's a six-page short from the pages of Lapin, an allegedly autobiographical tale in which Killoffer's spouse/significant other/one-night stand/parole officer makes the tragic mistake of complaining about her mother's bra buying habits, prompting Our Man to spin out an epic yarn of underpants-themed familial horror that culminates in eating his own shit fresh from his tighty-whities.

"I remember it real well. I still have the Taste in my mouth."

Capital T as provided, True Believer.

Yet even that can't compare to the extraordinary David B. It's no secret that the former Pierre-Francois Beauchard is one of my favorite working cartoonists; I consider his stories from vols. 3 and 4 of this anthology to be the best material it's published. With this new presentation of the 35-page The Drum Who Fell in Love, MOME has now released the entire contents of the artist's 2006 collection Le Jardin armé et autres histoires, and the world of English-language comics is better for it.

The story is a direct sequel to vol. 3's tale, The Armed Garden, and follows up on the themes of visionary religious warfare and delicate salvation active in it and vol. 4's The Veiled Prophet. The great 15th century hero Jan Zizka has died, perhaps poisoned by a prior glimpse into the chaotic origin of Creation itself (he didn't adventure small). But his Taborite followers, men dedicated to forsaking all labor and slaughtering all heretics in anticipation of the return of Christ, aren't about to let a good warrior go to waste. They have Jan Zizka's corpse skinned, and stretch the flesh to fashion a drum - when beaten, the spirit of Zizka appears to kill their foes, enflame their passions and generally drive them onward to greater battles.

Ah, but when a curious local camp girl taps the drum in secret, she discovers that the spirit of Zizka has become deeply depressed from being evoked for nothing other than bloodshed, all else forgotten upon the completion of whatever skirmish. The title's right there, so you know what happens; just as David B.'s icon-fueled visual style has riled-up soldiers transforming into drums with weapons, ducking under a thatch of spears and hooks, so does the girl writhe around with the drum in her arms and legs, losing clothes panel-by-panel as she taps out a love tune, the shadows on the instrument's face forming a pleading, unecstatic countenance.

There's no hidden mystery to David B.'s drawings, only evocative displays of gut-punch symbols as an on-page literalization of primal feelings and the mythic undercurrent of religious strife. A spear and facing cannons form an infantryman's helmeted face. A long-beaked bird devours armored men as a caption tells of heresies, like revolutions, devouring their young. And while the girl and the drum try to flee, the former's happy tunes manage to summon literal ghosts from the latter; even as bloody old politics, rhetoric, or the image of beloved conquering heroes is used for kinder means, it seems to have a way of echoing the mayhem it all inspired before. Jesus Christ appears(!) to show the way to Paradise, but one outside of its wall only leads to another outside for those who waited knee-deep in blood. Another army draws near; people will have to die again.

It's another dense, exciting work, essaying the same concerns as David B.'s two other histories with greater finality. If The Armed Garden respresented the futility of earthly heaven and the incoherence of the divine, and The Veiled Prophet depicted the substitution of one human reality with another through ideology, The Drum Who Fell in Love pushes the material into the realm of legacy, human affairs after death, and finally guides the artist's characters into a type of risen reward, though David B. is too much of a skeptic to allow any of the people we know through the garden gates - this fallen world will only win you decent bleacher seats, though freedom from the murder of the 'heroism' concept is offered as maybe prize enough.

Smart, probing, passionate work. A virtue for any incarnation of shuffled current comics.