The Swiping Blades of Faith

Mome Vol. 3: Winter 2006

In one of many memorable passages from his book Epileptic, David B. postulates that the myriad comics he’s drawn involving warfare and grand battles act as a metaphor for the constant upheaval in his family life, courtesy of his brother’s titular disease. Naturally, the English-speaking reader living in North America cannot derive the maximum amount of impact from such considerations; we’ve never seen David B.’s warfare comics, and we thus have to temporarily accept his ponderings strictly as part of a single story universe, its cosmos contained by the covers of Pantheon’s fine collected edition. But Epileptic was an expansive autobiography, and unconcerned with remaining confined to those most immediate pages - certainly it worked very well as its own unit, but the references to its author’s acclaimed outside comics career stretched back in time in a way that only a more acclimated audience than most of us could fully appreciate.

But now the battle rages into view with the third edition of Fantagraphics’ Mome anthology, an attractive quarterly showcase for a more-or-less fixed roster of young cartooning talents, edited by Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth; I have to say ‘more-or-less,’ as this is David B.’s first appearance in the series (he’ll return for more next issue), accompanied by fellow Mome newcomer R. Kikuo Johnson of Fantagraphics’ Night Fisher. Series regulars Paul Hornschemeier, John Pham, and Sophie Crumb sit this edition out. It’s in color and b&w, 136 pages for $14.95.

Surely the main event in this edition is David B.’s story; at 36 pages it’s easily the longest story in the book, it’s placed right up front directly following the editors’ notes, plus it provides the tome’s cover art, a mighty clash between armored men, a bear, an unarmored woman, and a living, sword-wielding tree. It’s not a new story, having originally been serialized in four parts in the French anthology Lapin; the serialized structure is retained for the tale’s presentation here, though all of the chapters are place one after another. It’s titled The Armed Garden, and you have probably guess that it’s going to fill in some of those gaps left by Epileptic. Indeed, this story’s decidedly downbeat attitude toward grasping genuine peace through religion contains some fascinating echoes of the drifting of David B.’s family through a multitude of spiritual (and scientific, and psychological) ‘cures’ for their child’s condition. In both works, higher truths are sought at the behest of a difficult, socially troubling personal condition - struggle leads to momentary peace, but nothing cannot rot for too long, and then it’s back down the road.

The plot of The Armed Garden opens in 1415, with the Catholic Church pulled apart by a trio of popes - such difficult times lead to drastic action, and the rebellious rector of Prague University, Jan Hus, is burned at the stake, sparking a violent revolt in the Bohemia region. Having tasted success against the Church’s armies, and under the confident leadership of a one-eyed warrior named Jan Ziska (who carries a faithful goose around with him at all times), the rebels adopt a distinctly apocalyptic rhetoric and decide to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth via enormous slaughter of the unrighteous. Meanwhile, a Prague blacksmith receives a vision from Adam (the first man), who urges him to lead humanity back to paradise - Eve (the first woman) soon follows, feeding him apple from the Tree of Knowledge and making love to him, as all men are Adam and all women are Eve, and apparently no incest nor cuckolding can exist among the enlightened.

Needless to say, the blacksmith, Rohan, immediately rejects earthly clothing and assembles a gaggle of all-nude disciples who set out to find the lost Garden of Eden, guided by the curvature of Eve’s thighs (the metaphor for sex as a driving force cannot be more bluntly put). As luck would have it they run into Jan Ziska’s rebels along the way, whom they clash with several times. Eventually the unclothed disciples reach an island they view as Paradise, and the story suddenly takes on a more fantastic tone, with no less than the beasts of the field and the trees of the forest rising up to take arms and destroy Jan Ziska’s hordes as Paradise becomes walled, and Rohan’s people dance in a bacchanal of joy and obscenity - naturally, God’s moral Commandments are for those of the Earth, and those who reach Paradise no longer have need to feel bad about rape or killing, as they are already guaranteed almighty succor. Ah, but soon the rivers of milk and honey grow rotten and curdled, and covered with flies, and hungry beasts snap at the revelers. Eve appears to Jan Ziska and tells him that Rohan has mistaken Earth for Paradise, and that he must stop him, as all men are brothers. Fortunately, Jan Ziska’s goose companion is both capable of speech, and knows the secret paths through both the Earth and the cosmos - but curious mutations and violent icons await them, and can even the great warrior prepare himself to glimpse the truth behind all creation?

There’s an awful lot of stuff going on in only 36 pages, but fortunately it’s executed with consummate skill. Never one to stick with simple representation, David B. loads up his panels with vivid symbols, arguments between two people set before a backdrop of jagged letters going at it with swords and axes. As the plot grows more and more fantastic, David B.’s symbols gradually drift into the realm of literal representation, the abstractions of style incarnated into weird, literal combat as warriors and prophets draw closer to cosmic truths. The understanding of the facts behind the universe is thus indicated by the characters’ grasping of the artist’s (their true God’s) own visual flourishes as suddenly naturalistic elements of their world of violence. And naturally chaos reigns supreme, the Paradise of Earth revealed as a sham, a mere placebo applied to divert attention from the growing sickness - and we’re all left blind when we figure it all out. Good thing is story is often funny, and beautifully imaginative!

The rest of the anthology is hit-and-miss, though one of the ‘longer’ stories is certainly worth recommending - prior to this, I was only familiar with Kurt Wolfgang through his late ’90s minicomics parody series Low-Jinx, and while that material was good he’s certainly grown as a talent since. His 10-page Odd Petal Out is a great little short about chatty kids on the cusp of maturity walking around a grimy, litter-strewn urban environment and exchanging naturalistically vulgar words with one another. Eventually, deeper feelings sort of spill out, in spite of themselves. Wolfgang’s character art is utterly adorable, huge mouths and spherical dot eyes covering large heads on little bodies, and his environments are fully realized. There’s also a one-page Tough Skins ’77 strip, and an 11-page text interview with co-editor Groth. Less compelling is a 10-page story by Jonathan Bennett involving a young man wandering around and taking photographs, pondering via thought bubble the ephemeral state of things until the story just kind of stops. There’s a cute bit with the lead character’s wife, at least.

And then there’s the 15-page third chapter of David Heatley’s four-part serial Overpeck, which appears to be at least partially based on some of the author’s dream comics from his series Deadpan - specifically, the one with the young girl and the bestiality. There’s none of that in here, though the presence of bizarre, grotesque desire and rampant violence is quite pertinent. Nasty (yet sensitive!) kids hit a beheaded dog’s corpse with debris to try and make it bleed. A strange, witchy old woman with glowing yellow eyes kidnaps a young boy and strips him down to his underpants in a room of porno, then reminisces about a childhood loaded with incestuous rape, emotional humiliation, physical abuse, the sexual touching of infants - eventually, her house burns down. There’s also a stark-naked girl wandering around who happens upon a military facility where yet another underpants-clad young boy is being kept hidden from dangerous forces, and he preaches a message of peace as Our Heroine performs naked cartwheels into a sunny world of buzzing bees and happy airplanes. I think it all has something to do with the destructive capabilities of clinging to personal pain to the detriment of everyone around you, but even Heatley’s elegant, able use of color can’t make this seem like much more than a barrage of nonstop transgression with a cursory ‘message’ tacked on. Fairly effective as creepily personal provocation, but that’s about the only way in which it succeeds - at least for this installment. Do keep in mind, though, that I’ve not read the other two chapters of this story, and there’s still another on the way, so my viewpoint here is duly skewed and should be taken as such.

Also included is a smattering of shorter strips and stories. I really enjoyed Martin Cendreda’s handful of Matthew and Buster strips, one-page gags that go through a lot of trouble to look ravishing while delivering utterly silly jokes. The aforementioned Johnson offers up two pages of Cher Shimura ‘gag’ strips that chronicle a young woman’s seriocomic loneliness and low self-esteem; in both simple visuals and non-humor beats it reminded me enormously of Chris Ware, and there’s not really enough of it to provide any stronger feeling. Jeffrey Brown provides a fairly funny strip regarding his decidedly unglamorous experience with almost optioning Clumsy for a motion picture, and a fairly typical strip concerning lost romance and regret. Andrice Arp has a neat comics adaptation of an 18th century Philadelphia broadside. Anders Nilsen provides 4 pages of minicomics tips. And Gabrielle Bell submits a 5-page piece of light narrative experimentation, as a woman tries to tell someone over the phone about a story she’s writing, only to encounter a distinct lack of attention that somewhat relates to her own story thematically. It's diverting.

But the really good parts of this edition do stick with you, as light or incomplete (both literally and figuratively) as some of it is. Certainly I emerged from this more interested than ever in seeing more of the total picture of David B. come into view, and it was great to see how well Wolfgang is coming along. The rest of the stories in here usually bear the mark of clear potential, or at least deliver the sort of unique experience that fans of the talents within might be seeking, provided with a secure level of ability. Not all of it worked for me, but I expect there's interest in here for most.