Again into the well of those new and old perceptions.

MOME Spring/Summer 2006 (Vol. 4)

Even to the extent that I’ve been reading it, starting only with Vol. 3, I’ve never been the quickest in getting around to reading the latest editions of this, Fantagraphics’ ongoing “contemporary literary journal, though one that tells its stories via the medium of comics,” and it’s thus worth noting that Vol. 5 is due out in only a month or so. But it’s not as if the stories in here depend on immediacy of consumption or anything; it’s the kind of quarterly thing you can enjoy at your leisure, letting it sit for a few weeks then finding it put into your hands, its serials easy to slip back into and its isolated stories numerous. As with virtually every anthology imaginable, there’s highs and lows, but the best of the best make you feel that you’ve really gotten something for your $14.95, an individual experience that leaves you glad for the whole affair.

For the second edition in a row, it’s David B. that exemplifies the finest among the semi-fixed roster of MOME contributors. Funny then that David B. has only contributed to this and the prior volume, and doesn’t look to be returning at any point in the near future. His pieces are also unique in that both of them had been already published prior to their MOME appearances, although never before in English; this edition’s story, The Veiled Prophet, originally appeared in the French anthology Lapin. But David B. benefits from the uniqueness inherent to acclaimed, prolific non-English creators - so often, we only glimpse portions of their output, those bits of a career determined significant or culturally palatable enough to transmute into our tongue and escort onto our shores. Thus, the David B. best known in English is mainly a dean of adorned autobiography, his icon-laden landscapes and mindscapes stretching across pages of lifespan, those of his, those of his relatives, that of his culture. He’s become very well known for it.

And yet, MOME deserves thanks for revealing to us a different side of David B.: his taste for mythic adventure, strange glimpses of magic, larger-than-life characters striding across hallucinogenic allegories for the human spiritual condition. Honestly, it’s all not that far removed in tone and visual approach from some of the fable-laden reflections of Epileptic and Babel (in the same way that the dream sequences in those works are apparently quite close to the author’s self-contained dream comics, the latest collection of which could also use an English release), but it’s great to see the author engaging with the material on a more emphatically direct, less overtly intellectual and considered plane.

The story itself involves Haroun al-Rashid, the famous 8th-9th century Caliph whose court in Baghdad was immortalized in The Thousand and One Nights, and Hakim al-Muqanna, a simple dyer of the city of Merv, Khorassan, who is one day absorbed from the shoulders up by a majestic white cloth bearing the image of Abu-Muslim, the already-legendary 8th century hero who’d been executed by a prior Caliph, Al-Mansur. The cloth can also cause Hakim to change his body’s form into all manner of religious figures: Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed (whose visage is kept off-panel), and more. Needless to say, the Veiled Prophet soon whips up an army to seize all of Khorassan, attracting the attention of the Caliph who personally goes undercover in the Prophet’s kingdom to see what he can see. But there’s one thing he certainly can’t see: the Prophet’s face, which has a way of striking people dead as soon as they gaze upon it, and appears to be metamorphosing into no less than a gateway to a parallel dimension, in which there’s a well of blood-water that threatens to vomit forth the undead bodies of all who’ve been martyred by injustice since the dawn of history. That’s a lot of zombies, and the Caliph must recruit his hulking black-eyed albino executioner Masrur, build an ark, and tame a wild magic hammer to save the world from being washed away in a literal flood of corpses.

These are 31 packed pages, a marvelous balance of weird myth, compelling half-history, classy sex & violence, old-fashioned war adventure, and dense themes of religious mania rising up to replace one reality with another, and how the corporeal form is so much less important than the ideas that said form leaves in its historical wake. It’s up to the reader to determine what David B. means to conclude from all of this, but it’s ambiguity in its most satisfying, stimulating form, a story as eager to engage the pulse and the gut as the mind. It never fails to astound me how easily David B. can mold his hugely symbolic art style into tight panels of action that operate on no less a visceral level than stories not presented in upper-crust, 'literary' anthologies, but he's not failed yet from the admittedly small look we've gotten in English. This is the sort of impossibly smart, lovely comic that pinches you awake, and forces you to consider that yes, perhaps anything really is possible after all.

David B. is put at the very end of this volume, so luckily nobody is forced to follow him. I will say that I was also goodly impressed with Martin Cendreda's 6-page short, La Brea Woman, a disarmingly simple tale of a father taking his young son to see those famous tar pits on the final day of a custody weekend; just as history is viewed through the lens of frozen-in-time bones, captions present us with information about the pasts and futures of nearly every character we encounter, their life paths laid bare by the also-frozen-in-time panels of a comics story. Such often emotional formal play interacts nicely with Cendreda's sensitive character work; the author is also currently featured in this week's Drawn & Quarterly Showcase: Book 4, which will offer a longer piece that I'm interested in seeing.

Also in the most recent D&Q Showcase is Gabrielle Bell, who here offers a 6-page piece titled Robot DJ, about a woman flashing back at a reunion concert to a life accompanied by a certain band's music, and how it all affected her emotional and romantic state. Handsomely rendered, as it always goes with Bell, if somewhat familiar in its 'thoughtful young adults having thoughts about being young and becoming adults' way. Simultaneously more familiar and more lively are a quartet of pieces by Sophie Crumb, one of them a 4-page illustrated prose story concerning drug death and gritty living among the young NYC homeless. Crumb (perhaps understandably) retains more of a direct 'underground' influence than her peers, her one-page shorts retaining an eager-to-shock, off-the-cuff approach, which works both for and against her: panels of a father lusting after his blooming teenage daughter don't stir the pulse at all, but do represent an interest in a comics heritage that sometimes appears to be subsumed by the forward momentum of more polished (yes, 'literary') works. It's hardly outstanding work, but a page of Crumb herself desperately explaining to an anthropomorphic turnip how she's different from "fuckin' borning" slice-of-life cartoonists still somehow stands out at telling of contemporary artistic struggle.

It's also perversly positioned right next to a 4-page installment of Paul Hornschemeier's Life with Mr. Dangerous, which sees a young woman talk to her cat, watch some television, leave a message on an answering machine, and talk to the night stars while driving, none of it to any particular impression or impact whatsoever save for an admiration of the coloring. I'm sure the serial format is not doing it any favors, but that is how it's presented here. This volume's other serial, John Pham's 221 Sycamore Ave., fares no better. It's 12 pages about a nervous, obsessive schoolteacher and the young man (his son?) that he lives with, the boy depicted as a sad, armless sheet-over-the-head ghost. They are very downcast and edgy in a manner remarkably similar to that of the teacher-and-kid combo of Chris Ware's Rusty Brown, save for when they lapse into chunky, symbolist dream sequences heavily reminiscent of those of David B. only stripped of narration. Perhaps my impressions would be different if I'd read earlier chapters, and it's all well-mounted enough in a purely technical sense, but visual appeal is as far as it went for me concerning this particular experience. This is also the last of the serial to be seen in MOME, as it will be moving to Pham's new Fantagraphics-published solo series Sublife.

There's more. The interview subject of this volume is Jonathan Bennett, and co-publisher/co-editor Gary Groth draws out some interesting talk from this lesser-known cartoonist, who's only released two issues of his self-published Esoteric Tales and a handful of minicomics apart from his MOME work thus far. Bennett is highly critical of his own work, dismissing bits of his story in this volume as "a huge mistake" while talking about his work approach and the similarities that join many of his stories. The piece itself, the 8-page I Remember Crowning..., is indeed highly similar to Bennett's entry in the prior volume, with a character walking through a modest monologue’s worth of interior narration as some formal techniques play out, though this one has the benefit of a punchline at the end and some rapidly-improving realist visuals. He's not there yet, but the potential is obvious.

Actually, maybe glimpsing such potential is almost as nice as the well-seasoned pleasures of a David B. The two go great together - the shock of the marvelous present bolstered by the firm promise of more to come, somewhere, someday. There's other stuff in this volume: Anders Nilsen presents Nothing So Far, an 8-page early version of his D&Q book Dogs and Water with the character art and word balloons pasted directly atop photographs, Jeffrey Brown shifts his visual style to a thick-lined approach for the 12-page What Were They Thinking..., a passable slab of existential angst up in the captions set to visuals of a giant monster breaking stuff, David Heatley has a quartet of typical David Heatley dream comics to offer, and R. Kikuo Johnson turns in an amusing 4-page historical sketch titled John James Audubon In Pursuit of the Golden Eagle. Some of these works may stand out more for you. Maybe less.

But I can say with confidence that MOME touches that sweet spot of high effect and high promise, a sensation enough to conquer its own weak stretches (of which there are several, do not forget) and make the 136-page whole seem worthwhile enough an endeavor to warrant your attention.