Comics anthologies seem to be a dying breed. With graphic novels being all the rage these days, fewer publishers are willing to risk their time and money publishing a collection of short stories and other material by even established cartoonists, let alone newcomers and rising stars.
All the more reason to be impressed with Mome, Fantagraphicsā quarterly anthology series, edited by Eric Reynolds. Since its inception in 2005, Mome has consistently given a platform to notable creators who might otherwise be neglected, like Kurt Wolfgang, Jonathan Bennett and Nate Neal, serialized a number of great stories, like Tim Hensleyās Wally Gropius, and allowed American audiences to be exposed to great work from Europe, such as Lewis Trondheimās At Loose Ends.
The release of the 20th volume of Mome (which happily coincided with its fifth anniversary) seemed as good a time as any to talk with Reynolds about the series, where itās been, how itās changed and where he hopes to take it in the future. Plus, it provided an opportunity to talk with Reynolds, who has always been thoughtful, upfront, and insightful whenever Iāve had the luck to talk to him about comics. I hope I get the chance to do so again sometime soon.
CHRIS MAUTNER: Mome, now that itās hit issue 20: Does it feel like a watershed for you? Itās lasted a lot longer than a lot of other anthologies.
ERIC REYNOLDS: Yeah, exactly. Iāve been playing with the page count on one of the issues, and Iāve realized weāve published well over 2,000 pages of comics. Thatās impressive to me; not that quantity means anything, but for an alternative comics anthology, thatās pretty good, I guess. [Laughs.] I canāt think of too many that have gone longer. Dark Horse Presents, or something, but I donāt think that counts.
MAUTNER: There arenāt many. Zap comics lasted through several decades, but didnāt publish as much.
REYNOLDS: Yeah, exactly: It took 20-some years to get there and there were 16 issues of Zap, each about 32 pages.
MAUTNER: When you and Gary started Mome, the idea was very specifically to give new and emerging artists the chance to be seen by a wider audience. Also to give them the chance to be published regularly and to have a platform where they could hone their craft. Do you still see that as being the driving force of Mome, or has that changed at all in the years since?
REYNOLDS: Itās definitely changed. I donāt think that specific purpose has changed that much. Thatās still, by and large, the reason for it. But, the way weāve gone about it has definitely changed. Gary and I had this fairly concrete idea of having a fixed collective of artists, not unlike Zap, who would be in every single issue, and that totally went out the window fairly early on. That became very clearly an untenable ā a little too rigid of an M.O. So that part of it has changed. But the general idea, and the general interest for myself in doing it, hasnāt really changed.
MAUTNER: Why didnāt that work out? Was it just that the artists didnāt produce on a regular ā or found other projects, and things like that?
REYNOLDS: A combination of both. When Mome first started, I think the first issue was in 2005?
REYNOLDS: So, the first issue came out in the spring or summer of 2005, but weād actually conceived the anthology a good year, to a year-and-a-half before that. And I canāt remember what year it was. It must have been 2004. Gary and I arranged a little summit meeting in one of our hotel rooms, where we gathered a bunch of the cartoonists that we were approaching. I think Gabrielle Bell was there, and Jeffrey Brown, and Anders Nilsen ā¦ I canāt even remember who else was all there. I think Sophie Crumb was there. I think there were a couple of cartoonists who ended up not even being in the anthology who were there. I almost want to say Kevin Huizenga, but I couldnāt swear by it because itās been so long at this point. We all met and decided, āOK, weāre going to do this.ā
And then it was a weird time, because literally in that year between that meeting and when that first issue came out, a number of doors opened for a number of those cartoonists. And Jeffrey Brown was suddenly putting out books for Top Shelf and Chronicle and for whomever else. So, basically some of them just couldnāt sustain a quarterly deadline of Mome, given what else had come onto their plate. Which was fine: It just made us recalibrate a bit.
To be perfectly honest, if I could go back and do it all over again, I wouldnāt have given us such a rigid template to work with, because some of my favorite issues of the series have come together much more organically and coincidentally. I tend to work pretty loosely as far as issue āto-issue goes. I donāt have a hard list of contents for each issue until virtually days before weāre going to press. I keep a lot of stuff in the works and just juggle it all. Depending on who meets the deadlines and who doesnāt, it tends to be in a little bit of a state of flux all the way up till the very end of the process. And I like that, because it allows for some last-minute surprises to come in, so Iāll be more immediately excited. I like to be able to run something on fairly short notice if it suits my mood.
MAUTNER: I remember the comparison being made to The Paris Review ā that Mome wanted to offer a very specific counterpoint. The idea of being something completely different from what Kramerās Ergot or what some of the anthologies out there at the time were offering. I hate the word ā because it gets bandied about ābut a literary kind of sensibility, focusing more on storytelling. Is that something you are still conscious of?
REYNOLDS: Yeah, I think so. My own inclinations, as far as what I like in comics, I think, have become the overriding impulse for me as opposed to specifically adhering to a type of story or a type of storytelling. But that said, I tend to favor stuff that has a fair level of craft, so that the craft can effectively communicate the ideas that the artist has as a writer. The idea with Mome in the beginning was to focus on short fiction that had an emphasis on storytelling and told concrete stories, whether they were fiction or nonfiction. But I definitely had a conservative ideal there. And it was mostly just because I felt like that was a void that needed to be filled. There was plenty of avant-gardeish, experimental stuff, much of which I really love, and continue to love to this day, but I felt that was becoming the dominant mode of short stories in art-comics or literary comics. I wanted to have something that bridged a gap, was a little less surreal or dada or experimental or whatever than something like Kramerās: just something that was a little more conventional.
The whole idea of comparing it to The Paris Review or McSweeneyās or anything like that: That was more or less a marketing conceit. It was trying to have it both ways in regard to the way that the books were physically sold and racked in bookstores, as far as Iād hoped that it might get some penetration into bookstores that had newsstands that sold literary reviews like The Paris Review or The Virginia Quarterly Review or McSweeneyās. But, at the same time, stores that wanted rack it with comics and graphic novels, that was fine too; I was just trying to have it a little bit of both ways.
MAUTNER: Did that work out for you at all? Were you able to get that kind of audience?
REYNOLDS: Well, I donāt think it worked out as well as I had originally hoped. It worked out OK in some cases. I know of a number of stores that wereā Elliot Bay Books, which is one of the great bookstores in the country, I think ā they were racking the new issues face-out in the newsstand next to those journals I mentioned, but then archiving the previous issues spine-out in the comics section. And that was really ultimately what I was I hoping for. And I honestly couldnāt tell you how many stores ultimately racked it that way, but I gather probably not as many as I ideally would have hoped for. It was probably a little idealistic on my part to begin with.
MAUTNER: Nothing wrong with that.
Since you started Mome, it seems like thereās been this blowback, and itās something that annoys me, actually, but I want to address it ā which is this idea that what typifies the contemporary āliterary comicā are these navel-gazing, autobiographical, confessional, whiny stories. And Mome, I think, unfairly to a large extent, got the brunt of the criticism because of some of the contributors and the literary goals of the anthology. I donāt agree with the criticism, but I just wanted to put it out there.
REYNOLDS: Well, I donāt know what to say really. Iād have to go back and take a hard look at the first issues to see if I even remotely could give that criticism any merit. I definitely donāt think for the last several issues that thatās been the case. The 19th issue, the one with Josh Simmonsā cover, is undoubtedly my favorite issue so far. Iād be hard-pressed to find anything in there that fit that specific criticism of alt-comics. In fact, thatās one of the things that I like about it; itās definitely the issue that reflects my own personal taste the most. My own taste, while I donāt necessarily have anything against those ānavel-gazingā comics, my own tastes tend to veer elsewhere. Iām a big fan of the transgressive qualities of the great ā in the tradition of underground comics, and, as goofy as it sounds, I enjoy comics that just excite me and are fun to me.
MAUTNER: I like Gabrielle Bellās work and Jonathan Bennettās work and the idea that their stuff is dull or solipsistic is risible to me ā But from the beginning you were serializing Wally Gropius and ā
REYNOLDS: Right. Well, even Gabrielle and Jonathan Bennett, I donāt see them in that quiet, nothing-happens navel-gazing category. Theyāre both very different. For me, thereās actually a lot of exciting, engaging things going on in their comics that might not be immediately perceptible in a very quick reading of the work. Gabrielle has this amazing magic-realist quality to her work even though it tends to be fairly quiet in terms of the action thatās going on. But sheās got a very literary quality where thereās a lot of subtext to the work beyond just the actual plot of the story. And Jonathan is just a phenomenal craftsman; such an interesting thinker in terms of the way he solves his storytelling and constructs his page. As a fan of cartooning, thereās just so much going on in even his one-pagers that they really excite me. Heās one of the people that I wish was doing more comics right now. Iād publish him in every single issue of Mome if he could meet the deadline.
All images are Ā© their respective artists.