Puzzle Pieces: Mome #18

Posted by on July 2nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Eric Reynolds, ed., Various; Fantagraphics; 112 pp., $14.99, Softcover, Color; ISBN: 978-1606993033

The difference between a mediocre anthology and a good one is being a strong enough editor to cull out weak material that distracts from great work.  The difference between a good anthology and a great one is an editor who manages to find a way, without leaning on themes, to select material that is complementary and that is arranged in a way that allows the anthology to go from strength to strength.  The Eric Reynolds-edited anthology Mome has an increased degree of difficulty in maintaining quality, because it is published two or three issues a year, and runs several serials in each issue.

Mome was originally conceived as a showcase for a particular set of young cartoonists, with many of them running their own serials from issue to issue.  Reynolds has done an amazing job of balancing serials with a variety of single-page strips and one-shots.  Expanding Mome to include translations from international cartooning stars, short works from established cartoonists and left-field contributions from illustrators not known in the comics world have kept things interesting on an issue-to-issue basis.  The eccentricity of Reynolds’ taste as an editor has been another major factor in preventing Mome from getting into a rut.  That said, Vol. 17 was burdened by a number of serial installments that didn’t complement each other and some weaker shorter works.  While there was plenty to like, it was a fractured experience where the whole was certainly not greater than the sum of its parts.

Vol. 18 is a return to form in terms of its content, with only a couple of weak entries.  The serials, for the most part, are far less intrusive in this issue.  The main problem with the issue is the story-to-story flow.  The material in this issue is so all over the place that story transitions frequently feel jarring and strange, especially in the latter half of the volume.  Going from the noir naturalism of Tim Lane to the minimalist slice-of-life humor of Nicolas Mahler to the McCay-inspired fantasy of Conor O’Keefe feels awkward, even if the individual stories are good.   Simply put, Reynolds had some pieces that simply wouldn’t fit together, but he couldn’t resist trying.

©2010 Nate Neal
That said, this issue of Mome is a fine overall read, and the first half is especially spectacular.  Nate Neal anchors the book with a suite of stories that feel like a companion piece to his first work in Mome, one that was as much an artist’s commentary on comics as it was a set of stories themselves.  “The Neurotic Nexus Of Creation” starts with a tired-but-determined set of scathing gags about hipsters, making up for what it lacked in inspiration with remarkable detail.  We then see an image of the artist as a sort of diagram/editorial cartoon, laying out his inspirations and demons in a self-deprecating (one might say self-flagellating) manner.  With Neal, it’s sometimes hard to tell when he’s dead serious and when he’s engaging in satire.  There are times when he seems to be doing both at once.  “Nate’s Mood” and “The Plight Of The Pleebs” can be read as both sincere efforts at abstract expressionism and political allegory, respectively.  At the same time, Neal’s self-portrait keeps poking at his own work while hoping for success and praise.

©2010 Dave Cooper
Neal’s section is the perfect introduction for a set of stories that veer from the garish to the surreal.  Lilli Carre’s “A New Leaf” borrows a few ideas from John Hankiewicz’s work in terms of the way she uses odd character designs and angles and absurdist imagery.  She combines that imagery with the longing and sense of displacement that so frequently pervades her stories. After the “cool” imagery of Carre’, there’s a Dave Cooper-illustrated story that’s mostly graytone with subtle infusions of red.  It’s an over-the-top bit of silliness about a couple of Cooper grotesqueries that go to France, meet Moebius and have hallucinations of being Tintin while meeting Nicolas Sarkozy.  Mome is a perfect vehicle for stories like this: one-offs by cartooning giants who don’t have a regular venue for publishing them.

Mome Vol. 18 then goes from grayscale spoof to the latest bit of pink/yellow/purple Cold Heat weirdness from Ben Jones, Frank Santoro and Jon Vermilyea.  There may well be a master plot to the various Cold Heat shorts in Mome, but they work just fine as short-burst bits of weirdness involving aliens, indy rock and demon summoning.  French artist Ivan Brun’s muted palette fit snugly after Cold Heat‘s in-your-face color attack in a story about the way a gun managed to continuously bring hope to and rip apart the lives of the desperately poor.  The section came to an effective end with a ridiculous Joe Daly “Burrow World” story that employed a number of the same roleplaying-game tropes he used in Dungeon Quest.  His work is sort of a stoner Hergé, or a genre-oriented Gilbert Shelton by way of Gary Gygax.  Daly’s intense hatching shoves the reader face-first into his setting in a sequence made all the more powerful after being thrust into several other strange worlds.

©2010 Nicolas Mahler
After that flawless beginning, where each story locks into the next without a seam, this issue of Mome starts to fracture.  The transition to the next loopy segment of the new Ted Stearn serial makes sense in terms of content if not aesthetics, but the stripped-down scribbles of Mahler feel like they belong in a different anthology.  They’re all amusing autobiographical anecdotes, and his big-nosed self-caricature is a truly inspired drawing that makes me laugh just to look at it, but these gently sardonic autobio shorts make no sense sandwiched around Tim Lane’s nihilistic noir story.

©2010 Tim Lane
That said, Lane’s become a go-to guy for any anthology he happens to appear in.  There’s a clear Ditko influence in that Lane goes for a decidedly unheroic naturalism in his character design, yet is willing to engage in an almost grotesque expressionism when it comes time to reveal the fates of his doomed protagonists.  “The Passenger” also has the feel of an EC story minus the twist ending, as the protagonist tells his tale in flashback, knowing full well of his inability to act. Following Lane with the latest bit of Conor O’Keefe’s beautifully crafty whimsy is almost perverse, as though Reynolds had run out of transitions that made sense in the issue and so decided to go with the weirdest segue possible.  In that same spirit, following O’Keefe with the second episode of the Michael Jada/Derek Van Gieson serial “Devil Doll” is every bit as strange.  While anything Van Gieson draws in his murky, smudged style is always interesting to look at, this serial seems wholly unsuited for Mome.  I’m not sure if it’s a supernatural story, a “horrors of war” story or something in between, but the cliched dialogue and overall tediousness of the pace bring the lagging momentum of this issue to a halt.

©2010 Michael Jada/Derek Van Gieson
Happily, the issue rallies with the latest installment of T. Edward Bak’s account of Russian naturalist Georg Steller.  “Wild Man” is the model of how to serialize a larger story in a way that draws the reader in from issue to issue, even if they haven’t read previous installments.  First off, Bak’s use of white line on black backgrounds gives his comics a distinctive look.  Second, he manages to make each chapter a unique, approachable entity of its own, allowing a casual reader to enjoy any chapter while still forming part of a greater whole.  Third, his use of color is especially interesting and part of a greater trend in Mome.  The transition between white on black to two pages of ornithological drawings on a distinctly white background speaks to both a bold aesthetic choice and a way of illustrating the way Steller saw the world of nature.  The choice of a midnight blue wash for the rest of the story brings out mood in depicting Steller interacting with friends and his future wife as well as highlighting the harshness of the Russian winter.  The deeper Bak goes into his depiction of the life of Steller, the more exquisitely harsh and beautiful it becomes.

©2010 T. Edward Bak
Renee French follows that with another haunting chapter of “Almost Sound,” an entry that actually provides a great deal of backstory for a story that only hinted at why the young child was crying in a bizarre oceanside city.  French is another example of an artist with a unique visual approach that enables the reader to enjoy each chapter as a discrete entity; in her case, it’s a distinctly intense stippling style.  The issue concludes with a dose of weirdness from Jon Adams that’s a mix of naturalistic character design, a deep and rich color palette, and a sense of humor that’s part non sequitur and part grotesque.

That story didn’t just reveal Reynolds’ willingness to push the envelope as Mome‘s editor, it also displayed an affinity for the kind of uncensored explorations one used to see in the classic ’80s anthology WeirdoWeirdo and Raw, as the flagship anthologies of the ’80s, represented wild, unfettered exploration vs a more considered, refined and intellectual approach.  Mome started off a bit more like Raw in terms of being slightly more literary in an attempt to draw in a wider book-buying audience, but has since taken more risks in terms of content.  The results have been uneven and not something you might want to see in every issue (like an Adams story), but when they pay off, they pay off big (like with Bak).  At this point, I’d like to see Reynolds get even bolder in terms of story selection, backing off on serials unless they have a specific issue-to-issue appeal.  Balancing the tidal wave of submissions must be a difficult task, but I think the more that Reynolds follows his instincts, the more interesting Mome can become.

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