Scattered: Rob Clough reviews Mome Vol. 17

Posted by on February 15th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Rob reviews volume 17 of Fantagraphics’ flagship anthology, Mome, edited by Eric Reynolds & Gary Groth.

At a guess, I’d have to say that Mome #17 must have been a very difficult issue to put together.  That’s because there were an unusually large number of serials in this issue in various stages of completion.  For a casual reader, or even someone who hadn’t followed the serials closely, this undoubtedly made this issue a fairly baffling experience.  The other problem with this volume was that the interstitial material wasn’t quite as interesting as usual.  Despite those problems, there was still a number of strong stories to be found here, and a number of rewards to be gained by those who were following serials like Paul Hornschemeier’s “Life With Mr. Dangerous” or the second chapters of the stories done by Renee French and Ted Stearn.

I had long wondered just where Hornschemeier was taking his story about a sad-sack department store clerk with a pop-culture obsession on a TV cartoon show.  The protagonist, Amy, had been depicted as incapable of expressing her feelings toward her best friend, a man who had moved across the country.  She also found it difficult to relate to her mother, as expressed in the reaction to the ridiculous birthday present she received from her.  The serial had been one, long downward spiral up until the long, concluding segment in this issue.

The central theme of the story had been one of watching vs. doing, passivity vs. activity.  That played out in the way Amy obsessed over the “Mr. Dangerous” cartoon show as a substitute for activity, and also in the way she created intricate figurines related to the show that would have a special meaning for the man she was in love with.  That flipped the passivity of Amy’s life (floating from one situation to the next without allowing herself to connect to others) into true activity, when she accidentally found a message her friend had hidden for her in a toy he had made.  From there, Hornschemeier connected the dots rather cleanly: Amy wore the ridiculous rainbow sweater her mother gave her, she stood up for herself at her dead-end job, and she hopped on a plane.  When the story is collected I’ll revisit some of the imagery, but I was impressed with the way Hornschemeier brought the story to a satisfying conclusion.

In terms of the longer stories that weren’t serials, I was most impressed with Dash Shaw and Tom Kaczynski’s collaboration, “Resolution.”  Shaw drew it and I presume they collaborated on the story, because it’s an interesting hybrid of the slightly distant and vaguely dystopian city stories that Kaczynski writes and the offbeat and emotionally centered science fiction Shaw has been interested in of late.  Concerning a world where most everyone lived in virtual space, the story hung at a transition point as the society was about to switch to a new system that would create a larger virtual space completely indistinguishable from reality.  The slightly corrupted resolution in this world led to a number of people checking back into the harsh conditions of the real world.  Things unsurprisingly went horribly wrong, encapsulated in the breakdown of a particular husband-wife relationship.  The visual and verbal puns in this story, combined with fuzzy color that served the parameters of the story rather snugly, helped it work both as a serious examination of perception coloring reality and a winking series of nods toward sci-fi (as the crossed-out “For Heavy Metal” at the beginning of the story clued us in).

Olivier Schrauwen’s brand of lunacy has been a particularly delightful discovery for me in Mome, and his “Congo Chrome” didn’t fail to live up to his earlier stories.  A silent story about two men on safari, we met a corpulent and obnoxious hunter and his slender and nervous friend as they negotiated killer hippos, vicious swarms of ants, and vengeance-seeking monkeys.  There’s something about the way that Schrauwen used his color palette to create an almost-sickly reality on the page that put me off-balance as a reader.  It allowed him to depict any event and have it fit into the context of the story, like heads swelling up like balloons in moments of shock.  It was interesting to see the main characters cycle through the extremes of their personalities until the end, when they both shared  a moment of stillness.

On the other hand, the collaboration between Michael Jada and Derek Van Gieson felt like something that would have appeared in a Vertigo anthology 15 years ago.  Van Giesen’s blotchy and scribbly art made great use of shadow and then flipped over effectively to red during a flashback.  As always, it’s interesting to look at.  Unfortunately, the story was a pile of well-worn war cliches invoking the specter of zombies and a certain kind of madness.

The shorter and interstitial pieces in this issue were mostly forgettable.  Rick Froberg’s pen-and-ink illustrations had some interesting compositional qualities but didn’t really draw in my eye.  There was a weird slickness to them and a too on-the-nose character to the captions that had me quickly turning to the next page.  Laura Park’s strip about the folks she saw on the bus felt like a piece quickly done for a deadline.  While it was beautifully drawn, as always, it lacked the charm and innovative page design that we had seen from her in earlier issues of Mome.  The same felt true for Josh Simmons’ one-pager — the non sequitur quality of this page was unfortunately paired with Bak’s story.  Unfortunate because they used similar color schemes (black page, bright colors), and I initially thought Simmons’ story was a bizarre left turn of Bak’s.

The more successful short pieces came from Van Gieson and Sara Edward-Corbett.  The former had a one-pager built on a single joke based on a horrible image.  The latter had yet another stunningly beautiful strip, this time involving an aquatic animal blundering its way through its environment and winding up on land, only to suffer an indignity thanks to some birds.  The intricacy of her figures and her bold use of color stood out and were a perfect palette cleanser after several pages of murky figures from Van Gieson.

With regard to the other continuing serials, it was a delight to see a new chapter of “Nothing Eve” from Kurt Wolfgang, one of the few Mome originals who’s still contributing.  Both protagonist and the creator are both taking their time walking through the last night of the world.  I loved the character’s walk down the street he grew up on as he time-slips through his own memories.  That sense of one’s memories being a living thing and existing side-by-side with one’s current experiences—whether you want them or not—was powerfully evoked by Wolfgang’s thick but expressive line.

Renee French’s “Almost Sound” was every bit as evocative, as the child we met was obsessed with a sea creature and desired nothing else but to be taken by it.  The heavily stippled figures of French were nicely set off by a wide use of negative space.  The only problem was that the rhythm of French’s strip has not been done any favors by the way it’s been serialized.  With just six pages in this issue and a few in the prior issue, the sense of atmosphere that French created simply didn’t work as well broken up in this way.  I’m not sure how many installments this story will wind up being, but it  would work so much more effectively in 20-page chunks. The second chapter of Ted Stearn’s new Fuzz and Pluck story was typically brutal and hilarious.  Stearn is a master of depicting horrible idiots, and we got enough of a chunk of story to be satisfying.

Finally, the second chapter of T. Edward Bak’s biographical strip about the explorer and naturalist Georg Steller was another stunner.  The transition he made from his white-lines-on-black-pages about the history of St. Petersburg to the orange-soaked autumn of Steller’s youth was remarkable.  The composition of the next page, which depicted Steller’s growing obsession with the flora and fauna of other parts of the world, was beautifully split across the lines of seasons yet again, drawing the eye from orange to blue-black to green.  The first page of the autumnal interlude was another masterful piece of composition, as the text described Steller’s difficult birth (he was thought to be stillborn until an insistent neighbor coaxed a cry out of him) and was matched against autumn’s nature as a time of beautiful decay.  The way images played across panels to create larger compositions and then were broken up in other panels made for a powerful transition.  That’s especially true when one considers how bleak the first chapter of this story was.  The meticulousness of Bak’s research combined with his warmth as a storyteller (especially the scenes with young Steller and his mother) instantly drew the reader into the narrative.

Overall, this felt like another transitional issue of Mome.  I think the editors struggled a bit in trying to make all of the parts fit in a way that made sense, especially in terms of balancing the various serials.  The length of the concluding chapter of Hornschemeier’s story threw the balance of the issue a bit out of whack, especially since it was the first story in the book.  Mome tends to be at its strongest with just one or two serials per issue, along with one longer (but self-contained story) and several 8-15 page stories.  The next issue is supposed to feature Dave Cooper, Nicolas Mahler and Joe Daly, and all three artists are quite adept at striking short stories.  It’s undoubtedly exciting to try to create a big anthology of new work three times a year with pretty much no restrictions at this point, but not having the editorial anchor of the original group must make the actual assembly of each issue a daunting task.

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One Response to “Scattered: Rob Clough reviews Mome Vol. 17”

  1. Dries says:

    Thanks for the review. I particularly liked the Olivier Schrauwen story. (the tag should be Olivier Schrauwen not Schwauren)