Contributors: Jonathan Bennett, Emile Bravo, Al Columbia, Sophie Crumb, Eleanor Davis, Ray Fenwick, Gary Groth, Paul Hornschemeier, Tom Kaczynski, Joe Kimball, Lewis Trondheim
Review by Patrick Markfort
First of all, let me say that I am in complete agreement with Chris Butcher’s recent comments regarding Mome. Fantagraphics nearly quarterly anthology does indeed seem sometimes adrift without a clear editorial purpose holding things together, resulting in a sometimes baffling mix of content. However, this rarely prevents the book from presenting itself as an attractive package with mostly solid offerings, as indeed it does in this, the latest installment.
Eleanor Davis, who made her Mome debut in the previous issue with the frankly exceptional short story “Seven Sacks,” is the star attraction here, providing the cover and incidental drawings, as well as another excellent short, “Stick and String,” about a man who charms a strange woman he encounters in the forest with his music. When I describe the woman as “strange,” I mean that she appears to not be altogether human. She sports antlers and an elongated, horse-like face, and appears to have little knowledge of the human world. The man’s presence, and particularly the music he creates, seem to draw out her humanity, and the two of them share a night of intimacy. The story is only twelve pages long, and contains little dialogue. The man “speaks” to the woman primarily through his instrument, the sounds represented as “zumm zum” by Davis on the page. Like “Seven Sacks,” this story is a simple one, simply told, but one which resonates with depths of meaning, primarily because of Davis’ astonishing level of craft. Her cartooning, to my eye, is similar to that of Sammy Harkham. I was reminded particularly of his terrific comic book Crickets, where a similarly proportioned protagonist (overweight, general soft and scruffy appearance) encounters a strange being in the wilderness. Davis’ coloring here is extraordinary, utilizing a kind of brown or burnt orange to great effect.
I also really, really enjoyed Gary Groth’s interview with Davis. She comes across as being as bright and thoughtful as you would expect from reading her comics. I especially liked her description of her home life growing up (liberal parents who themselves had a great enthusiasm for comics), and her thoughts on her education at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Other highlights this issue include a couple of Mome debuts: Ray Fenwick contributes a few visually inventive one page gags which are all, to some degree, funny, and Joe Kimball, whose “Hide and Watch Me” calls to mind the artwork of Charles Burns, only in the service of even more bizarre and surreal material, may not have completely won me over, but as his first published work it’s pretty impressive, at least on a visual level. Both of these guys are definitely ones to watch.
I suppose the big “draw” this issue is the conclusion of Lewis Trondheim’s “At Loose Ends,” his sketchbook free-form visual essay working out his thoughts on growing older and the ways in which cartoonists age generally. I quite liked this work. The subject matter is interesting, Trondheim’s line work is confident and lovely, and a nice window onto the world of European cartooning is provided. Plus, a handy appendix!
Let’s see, what else? Al Columbia does his thing in a short story I would ruin by describing, other than to say that it is a delightfully crude and perfectly executed gag. Fans of the cartoonist won’t be disappointed. I liked Emile Bravo’s piece quite a bit, in which the same visual sequence is presented twice, with different dialogue casting an identical sequence of panels in a different light each time. The result is a kind of parody of 50’s America that is at times laugh-out-loud funny. As always, Jonathan Bennett provides a nice, understated short about a man waiting for and riding the subway that you would expect to come across as an embodiment of the worst, navel-gazing clichés of the alt-comix scene, but which instead delights thanks to Bennett’s solid craftsmanship and expert sense of pacing.
As with almost any anthology, not every contribution here works. I hate to say it, but Sophie Crumb is always a bit of a sore spot for me. It’s not that she is completely devoid of talent, but her skills, to my eye, are not up to the level of her Mome peers, and her contributions can’t help but suffer by comparison. I remember being interested in Tom Kaczynski’s “10,000 Years” while I was reading it, although I’ll be damned if I can really remember what it’s about now, and I’m not sure I would have done any better had I been asked to summarize it five minutes after having read it. I’m not sure why that is, and it may just be me. Also, Paul Hornschemeier’s “Life with Mr. Dangerous,” now in its sixth installment, is just sort of plodding along, isn’t it? There’s no reason to think this serial won’t eventually take an interesting turn and become a very nice graphic novel, and I’ve certainly enjoyed work from the artist in the past, but, yeah, I’m afraid it just comes across as dull here.
Final verdict: There’s a lot more good here than bad, and, in my opinion, this volume may be worth seeking out for Eleanor Davis’ contributions alone. Her work fulfills what had, at least at one point, been Mome’s mission statement (I think), of bringing the work of young, talented cartoonists to the attention of a literate audience, with an eye on fostering and encouraging that talent with a forum that flatters their abilities and challenges them to hone their craft. You know, I think I kind of just made that up, but I sort of hope Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth are reading this.