For Your Consideration: MOME from Fantagraphics
By Chris Beckett
Steven Grant has called it the best alternative comics anthology being produced today. With creators as diverse as Gabrielle Bell, Jim Woodring, Anders Nilsen, David Heatley, Jeffrey Brown, and others, MOME is one of the few books working consistently to push the boundaries of the medium while offering a platform for many of tomorrow’s renowned artists today. Come in and see what you’ve been missing, or become reacquainted with one of the best books out there right now.
Edited by Gary Groth and Eric Reynolds
120-136 pages $14.95
What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):
Despite comic books having been published for decades, it could be said the medium is still in its infancy. Dominated by adolescent power fantasies with the plethora of superhero books flooding the market, the maturity and diversity of subjects that should so readily be available within this artform – although growing –still accounts for the merest fraction of books offered each month. Despite having made many strides in recent years, built upon the struggles of master storytellers like Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Spain Rodriguez, Will Eisner, R. Crumb, Steve Ditko and others, the boundaries of the medium still seem terribly constricting. These giants of the field wished to create lasting monuments to the artform, something that wasn’t just throw-away fodder for young boys but could be enjoyed by adults as well. Working within corporate parameters – or outside of them as Crumb, Spain, and others did – they expanded the possibilities of comics as much as they were able, lighting a path for the creators of today. Thanks to the work of creators such as these, comics – and the more permanent format of graphic novels – are now a more accepted aspect of the literary landscape. But none of this would be possible if artists were not afforded an opportunity to experiment, to be given the chance to fail, but fail while aspiring to something better. One of the places where readers can witness comic artists experimenting and working to break new ground within the medium is the quarterly anthology from Fantagraphics – MOME.
Since its first published issue in Summer 2005, MOME has been a haven for readers seeking out new and exciting storytelling within the comics medium. Known as a publisher committed to quality, Fantagraphics includes in its catalog Los Bros Hernandez’s Love & Rockets, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, and reprints of George Herriman’s Krazy & Ignatz and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts among many others. It is well known that publisher/editor Gary Groth wants to offer only literate, thought-provoking comics that will challenge readers and their expectations of what “comics” can be. With the expanding acceptance of graphic novels within the wider literary world, this is one of the very few books exhibiting the myriad possibilities of this medium.
Some of the more experimental offerings within MOME have come from Anders Nilsen. One significant example is found in the second volume, published in Fall 2005. Titled “Event,” Nilsen takes readers through fourteen pages of repercussions threading out from an initial event of “What you said you would do” and the resultant failure to follow through on that statement. An understated comic narrative, Nilsen’s use of variously hued squares – representing at times the reasons for not doing this, time spent working to correct damage done, and the number of people affected, as well as most other aspects of the story – this tale resonates more than it might if he had created a “typical” comic. By utilizing images that are symbolic rather than representative and leaving said event unstated, Nilsen tacitly invites his audience into the story, almost forcing them to imprint their own memories of grief upon it, making the reader an active participant within the story. It is a wonderful example of how one’s expectations of comics can be overturned and utilized to create something more powerful.
These experiments with the form by artists like Nilsen, John Pham, and Martin Cendreda are given equal time beside the more traditional storytelling of Paul Hornschemeier’s “Life with Mr. Dangerous,” a serialized tale from the creator of Mother, Come Home, and that of Andrice Arp. It makes for an interesting mix of stories each time one reads a copy of MOME. Also offered within each volume is a creator interview conducted by Gary Groth. Known for his comprehensive interviews in The Comics Journal, Groth offers readers a window into the minds and creative journeys of these artists.
MOME is a book that showcases “indy” veterans like Jeffrey Brown and Jim Woodring, while also giving newer cartoonists such as Gabrielle Bell and Sophie Crumb a platform for their own storytelling, allowing them to learn their craft while offering readers a window into their artistic evolution. It is rare to find such an eclectic variety of not only storytelling approaches but artistic styles within the covers of a single book, but MOME provides this every time. Some might shy away from such wide diversity, but it is this “adventure into the unknown” that draws readers to a book such as this. Offering a window into the human spirit, the stories within each volume of MOME challenge readers with comics that carry more literary “heft” than the typical fare, and that is something to be applauded.
An Interview with Gary Groth:
Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?
GROTH: I started reading them as a kid, so what initially attracted me were probably the pretty colors and spectacular stories of outsized characters. Now, it's how the medium can succeed at achieving genuine artistry; that's what it's all about as far as I'm concerned, how this hybrid form of words and pictures interprets life.
What was the inspiration for MOME, and why create a new anthology if the general consensus states that “anthologies don’t sell?”
GROTH: Successfully publishing Peanuts finally gave us a respite from running a million miles an hour just to stay afloat, and the space to think, and one of the things I'd wanted to do was to publish cartoonists of the latest generation that we'd been neglecting for half a decade. It's true that anthologies are a tough sell —or so it's been our experience— but if you play it right, you can publish one and not lose your shirt on it. They're important because they can be a showcase for the kind of artists who aren't prolific enough to establish a "brand" name and the anthology itself can create a unique energy around the ensemble — think of the best anthologies, Zap, Weirdo, Raw, and they were always greater than the sum of their parts. That's what we hoped to accomplish with MOME.
Other than the obvious – write and draw good stories – what is it that you look for in the stories included in MOME?
GROTH: I should point out that there are two editors of MOME— Eric Reynolds and myself. I can speak for myself and I can speak in broad and general terms, and even though our respective tastes overlap considerably, I'm sure Eric has his own take on this. The problem with answering this question, which is always asked, is that any answer sounds obvious and generic. That said, what I look for is an interpretation of the world, using all the tools and tricks and vocabulary of the medium to most imaginative advantage. The canvas can be minute and interior—as in Jonathan Bennett's work— or vast and politicized—as in Tom Kaczynski's stories. What's important is that the artist has a take on the world, realized with a degree of artistry. And that's different in kind than merely explicating or describing or transcribing the world as he sees it or understands it — it's different than journalism or sociology— because the imagination can get at something deeper or stranger or off-kilter in a way that a straight recitation of facts can't. Personally, I also look for potential, so it doesn't have to be an artist whose vision is necessarily fully formed, but someone who has that touch of insight and ought to be encouraged and cultivated — so, in a way, MOME is like an ongoing laboratory experiment.
Fantagraphics has solicited for the tenth volume of MOME, which leads one to believe that this has been a successful venture for the company. To what would you attribute the success of MOME?
GROTH: Consistency has been helpful — both qualitatively and periodically. I think we've proved that we can edit a thoughtful, interesting, diverse collection of comics that comes out almost four times a year and that this is something several thousand readers can look forward to.
Regarding the medium, comics seems to be at a tipping point where many companies are trying to figure out how to feasibly continue publishing single issues while also chasing the burgeoning book market that has opened up in recent years. Add into that the online market – specifically webcomics and illegal downloads of print books – and it appears that publishers need to be working toward a new business model. How is all of this impacting Fantagraphics, and where do you see the medium moving in the next few years?
GROTH: I hate this question because I don't know the answer. Right now, we spend most of our time concentrating on the 40-50 books we publish a year. I don't think books are going away but I do think they'll be augmented with different and varied delivery systems and that we have to keep up with those, whatever they turn out to be — paid downloads, digital books, whatever. I truly love books, the feel and the weight of them, their relative permanence (as distinct from digital files, which disintegrate in x-number of years); I suspect they'll be around at least as long as I am. After that, it’s my son's problem.
What future projects from Fantagraphics would you encourage fans to be watching for?
GROTH: In about a month, a gigantic 12 pound, 700-page monster will hit the bookstores: Willie & Joe: The WWII Years, the complete collection of Bill Mauldin's World Wart II cartoons — about half of which have never been reprinted since their initial printing in places like The Daily Oklahoman and Stars & Stripes. It took a year to put together and I'm pretty proud of it. Right now, I'm working on the Complete Humbug and have mobilized half my office to help — Jason Miles, Paul Berash, and Jacob Covey, who are all involved in organizing various elements of printed and original art, and designing the book. Humbug, you may not recall, was the 1957-58 satirical magazine published and owned by the artists themselves — Harvey Kurtzman, Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee, Bill Elder, and Jack Davis. It will include a 16,000 word interview with Arnold and Al conducted by John Benson, and other explanatory text. Another 2-volume set in a slipcase (like the Mauldin book). Our big, hardcover, career retrospective of Steve Ditko will be out in about two months: biographical text by Blake Bell and more top flight Ditko from the '50s to the '90s than you've ever seen in one place, beautifully designed by Adam Grano. Dash Shaw's 720 page family epic, Bottomless Belly Button, one of the most impressive graphic novels it's been my privilege to read, will be out in about a month. Josh Simmons slightly smaller, 96-page Jessica Farm will also be out in a month (or less).