By Beatrice Smigasiewicz
As part of a project to help readers rediscover their online archive, the Poetry Foundation’s Ed Park turned to Chicago cartoonist Paul Hornschemeier. What followed was a two-page comic rendition of Ted Kooser’s poem, “The Giant Slide,” which felt oddly at home in Hornschemeier’s rendition of the poem. “There was something about the aching Midwestern nostalgia in there… something I feel when I’m traveling home to southern Ohio, the graying asphalt cutting through rust-and-mustard-hued fields…I could see the whole cartoon as I was reading the poem,” says Hornschemeier.
It’s not the first time a comic-book artist invites such collaboration but Hornschemeier’s style seems particularly open to it. Both illustrious and emotional in content he manages to remain immensely conceptual and visually grounded. He avoids self-indulgent sentimentality by keeping his drawing style flat and stark, and with a few exceptions he uses only muted colors. There is a kind of language quality to his drawings that read like the subtle degrees of expressions and gestures you can only register on faces of people you know well.
His 2003 debut included a somber coming-of-age allegory that centered around an 8-year-old boy who loses grasp on reality after his mothers death in, “Mother, Come Home.” A subsequent book project, “The Three Paradoxes” outlines a nostalgic visit home that’s interrupted by intersecting narratives that dwell—similar to Kooser’s poem—on the paradox of the passing of time. Though Hornschemeier himself will say that he doesn’t set out to write dark or brooding books, “I just think there’s something about doing longer, sustained narratives that causes one to become introspective and draw on things deeper within themselves: bigger questions, darker elements in their own persona or thoughts,” adding that “people are routinely surprised to find that in person I joke around all the time and am obsessed with comedy: they think that I must walk around in a constant fog of philosophical conundrums and Weltschmerz.”
Over the last years, Hornschemeier’s comic, which he started working on in his early twenties, “Life with Mr. Dangerous,” has slowly been trickling into the comics anthology Mome. Like his previous book projects, the story centers on the psychological development of the protagonists. Amy, loosely based on stories Hornschemeier has heard from people working retail, is a retail clerk in her mid-twenties who escapes her mundane routine by withdrawing into a cartoon show called “Mr. Dangerous.” “I wanted to write a story about that strange time between your early twenties and whatever adulthood is supposed to be. When you’ve embraced reality by getting a job, renting an apartment, getting a cat or a dog or a car or a fern—but you don’t really know who you are yet. Her job pays her bills, but it’s not her. She’s stopped making art; she’s lying to herself about her feelings. But she’s trying, she’s progressing toward that nameless something, and the book chronicles that progress.” Unlike any of his previous book projects, it’s a fairly straightforward reading. Part of this is due to the fact that it’s been broken into comprehensible and publishable chapters in Mome and partly because the story, unlike his other work, is fairly linear and “in the present.”
His eight-year-long project will end with the release of the final chapter of the story (all thirty-two pages) in this winter’s Mome issue 17, ending what he refers to as his “tenure at Mome.” But Hornschemeier, who has been with the journal since its founding in “A San Francisco hotel room in 2004,” has been looking forward to the change, and is ready to move on to new projects. Part of which include a tour of the Midwest to support a recent release of his uncollected works 2004-2009, “All and Sundry.” (The tour will kick off this November at Quimby’s.) A book compilation of “Life with Mr. Dangerous” is appearing in March of next year and he’s also re-launching his “Forlorn Funnies” series. He’s staying busy. Having recently worked on projects for publications like Bookforum, Time and Wall Street Journal, he seems optimistic about the recent attention cartoonists have been attracting.
Graphic novels and comics are finally being taken seriously. “I think now is clearly a growth period for American comics, though in many ways I feel we’re just catching up to the cultural climate of parts of Europe. What excites me these days is seeing some of the gorgeous archival collections coming out from Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly as well as some of the intelligent—at times experimental—work coming out from Dash Shaw, John Pham, Lilli Carre and a lot of other young cartoonists whose work easily rivals that of contemporary prose authors but might not have been economically viable for a publisher to support as recently as ten years ago.” In terms of ambitions for his own projects, he puts it simply, “beyond telling good stories, I can’t say I have any particular ambition. I just want to write and draw things that I find interesting and hopefully do that well enough that other people find them enjoyable.”