Forlorn Funnies #5: My Love Is Dead/Long Live My Love
Paul Hornschemeier, writer/artist
Absence of Ink, 2004
Originally written on July 8th, 2004 for publication in The Comics Journal
The fifth installment of Paul Hornschemeier’s personal anthology series is a transitional work of sorts, a midway point between the publication of the author’s formidable graphic novel Mother, Come Home (the serialized installments of which completely took over Forlorn Funnies‘ previous three issues) and his upcoming entrée into the art-comix big time when Fantagraphics begins publishing the series. (This is the alternative comics equivalent of a WB starlet getting that phone call from Playboy–you’ve made it, baby!) Perhaps Hornschemeier himself sensed the in medias res nature of this project. It’s his most direct effort to date in forging a middle way between his satirical and melancholy modes. Granted, separating the two physically may seem an odd way of linking them, but the link isn’t any less clear for that.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, My Love Is Dead/Long Live My Love is indeed divided into two sections, one “funny,” one “forlorn,” each printed at a 180-degree rotation from the other. Each section has its own “front cover” featuring the appropriate half of the subtitle and a mood-specific image and color scheme (as well as, cleverly, the book’s bar code and ISBN information–this way there’s now way to guess which half Hornschemeier considers “the back of the book”). At the spread at the center of the book, where the two sections meet, we find two pages’ worth of rival “About the Author” material, one of which solemnly enumerates Hornschemeier’s C.V. and the other of which features a lengthy explanation for its use of the phrase “butt smear.” (You’re all bright people, so I’ll leave it up to you to guess which is which.)
Baroque conceits such as this are nothing new for Hornschemeier–you may recall that the entirety of Mother, Come Home is supposed to be the introduction to a novel of which we only see the first chapter’s title page. It’s fun to watch Hornschemeier at play in the fields of the formal, but what excites one most about FF5 are the cartoonist’s visual and storytelling skills, which continue to expand at an alarmingly brisk rate.
Perhaps the best example of this is the emergence, fully formed, of a vocabulary of the monstrous a la Woodring or Brinkman. These strange creatures and the psychedelia-by-way-of-graphic-design wilderness in which they live are used to great effect on both sides of the forlorn/funny equation. In the former case (“Underneath”), a furry, Yeti-like behemoth responds to his growling stomach by diving under the sea, assaulting one of the creatures he finds there, and devouring one of the creature’s young as its sibling and parent look on. The attacker arrives back on dry land only for its stomach to rumble yet again; he glances at the sea, and in the subsequent panel is nowhere to be found. The sequence is wordless, the creatures expressionless, but the horror inherent in the sea-creatures inability to protect itself or its children is palpable and chilling. As it trundles over to comfort its surviving offspring when the land-creature swims away, we wonder what it can possibly say to provide solace or safety; moreover, when we realize the land-creature has gone back underwater, we know that neither is in the offing. The humiliating powerlessness of parents in the face of overwhelming violence is usually the subject of only the finest literature (on TV, only The Sopranos goes there; in comics, you’re hard pressed to find explorations of the topic outside historical efforts like Maus and Safe Area Gorazde); it’s both jarring and inspiring to see this painful aspect of human existence broached in a monster comic.
On the funny side of things (“Ditty and the Pillow Plane”), the monsters are used (not surprisingly, as we’ll soon see) to explore similar themes. While the two title characters float along in a manner reminiscent of Mother‘s opening sequence, strange creatures bite each other, ride each other, attempt to devour each other, and run past the frame while on fire. Ditty (whose eyes are x’s) and the Pillow Plane (who has no eyes to speak of) grab a snack amidst the chaos, and the sequence concludes with this exchange: “Is civilization a cancer?” “Of the liver, Ditty.” This seems as accurate an assessment as any, given the absurd pandemonium going on around them.
The notion that something’s just sort of wrong with civilization and that we’ll never set it right is the funny side’s major preoccupation. This sentiment is frequently expressed in the broadest of terms–phrases like “Has it all been that senseless?” “Is it pointless to laugh?” “Fuck it all anyway!” and (especially) “Whatever, dude” echo one another from strip to strip. A trio of overt political cartoons help make this case as well. “Everyone Felt It” (its title emblazoned on a striking, stark black background) skewers the vague everybody-hurts semi-soul-searching the U.S. occasionally indulges in in times of tragedy. The star of “America, Your Boyfriend” is a MODOK-esque lunkhead who kicks the crap out of anyone who dares look askance at his SUV-driving, beer-swilling lifestyle. Personally, I believe that our country’s most devoted enemies, in their drive to quite literally revive the Middle Ages, have problems unrelated to our own nation’s admittedly troubling obsession with luxury vehicles, but the point is made clearly and, perhaps more importantly, hilariously. “The World Will Never Be the Same” depicts various people behaving like racist, sexist, xenophobic, elitist, patronizing assholes both “THEN” and “NOW,” 9/11 being the unspoken line of demarcation between the two. The strip is similar in effect to an oft-reproduced sequence from Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers, and if the simplicity of the message of both is a little disconcerting (gee, America still isn’t perfect? Bush lied!), Hornschemeier’s iteration is more effective both for the vicious specificity of its targets and his willingness to implicate himself with his send-up of patronizing artsy-fartsy types. (“Oh, absolutely, his work is really making a difference,” says one such gallery-attending schmuck as a presumably homeless man walks by.)
The excess of the artiste is another prime target. “Stupid Art Comics Are Stupid” is a gratifyingly reductive assault (at times, a physical one) on the pretensions of the modern artist, depicted alternately as a sex-obsessed phony or an empty-headed dilettante. Its follow up, an essay entitled “Stupid Art Comics May Be Stupid, But ‘Stupid Art Comics Are Stupid’ Is a Complete Waste of Time,” is written from the point of view of a critic enraged both by the earlier piece’s unsurprising “surprise” insights into the human condition and its creators insistence on designing it so that it can only be read if held upside-down in front of a mirror. A multi-page sequence entitled “Artist’s Catalogue” deploys a slew of anti-art gags, including several pages that are simply blank and a reprint of the meticulous, highly intellectual plans and sketches for what turns out to be an “I went down on your mother” joke. (Fans of a certain Mozart/Bach-inspired Spinal Tap song ought to be pleased.)
With Long Live My Love so fixated on depicting a world going to hell in a handbasket as society’s supposed coalmine canaries, the artists, jerk themselves off, it’s up to My Love Is Dead to make more personal, though equally universal, points. A strange, untitled sequence involving a man, his grandmother, and a blood orange is difficult to unravel–I’m still not exactly sure what’s going on, or more specifically what is about to go on–but the man’s sweat, tears, and self-contradictory statements speak volumes about the power and terror of family love. “We Were Not Made For This World,” a sci-fi parable about a robot seeking the source of its creation even as the desert through which he marches slowly erodes the automaton’s ability to continue, is reminiscent of any number of similar SF meditations on loneliness, from Martin Cendreda’s memorable minicomic Zurik Robot to Stephen King’s eerie short story “The Beach.” Hornschemeier’s skill with both art (depicting with mathematical precision the granules of sand that are inexorably eroding the robot from within) and words (“He focuses on the horizon and tries to think it is beautiful”), however, give the story its own tragic grandeur. Most impressively of all, in “These Trespassing Vehicles,” Hornschemeier uses a moment of random, catastrophic violence to center a story that encompasses the entire lives of its characters with daunting, heartbreaking totality. There’s even room for a thoughtful twist ending, itself emerging from a life’s irreversible turns. The story itself neatly mirrors the strength of Hornschemeier’s work in general. Some moments may overshoot, others may undershoot, but the ambition is always grand, and thanks to the keenness of the author/artists’s eye for detail amidst his expansive vision, so too is the execution.