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Paul Hornschemeier 's best work -- that is to say, most of it -- is personal, sharp, funny, and experimental in ways you've never experienced before in comics -- beautiful, gorgeous, meticulous, but thoroughly comics. The short story "The Bad, Bad Man," from Forlorn Funnies #1 is the best example of his peculiar brand of brilliance; a playful, serio-comic tale of the sophistry of evil. The universe conspires to undo a moustache-twirling bad guy in a story that echoes Kurtzman and Ware but surprises with its unusually effective combination of exploration and reader engagement.
Hornschemeier's interest in comics came at a very young age. When I interviewed him in 2004, he told me "The first thing I drew, at age 4, was a cartoon. What spurred my interest in comics as a viable medium to tell something beyond a cliche was reading [Daniel Clowes's] Ghost World one Christmas and realizing that this thing I had done since before I could spell my own name (which is a hell of a name to spell, let's face it) could be something so incredibly significant and stuffed with meaning and beauty."
Sequential was Hornschemeier's first, self-published attempt at a regular comic book series. Over the course of its seven issues, Sequential demonstrated an emerging talent eager to assay the parameters and possibilities of his chosen artform. "Ex Falso Quodlibet," in Sequential #7, was perhaps the first indication of Hornschemeier's ability to fulfill his creative ambitions, and something of a bridge between his two series.
Over the course of the story's 20 pages (all of which may be read online here), Hornschemeier reaches into the depths of despair over lost love using an anthropomorphic fish-man as his lead character. It's a harrowing examination of loss, made somehow more pointed and graphic for the inhumanity of its very human protagonist and his small, familiar moments.
The more recent -- and artistically more mature -- Forlorn Funnies stuns with its sheer dedication to its creator's joy of cartooning. Readers will find Hornschemeier's recent works share a passion for design and storytelling with artists like Chris Ware and David Mazzucchelli. Hornschemeier gives us passionate, human comics that push the very limits of what is possible in the medium. When asked what motivates him, Hornschemeier told me comics gives him "Intellectual excitement and some insight into other people's lives and beliefs...I hope [in my work] to give examples of different ways things could take shape, and, the BIG HOPE, a few good stories that escape simple gesturing and experimentation."
His interest in experimentation -- something that fairly suffuses his work -- comes from diverse but complementary sources. Hornschemeier says he has been very influenced by the Beatles animated film Yellow Submarine, as well as Jim Henson, Maurice Sendek and Edward Gorey: He says "There is something in the sad, drooping, floating worlds, sprinkled with explosions of manic color and heat, that seriously colored the ways I expressed things, even at a very young age. I think these people influenced the method by which I translate the world into images, even in my mind, before any paper is brought into the equation."
During 2003, Hornschemeier serialized "Mother, Come Home" in the pages of Forlorn Funnies #2-4. The story focuses on a young boy who has lost both his mother and father in separate but intersecting tragedies, and was Hornschemeier's first longform novel; creatively, he feels did not meet the goals he set for himself in its creation. "I think I succeeded in parts, but I failed to carry certain parts of the story very well. There are many parts in which it fails and is unbelievable as an experience. I wanted to tell a story, and while I did do that, certain parts are distorted by a poor translator (me)." He says he enjoyed working in a longer format, but that he "lacked the skill necessary. I am still only beginning to learn what is required to create a good story."
Hornschemeier may be his own worst critic. Dark Horse Comics editor Diana Schutz thought enough of the story to collect it as a graphic novel, and also tapped the cartoonist to contribute a story to the late-in-the-year anthology Autobiographix, to which Hornschemeier also lent his considerable design skills. He believes "every element of the book needs to be analyzed...and I think every element (paper color, paper weight, colors of ink, line quality, page layout, etc.) all serve as ingredients in the larger cognitive experience." This attention to detail is most obvious in the last two issues of Sequential and in all of Forlorn Funnies, where the production quality increasingly plays a tactile role in the reader's experience of the stories within.
On the topic of his extraordinary dedication to high-quality production and presentation, Hornschemeier told me "A cartoonist is a designer, if s/he is anything. A designer is simply taking elements and employing those elements to convey a message, bringing separate components together to form a unified voice, to play upon the mind of the readers in a certain way...Nothing should be ignored out of laziness. If you do not choose to address certain issues, let that be by choice, because it will certainly play a role in the perception of the audience." He is driven to perfection of presentation, but he is generous with what he has learned; a number of his comics have included detailed information on his production methods, which have no doubt proven invaluable to artists inspired by his example.
Hornschemeier's desire to create "a few good stories that escape simple gesturing and experimentation" is well within his grasp, and he has as much potential to transform the perception of the artform as any living cartoonist. He seems eager to continue to grow as a creator even as he struggles with his own creative drives. He told me "I see myself producing the stories to take care of something in myself, which is horribly selfish, and I can't understand why people support these sorts of things, but I thank them profusely for it. I care immensely for people and am very appreciative of any praise or criticism I receive, but I can't stop writing these things down. It's sort of awful, really." He may be blind to the enormous gift his work has been to his readers, but his readers are not. It's virtually impossible to read a Hornschemeier work and not be staggered by the level of craft dedicated to furthering his very singular art.
Forlorn Funnies has published five issues now through Absence of Ink, and will soon be moving to Fantagraphics Books, a larger and more experienced publisher perhaps better able to assist Hornschemeier in promoting his work as a cartoonist. Unfinished tales from his earlier series Sequential prompted me to ask if he plans to revive that title, but he says "Completing anything that was started there would feel very wrong to me at this point...I did like 'The Suppression of William T. Andrews,' but I would have to redraw the entire thing, and I think I'm far too lazy to actually sit down and do it, particularly when there are so many new, more complicated ideas and problems to solve." Thankfully, although the series won't be continued, it will be collected in hardcover by AdHouse Books, also publishing Hornschemeier's Return of the Elephant any day now.
Beyond that collection and the Fantagraphics version of Forlorn Funnies, Hornschemeier's ambitions in the near future include three longform graphic novels. A New Decade for Eli Guggenheim is about a young man who has the ability to time travel anywhere within the year 1979. Planet focuses on desire, sexual and otherwise, and weaves in and around the lives of six people whose lives have become desperately interconnected. Finally, Life with Mr. Dangerous is about a young woman in her early 20s who takes comfort in the surreal animated TV series Mr. Dangerous (first seen in Forlorn Funnies #1).
So while Hornschemeier deals with those "many new, more complicated ideas and problems to solve," watching him solve them promises to be one of the most rewarding and entertaining prospects any comics reader can anticipate in the years ahead.
A previous version of this essay appeared in The Comics Journal #259, available from Fantagraphics Books.