MOME Interview 1: Paul Hornschemeier
Sunday, 24 April 2005

This interview is reprinted in its entirety from MOME Vol. 1.

My first exposure to Paul Hornschemeier's work was Mother, Come Home, which I read sometime in late 2003. It impressed me enough to start the gears churning, and I remember thinking that the three-issue comics series would make a good graphic novel; I made a mental note to contact this Hornschemeier fellow and inquire about the possibility of collecting it. I didn't know that copies of the collected graphic novel were en route to America from an Asian printer and would be in stores within weeks. But at least I was right: it did make a good graphic novel.

illustration by Paul Hornschemeier

Mother, Come Home is Hornschemeier's most mature, complete work to date. It is the story of father and son coping with the mother's death; the mother's presence — or absence — hovers over the book like a shroud. Hornschemeier's line work is economical, the compositions spartan, the pace deliberate and unhurried. The story is essentially told from the point of view of the 7-year-old child, Thomas; his narration is unsentimental and unadorned, his perspective that of an adult putting the pieces together, fragmentary but revealing. The father is taciturn, defined more by his actions.

Paul Hornschemeier was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1977. At the age of four he and his older sister moved to Georgetown, Ohio, a small, rural community, where his parents practiced law. According to Hornschemeier, his parents are "the most selfless, nicest people you could ever hope to meet," in other words, insufficiently lawyerly. They should probably be grateful that the only consequences of their decency was a low income; I'm surprised the American Bar Association didn't have them publicly flogged or banished to whatever gulag is reserved for lawyers who aren't greedy enough to pass muster.

As a comic book aficionado, Hornschemeier was a late bloomer. He saw his first comic at age 5 or 6 when his dentist rewarded him for sitting still with a promotional give-away comic reprinting early Steve Ditko Spider- Man stories. Which is pretty weird when you think about it. But, stuck in the middle of nowhere, barn sales did not yield many comics and his exposure was limited until his early teen years when he was able to get "downtown" more often and start visiting a comics shop. Nonetheless, he loved drawing from an early age and always wanted to combine drawing with storytelling. He would read his mother's Edward Gorey books and collections of New Yorker cartoons lay around the house. Later, when he started reading comic books in earnest, he read shitty mainstream comics; he was woefully ignorant of independent or alternative comics, which is apparently easy to be in rural Ohio. But, oddly enough, the kinds of comics he was drawing in high school were closer to an alternative comics sensibility — "a story with some guy sitting in his bedroom being depressed," as he describes his typical comic, and you can't get much more alternative than that.

At age 18, he attended Ohio State University (where he eventually became the only cartoonist of his generation to acquire a philosophy degree) when he had a revelation: Dan Clowes' Ghost World. "Wow, I can't even believe this exists" is how he described his epiphany. He discovered other cartoonists with which he felt an affinity and started drawing a comic strip for the University student newspaper in his junior year. Titled Squares, "It was Seinfeld except horribly written and very boring — with lots of crosshatching." In 1999, he started self-publishing his own comic, Sequential, which ran seven issues (ending in 2001), each issue more sophisticated and ambitious than the previous one, the seventh "issue" being a one hundred and twenty eight page square-bound book. His next major project was Mother, Come Home, which he published in his next comic, Forlorn Funnies [subsequently collected in Let Us Be Perfectly Clear – ed.]. He's appeared in a variety of anthologies, including AutobioGraphix from Dark Horse and The Comics Journal Special Edition. He is currently working on The Three Paradoxes (due out July 2005) and his new serial in MOME. — Gary Groth

Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Price: $14.95

the following interview was conducted on april 24th, 2005.

gary groth: It seems to me that you had a pretty early preoccupation with formal aspects of comics.

paul hornschemeier: Yeah, definitely.

gg: Did your studying philosophy have anything to do with that, do you think?

illustration by Paul Hornschemeier
Portrait from sketcbook, after Steve Ditko
ph: I don't know, I'm not really sure, I think from a very early age, I had this tendency to want to tear things apart, and mainly just do things that completely made sense as a whole, and I've known people who said, oh I'm some kind of formalist or something, and to me, it's just, "Well, no, I just try to do cartoons where everything in it makes sense as a conceptual whole."

gg: Sequential appeared between '99 and 2001; who were the cartoonists you were looking at...

ph: Really, initially, it was just Dan Clowes, he was the only person that I had much exposure to because there was one record store that carried Eightball, and that was one reason I was able to get a hold of his stuff. I think...

gg: It certainly seems like Chris Ware might have had an influence at some point.

ph: You know, that's the funny thing, I've been compared to Chris a million times over, and I think the first time I saw him... I read about the existence of Chris Ware in this book that I bought because it has an interview with Dan Clowes in it; I found out about Chris, and I think that was probably, oh God, I donít know, I know I was on at least Sequential #4 or #5 or something like that. So I think that the really weird experimental stuff that I did I'd already done before I saw one of his books. I did special order one of his books while I was still living in Columbus and that was the first one I got, I think the next few I got I actually got here in Chicago.

illustration by Paul Hornschemeier
from sketchbook
I came up here for a trip just to visit Quimby's [bookstore], because I was like "Oh, this guy designed his store," which is what I thought at the time. So I came up here and checked that out, and I remember giving copies of the first few Sequentials to Quimby's, which, when Forlorn Funnies came out, I went and bought those copies, because they were still there [laughs]. So I think it was Dan Clowes and, I mean, Robert Crumb was certainly an influence, but it was just whatever I could get my hands on, certainly eventually Chris Ware was influential — I donít think you can be paying attention to comics these days and not owe something to Chris' innovations — who else? Dave Cooper, Charles Burns, Kaz, just whoever leaped in through the cracks of a pathetic setup in my comics shop. Actually, thereís another store in Columbus that I started going to, Monkey's Retreat, they're sort of these old guys you would expect to see working in a head shop or something like that, in fact, the place smells like a head shop. But they had a lot of really great stuff, like all the older Zap comics and all this kind of stuff so that was the point that I was able to pick up some decent stuff. I think I started reading Chester Brown and stuff like that.

gg: In terms of the content of your stories, your major preoccupation seems to be with familial relationships.

ph: It was only pretty recently that I realized that [laughs].

gg: Is that right?

ph: Yeah. I don't know, I don't know what that's about [laughs]. But it's definitely true. I think essentially that when I was growing up, that was really the group that I hung out with, I mean I hung out with my two sisters and my parents most of the time, I didn't really have as many friends, because, there was a lot of reasons, I was a total dork, but we just really didn't fit into to Georgetown all that well, because where I came from a lot of people had the hick accent, [in hick accent] "talked like that," you know. [Laughter.]

gg: There's an interior quality to your best and most recent work.

ph: Right, and I think what has always been the most interesting to me is that there's this exterior reality and then the interior reality of what's going on inside people's houses and inside their minds...

gg: Do you consider this to be the story of the child or the father? Or both equally?

ph: I would certainly say both. To me, it's this strange letter from the boy to the father, more than anything. "This is me, now, looking back at the things that happened. Trying to take a look at these things. I understand where you were at that point now, I certainly don't have any judgment against you for that."

illustration by Paul Hornschemeier
Cover of the French edition of Mother Come Home
But ultimately, I suppose it's really the story of the father, because the child is just this ghost drifting through, trying to affect things, but ultimately, because he's 7 years old, not being able to grab ahold of anything and really affect it. In a way, his role as the narrator looking back is very accurate in that he really thinks he's doing things like rescuing his father from the mental hospital when of course, his father has just signed himself out, and I think that's how things are through the whole story.

gg: When I read it the first time, I didn't realize what was coming, and I was somewhat startled when I realized what was about to happen at the end. A feeling of dread came over me. In a way, it was pretty audacious of you to have that grim, almost nihilistic ending. Was the rationale for that simply that the father just couldn't handle the suffering, the emotional stress...

ph: Right. I think what I was trying to get at there is that sometimes people really are just lost and that sometimes they are not going to come back. I think it was certainly a little bit fictionalized as far as the way I think it might more typically happen, in that the father is a little bit more cognizant of his departure from reality. But ultimately, it's about these events that have taken place, and he's... It's not just that there was grief and the mother died, but obviously there's a very active role he took in some of the things that happened there, but I don't want to give away anything in the book for people who haven't read it. This certainly wasn't anything about me saying, "Life is horrible and everyone should just go off themselves," but ultimately saying that when somebody is basically gone to us already, physical death doesn't really mean much. That was simply the case with the father. For me it seemed in that story, he's already gone and Thomas doesn't have a father anyway. That was obviously one of the difficulties he was struggling with.

gg: In the story in this volume of MOME, you're depicting a woman who's also struggling.

ph: Yes, different struggles, but everybody struggles.

gg: So struggling, maybe struggling with inner demons would be a leitmotif...

illustration by Paul Hornschemeier
Blueline drawing from Life With Mr. Dangerous
ph: Right, in fact to get back to the familial thing, which is one of the major things in this story in MOME. There're sort of two ends to it. The main character, Amy Breis, has grown up in a single parent family, her mother is really the only parent that she has. She's struggling with her relationship with her mother in that her mother is just a clerk at a retail store, and that's all she's ever been doing through the entirety of Amy's life. And Amy's finding herself in the same loop, just working at some place, punching in 9 to 5, or in today's world, 8:30 to 5:30, and really disgusted by that, and trying to rebel against that, but doesn't really know how to, because she doesn't have any paradigm otherwise. So there's that, and then simultaneously, she's trying to figure out what's going on with her romantic life in that with every person that she pursues or who pursues her, there's at most a sexual connection and that's it, and the only person she has any real, deeper connection with lives half a country away. It's more struggles. But she does have sex at least once in the book, that's already a vast improvement over the excitement of my previous books. [Groth laughs.]

gg: Progress.

ph: With an ice cream vendor, at that.

gg: Do you allow room for spontaneous creative inspiration while you're putting the story together?

illustration by Paul Hornschemeier
A paper scrap
ph: Usually the technique that I've found that works the best is taking all these old scraps of paper and basically I just type them into to a word processor document, then I'll start to write stuff in between scenes, I'll start tacking stuff into scenes I've already written, and starting to flesh it out, and then I'll actually end up with a pretty full script. But that's going to go through three, four revisions, and even once I've actually got the script, I'll start saying, "well, that doesn't work as one page, that needs to be two, the pacing is all wrong," so I'll start hacking stuff up that way. Usually, once it gets to the finished script it's fairly finalized but it would be completely irresponsible of me to not change at all. And often there's something that you'll type that feels right, and then you go to put in a panel, and it's just "No, this is way too verbose," or "This needs to be split over two panels," or whatever, it's something you have to be organic about, or you're not going to be honest with the comic at all.

gg: You have an elliptical narrative technique, where things are implied more than they're stated. Actions almost speak louder than words. Were you influenced by anything in particular, or did you just come upon that as your natural way of...

illustration by Paul Hornschemeier
Page from a sketchbook showing thumbnails
ph: I don't know, I think I've been realizing more and more that that was actually really heavily influenced by Edward Gorey, because he really does that in his books a lot. I've just been reading all the books that I have of his. I was actually reading some interviews with him and realizing "Huh, this was something that was massively important to him," that he said was influenced more by Japanese sort of storytelling. To me, what was interesting was not showing, and what you didn't show speaking volumes more than loud, obvious reality... Because most of life is just interpretation and assumption and extrapolation from things where we don't necessarily know what was going on. I think that's always been something that's been more intriguing to me and a natural way to tell a story, because you don't walk into a room where people turn and say flatly, "Oh, well, this is what is happening in my innermost mental life." And you don't say, "Ah, well, that makes me angry that you say that," and you know, [laughs] what you really get is one facial expression, and then the person reaches for their glass and their hand shakes a little bit, and then you have to go to the bathroom because you had Mexican, but they don't know that, they think you're mad. [Laughs.] What an idiotic scenario that was, but you get the point. You're never getting all the facts handed to you. That's how things work, I guess. That's always seemed like the best way to tell things for me. And it keeps it fun for me writing it.

gg: What cartoonists in your peer group do you have the most kinship to?

ph: Well, direct kinship is obviously Jeff Brown, I hang out with him all the time. As far as people's work I just absolutely love, I think John Pham is one of the most ingenius people working in comics today. Unfortunately, If I go on listing names, it's going to sound like I'm trying to sell MOME.

Jeff obviously is a huge influence on me because we are constantly trying to kick each other in the ass as far as, "You need to concentrate on this," to which the other replies "Well, what about this? Why don't you try this?"

I feel that most of the people I'm friends with,we all have this, I don't know what it is exactly, it's this need to push comics forward somehow. We're all doing it in very different ways, but I think there's some sort of feeling that "OK, we know what's already been done, let's really try to do something a little bit different," but at the same time, really incorporating a lot of the things that have come before.

gg: You think you're conscious of trying to do something fresh and —

ph: I think so. I think at the same time we're all trying to figure out, "How do we really make this the most honest means of personal expression that we can?"

illustration by Paul Hornschemeier
Image from sketchbook
I do think the one thing that I've certainly noticed is pulling, and I think actually it was either John Pham or Sammy Harkham that was talking about this, really pulling influences from just everywhere; from film; from music; obviously other cartoonists, but modern illustrators, painters, things like that. Me and Jeff, for instance, I know he's more influenced by German Expressionism and things like that. I find myself really influenced by British animation from the '60s and stuff like that, so it's all over the place.

gg: What were your influences, outside of comics?

ph: I really love old animation, not exceptionally old animation though there's a lot of great stuff there, but a lot of the animation that was happening in the '60s, '70s, stuff like that.

gg: God, what would that be? [Ralph] Bakshi?

ph: Well, no not particularly.

gg: Sixties and '70s.

ph: Well, some of the stuff is even later than that. A lot of the stuff that Jay Ward worked on, like Rocky and Bullwinkle. Rocky and Bullwinkle just, oh my God, half the stuff I draw is either a Muppet or Rocky and Bullwinkle rip off.

gg: Well, Jay Ward was great.

ph: Oh yeah, absolutely. Actually, something I've been realizing more and more had a huge influence on me was a lot of stuff that [Jules] Rankin and [Arthur] Bass [Jr.] did, sort of the weird stop-motion model animation, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and stuff like that. Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler, though of course I only have the butchered version. But one thing that just absolutely destroyed my mind at a young age was Heinz Edelmann's designs in The Yellow Submarine animation. I don't know why they aired that thing. It aired several times, too, and we didn't have cable, but we would go to our grandmother's house, and I remember that thing being on a couple times and it did not do good things to my head. Yeah, I think that's something that's affected me.

gg: Are you pretty optimistic about the future of cartooning, the future of your own work?

ph: If we take that in the void of what's going on in the world, sure. [Laughs.] Because am I optimistic in general? No. But, I would certainly say that provided we're all still here. It certainly seems like comics, particularly in North America, are really experiencing a decent amount of boom time. It certainly seems like things are being better received by the press, there is a little bit less mention of superheroes and the "zap, pow, boom" kind of crap when people write about more literary comics. I'm definitely pretty optimistic about it.

I do feel like things are being better received; nothing against cartoonists who do this, but a lot of people go on about how everyone hates cartoonists; I really don't think that's true. When I tell people that I'm a cartoonist, that's actually pretty warmly received by pretty much everybody. There's maybe a negative stigma to being a comic fan to some degree after you explain what kind of stuff you're into, but I really feel like a lot of that stuff is starting to fall by the wayside. I think that's one thing that's good about the more recent crop you have coming through now, these are people, just everyday people that I don't think anybody could call any of us more freakish than the next person. It seems like there's a more diversified field... I mean, it's not as ghettoized as it used to be, I think, and that's starting to be true of the talent pool as well, these are people that aren't necessarily like "Oh, we're crazy counterculture types," or something like that.

In France, buying a comic is just like buying a CD. I would go into a Virgin Megastore and there's the CDs, there's the DVDs, and there's the entire floor of comics. I think we're moving toward that here, albeit slowly.

illustration by Paul Hornschemeier
Sketchbook image
Comics are always going to have an uphill battle in that it is an active medium, it requires participation. I overheard John Porcellino saying something like this to someone, "Unfortunately you have this set of people who can read, and then you've got the subset of people who buy and read books, and then this subset of people who are willing to read the books that we produce, and you've just gotten to a very small set of people."

gg: That's a good description of the readership.

ph: I do think it will grow, obviously it is going to be a gradual thing, certainly with people like Chris [Ware] and Dan [Clowes] getting more mainstream attention and people in general getting more attention through things. I'm pretty hopeful about things.

gg: Your next book is The Three Paradoxes. How's that going?

The Three Paradoxes
The Three Paradoxes
Price: $16.99
ph: It's going well, but honestly, it's [sighs] my God, it's a huge, huge, problem because it's just going really slow at this point. I've unfortunately had several projects that have been going on and on and on that are really interfering with it, because I have to pay rent, apparently. That's the thing, man. I'm just throwing my hands up, "God, can't I get a movie deal or something?" I need to sell out, hardcore. [Laughter]

I was hoping I'd finish by the end of April. Now I don't know, I don't think it's going to happen, because there were some pages that I was fine with, and then once I got toward completion, certain pages weren't even working. This is easily the most bizarre book I've ever done.

gg: The Three Paradoxes also revolves around a father and son. I haven't seen much of this, but it certainly looks like it's about a father and son, which was very much what Mother, Come Home was about, and it also looks like you're pushing the formal structural elements —

ph: This one is pushing that far more than Mother, Come Home. Mother, Come Home, in my opinion, had certain formal elements that were being messed with; this one is very, very much doing that.

gg: There's a postmodern narrative element to it, isn't there, where the narrator is a cartoonist who's working on a story that interweaves with his own story...

illustration by Paul Hornschemeier
A panel from The Three Paradoxes
ph: It's just flat-out autobiographical. The main character is Paul, me. I mean, there are some strange scenes where the cartoon then I'm drawing is actually — there's a scene where I'm talking on the phone and it's a real conversation that I had with a girl that I was supposed to meet in the near future in the book, and the actual person who's talking on the phone in the story is the cartoon character... there's a lot of zooming into and out of and blurring of various realities, hopefully not just for the sake of being a formal experiment.

gg: What purpose do you think that serves in terms of narrative?

ph: For me, it's all trying to convey what we talked about before, trying to convey things without really saying them. Switching to other styles or doing something else is, for me, trying to evoke something without coming right out and saying, "Oh yes, and this is how you should feel." If there's anything I absolutely want to stay away from, it's smacking people over the head in this Spielberg-esque kind of way, like "OK, here's where you should cry, here's where you should do this." Because that's just ugly and dirty and manipulative, but then again, what I'm doing is manipulative; I guess I just want to be secretly manipulative. [Laughs.]

It's hard to put a finger on, but there's about five distinct narratives going on in the book, but they all share this common theme about what is — I don't want to give much away?

gg: Give a little away.

ph: I would say the gist of the book is looking for some kind of control or certainty in life, debating whether or not that actually exists; whether or not one can actually influence anything, whether one can take control of various aspects of one's life; whether one can change from where one has been in the past. I guess that's a long gist. Those are the sort of things that run through the book. Most of it's just me, but there's also fictionalized parts and parts with pre- Socratic philosophers and hopefully it all makes sense in the end.

Featured books by Paul Hornschemeier (click covers for complete product details)

Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Price: $14.95
The Three Paradoxes
The Three Paradoxes
Price: $16.99
Let Us Be Perfectly Clear
Let Us Be Perfectly Clear
Price: $19.95

All books by Paul Hornschemeier