"Mome's" the Word: Talking with Eric Reynolds

A one-stop shopping for all your alternative comics needs, "Mome" is the quarterly anthology title from Fantagraphics that delivers a heaping helping of challenging, surprising sequential art in a wide spectrum of styles with each new issue. Initially created as a showcase for a fixed roster of hot young alternative creators including Jeffrey Brown, Gabrielle Bell, and Paul Hornschemeier, "Mome" quickly evolved to feature a bigger, broader mix of talent, featuring contributions from acclaimed and established cartoonists like David B. and Lewis Trondheim, as well as newcomers like Eleanor Davis and Joe Kimball.

The ninth volume, "Fall 2007," hits stores this week with underground superstar Jim Woodring and his signature character Frank on the cover and providing the collection's main event.

Has "Mome" successfully gotten through its growing pains? What's the series' scouting process for new talent? Where does Fantagraphics' controversial co-founder and fellow "Mome" editor Gary Groth fit in? "Mome" editor Eric Reynolds gave CBR the scoop.

When you started "Mome," you had something different from the typical alternative comics anthology in mind, correct?

Before "Mome" started, what I see as the dominant anthology that's out there, at least in the terms as what I perceive as being the best work, was "Kramers Ergot," and "NON" when Jordan Crane was doing that. A few other things here and there, but I guess that "Kramers" has become the big one. And I totally love it. I think that there has been some perception that "Mome" was at odds with "Kramers." I never intended that to be the case, although I did intend for it to be very different. I simply wanted it to be more accessible. Some people may take that for better or worse because "accessibility" is going to imply a little bit more conservatism than you'd find with "Kramers."

But I found, while working here at Fantagraphics, that we have like 300 fucking books in print and maybe 10 of them will show up on a bestseller list from year to year. I'm referring to books that haven't been released in the last year, backlist. You've got "Ghost World," "Palestine," a few Hernandez Brothers books and some Crumb books that show up on the backlist top 10 sellers list year in and year out.

But a lot of the other books just kind of die a slow death. We sell a few here and there from year to year-obviously we must or we wouldn't keep them in print, we'd just pulp them-the point being that there's this huge divide between the core alternative comics, the ones that sell perennially in bookstores, and everything else. "Kramers" is awesome, but it comes out [only once] every year and now it costs like a hundred bucks, I think the next one will. It's not something that you're going to point to the average reader who is just a curious comic fan and not necessarily a hard-core aficionado.

"Mome" is meant to bridge that divide. If you've bought "Jimmy Corrigan" or "Palestine" and you don't know what to look at next, "Mome" is a meant to be a fairly good primer of what's out there. That's one facet of what I intended. Then there was the notion of nurturing cartoonists, and that's a different story. And the idea of doing it as a quarterly book series was that you could sort of have your cake and eat it too as far as getting on newsstands and getting in graphic novel sections of bookstores. So you could basically sell it to newsstands and/or graphic novel buyers. I encourage booksellers to shelve the latest issue on the newsstand alongside the latest issues of "McSweeney's" or "Granta" or "The Believer" or "The Virginia Quarterly Review" and shelve older volumes in the graphic novel section. It looks good enough shelved spine-out that you can do that.

That's how it's shelved at my place, certainly. Did you look to those prose literary anthologies you mentioned for inspiration?

Sort of. I like "McSweeney's" a lot, and I have a subscription to "The Believer." I like that kind of stuff and I feel that there's a lot of potential for crossover as far as the readership goes, especially with the "McSweeney's" crowd. The people that are reading "McSweeney's" books are very much the kind of people that should enjoy a lot of what Fantagraphics does. In a way, the huge success of "McSweeney's" in particular, even if only in the marketing speak that we give out, was something that I was trying to piggyback on.

Was the idea of nurturing the young cartoonist in your head from the get-go as well?

That was the idea more than anything else. The format and the way to sell it came after the actual concept for the anthology. I had been thinking about pitching an anthology to Gary [Groth] for a while, probably shortly after [Fantagraphics' previous, comic book-format anthology] "Zero Zero" ended and we didn't have an in-house anthology. I used to do "Dirty Stories" [an anthology of porn and erotica from major alternative comics creators, published by Fantagraphics' adult imprint Eros] and I kind of petered out on that. I was thinking of doing another ["Dirty Stories" issue] but I felt that it had been about three years and wondered if anyone would even care at this point. I just thought that I would try something completely different, and I didn't want to do something with the sex angle. I felt like the time was right to do something that had a wider potential. I pitched it to Gary one day, and it turned out that he was basically thinking about the same thing. So we just put our heads together and kind of hashed it out that way.

The original intention was to have a set line-up of creators coming back each issue. How has that idea evolved?

The idea was to get 10 people and have them do from four to eight issues; they could do a four-issue commitment or an eight-issue commitment. For a lot of different reasons, that idea fell apart pretty fast, and everyone's reasons were different. I had asked Jeff [Brown] to be in "Mome," and then a year to a year and a half later, when the first issue finally came out, he had already committed to six other books that all happened to be coming together at the same time. The schedule had to give. The same thing pretty much happened with everyone else. Anders [Nilsen] had all sorts of personal reasons for having his schedule upended, not the least of which being the death of his girlfriend, and that caused him to refocus his creative energies into things like "The End" and "Don't Go Where I Can't Follow." Paul [Hornschemeier] just ended up taking much longer on [his graphic novel] "The Three Paradoxes" than he originally thought. He ended up having to do both "Mome" and "The Three Paradoxes" concurrently, and it hindered his ability to get either one done on time. David Heatley got a book deal. There was all this stuff that happened that caused everybody to not be able to do what they had originally intended to do. So it caused a lot of reworking on the fly.

But I haven't minded it so much because in a lot of ways I feel that the last couple of issues have gotten closer to what "Mome" was meant to be. We wouldn't have gotten to where we are now without Eleanor Davis and Tom Kaczynski. I didn't really know who those guys were when we started "Mome." So, in a way, I'm glad to have the room to accommodate them now.

I think the fact that you're publishing creators who are really brand new now gets overlooked sometimes. As opposed to the first volume, there are now some people in "Mome" who I've never read, including at least one, Joe Kimball, whose debut in "Mome" was his first published work anywhere.

And that is a lot more exciting for me as an editor. I love all those guys or they wouldn't have been in there in the first place. But in hindsight, Gary and I didn't-well, I don't know if I should say we didn't think it through, because there was really no way to foresee it, and hindsight is 20/20. But we had asked all those people to contribute to "Mome" and then it was a year and a half later before the first one came out it seemed like all of them had other venues to publish in and didn't necessarily need "Mome" to showcase their work or to provide them with a deadline in order to make them more productive than they would have been without one. That was always a little frustrating. The idea was that you would be working for "Mome" and doing stuff quarterly, and that would be a lot for you. That deadline would light a fire under your ass to get you to turn out a few more pages than you would otherwise.

But in fact, it wasn't the "Mome" deadline that was holding people up, it was all their other deadlines for other books. There were very few people who were able to single-mindedly commit to "Mome," or at least they did when we asked them but then they had to drop out. In fact, Marc Bell was going to be one of the original guys in "Mome" and he had to drop out because he suddenly took off as a fine artist and had all this other stuff going on. The same with Sammy Harkham; he was also going to be one of the original guys. But since the beginning, Kurt Wolfgang has been great with focusing in on "Mome" and nothing else. He's working on "Pinocchio" on the side but he doesn't really have deadlines for that. Tim Hensley has pretty much just been working on "Wally Gropius" for "Mome." That was really what I wanted to see happen, but you live and learn.

In addition to the brand-new people, some established super stars of alternative comics have also been featured: David B., Lewis Trondheim, Al Columbia, and in volume nine, Jim Woodring. It kind of reminds me of how "Saturday Night Live" has its contract players, but they bring in a new big-name guest host every week.

Yeah, I'll buy that! Al [Columbia] is an interesting example because he actually fits the mission of "Mome;" he doesn't have a regular venue in which to be published. "Mome" is actually getting some work out of him that I don't think would be published at all otherwise. I'd like for him to be in every single issue for that reason. The same thing goes for guys like R. Kikuo Johnson, whose work I just love so much. If I can get them to do a couple of pages here and there that they wouldn't have done otherwise than that's fucking great. It's a crass commercial consideration on my part, I fully admit it, but if I can publish David B. or Jim Woodring and someone picks it up for that reason and then reads a Tom Kaczynski story for the first time, I can live with that.

The Woodring story was only published in Japan and I felt it needed to be seen by Western readers. I pitched the idea of it being published as a Fantagraphics book, but that was rejected. But I really wanted people to see it, so I suggested putting it in "Mome," and that's the sole reason that it came about. I just felt that it needed to be published somewhere, and if wasn't going to be in "Mome," it seemed like it wasn't going to be anywhere.

Does that kind of thing come up a lot?

It's hard to say. Everything comes from different sources and for different reasons. The Lewis Trondheim and the David B. stories were pitched to me. I was all over David's stories right away and those were kind of a no-brainer. I was a bit reluctant to do Trondheim's stuff because I felt that his stuff was a little cutesy and might be at odds with "Mome," but then I read the story and it's a real brutal, personal and existential story. It has a nice resonance and it juxtaposes against the younger folks, going from Eleanor's strip where she's 23 to the Trondheim where he's worrying how not to become a hack in middle-age. In the context of "Mome" I think it's better than the sum of its parts.

Was publishing international cartoonists a conscious decision on your part?

It was mostly unconscious, although we do try to stay aware of that kind of stuff. Whether it's for "Mome" or Fantagraphics you always have an eye out for different things and that includes foreign stuff. I'm a big Killoffer fan and I've been trying to get something of his in "Mome" because I just think he'd be great. So some of it's conscious and some of it is just dumped in my lap.

The first story that I ran by Emile Bravo was a cold submission that was sent by his agent who was hoping that Fantagraphics would publish it somewhere. It was passed along to me and I thought it was a masterful little strip. After that I established a relationship with him and his agent and he's been sending me more stuff. He did that "Young Americans" strip in the last one, which I think was one of the best short stories that anyone is going to read in comics in 2007. We probably never would have gotten that if I hadn't responded to that first blind submission. It's weird how these things work out.

As well as going out and recruiting, do you get people coming to you?

I do get a fair amount of submissions, although off the top of my head he's the only one that we've run. Actually, that's not true: Joe Kimball was a blind submission but before we agreed to publish him we talked to him about being a regular contributor and if he had more in him. That was a blind submission that we sort of morphed into something more. Tom came about when I was in New York a couple of years ago for MoCCA and I went to book release party for Vanessa Davis. I was hanging out with Gabrielle Bell, and it turned out that Tom is one of Gabrielle's best friends, and by the end of the night he had given me some of his comics. I read them on the subway as I rode back to my hotel and they were really great. I sent him a note and he just kept sending me more comics after that and then at a certain point I realized that I liked everything that he did. So he's a regular now.

It's got to feel good to be able to do that.

It does. That's my main job here, editing "Mome" and doing other stuff, and this is what I do for fun.

What is the role of an editor on a project like this? Do you give feedback on the content?

It really varies with the cartoonist. If we're asking them to do stuff then we're giving them a fairly wide berth. If I want you to be in "Mome," then I have enough faith not to micromanage what you're doing too much. On the other hand, there have been things that we've gotten for "Mome" that were not really in the vein of what we're going for, so you need to try to get the person on the same page. And there are also the people who want the feedback more substantively than other people. Like Andrice Arp really likes getting feedback every step of the way, so she'll occasionally send scripts or rough drafts and I'll go over them and give her advice. Gabrielle is kind of the same way as well. I defer to the cartoonist. If they want it I'm happy to do it. That's sort of the way that Gary and Kim [Thompson] approach things with Fantagraphics as well.

Do you take point on editing "Mome?" What is the division of labor between you and your co-editor Gary Groth?

I do most of the heavy lifting just because he's busy. I do most of the liaisons with the cartoonists and keeping on them, setting the deadlines and the general day-to-day stuff. Without sounding as if I'm diminishing his contribution, I try not to bother him as much as possible. I think he trusts me, so in some ways you don't necessarily need two heads to go over everything. He's been doing all the interviews and he's been very instrumental in getting people to be in the book. I do most of the issue-to-issue editing and packaging of each volume, but he and I have been very much equals in looking for talent and going after cartoonists. He was the one who showed me Eleanor's work and really lobbied to get her in there, and I couldn't be happier because I think that she's as good as anybody that's in there. Her stories are just so good especially for someone who's so young. There's a world wisdom that she has and I can't fathom how she has that so early on in her career.

"Mome" has been criticized, not entirely accurately I think, for being dominated by the autobiographical approach.

My whole idea with the book was to just do good fiction, or nonfiction, and to really have good storytelling-good, compelling and engaging storytelling with an emphasis on cohesive narrative as opposed to some of the more abstract and experimental stuff that you get in "Kramers" or whatever. There's been no-I feel I haven't commissioned autobio from anyone. I'm just flipping through the new issue here: Tim Hensley is not autobio, Eleanor Davis isn't autobio, Jim Woodring is not autobio. Andrice Arp has done some pseudo-non-fiction, like adaptations of the Japanese fables, and that's not autobio. Even Gabrielle's stuff is, I guess, autobiographical at times, but she often infuses it with a weird magical realism that is clearly not overtly autobiographical.

Even someone like Jeff [Brown], who is mostly known for his autobiographical stories, seems to be using "Mome" for his non-autobiographical stuff.

It's funny, because with Jeff I was very overtly pushing him to not do autobiographical stuff. So there you go. I wanted to see him stretch his legs and try and write fictional stories with a beginning, middle and an end. I just thought that would be a really interesting thing to see him do. So I was very much trying to steer him away from that stuff.

What can people look forward to in volume nine, which comes out this week?

I think volumes eight and nine, and I haven't finished 10 yet so I'll reserve judgment on that, are light years better than any other issues. Volume nine has got several pages by Ray Fenwick, who's a guy that I first published in volume eight. He's a guy that does this really heavy typographical kind of stuff. It's not a lot of drawing or comics; it's all just really funny and ironic hand-crafted typography. I think he's awesome, and in fact we're going to do a book by him next year. So he's in there.

There's a couple of Al [Columbia]'s strips, and Tim Hensley, whose "Wally Gropius" stories will easily be the book collection from "Mome" that I'm looking forward to the most. I think that his stuff is just great. And Tim's another weird guy [in the sense that] he wasn't a young cartoonist when we asked him to be in "Mome." He had done so little stuff and seemed to have no idea where to publish his work, and I'm just stoked to have him in there. But first and foremost there are 25 pages of "The Lute String" by Jim [Woodring], which is the first of two chapters that will run in nine and ten. It's got Gabrielle Bell, Joe Kimball.

This is also the first issue that doesn't have an interview [by Gary Groth with one of "Mome's" creators]. Instead, I ran a gallery of ballpoint pen drawings by an artist that I like a lot named Mike Scheer. Mike's a Portland cartoonist and fine artist. He's done a lot of record covers for Built to Spill, Treepeople and Steve Fisk, and for labels like Kill Rock Stars. I've been a fan of his for over 10 years, and he's had very little work published. I've only ever seen his work on record covers that I liked. Long story short, I tracked him down and talked to him and we put this thing together and it's really great. His work reminds me a lot of Renée French. It's this really hyper-detailed and almost pulsating, crazy, psychedelic ballpoint pen drawings with weird little creatures and characters.

[In addition,] Tom [Kaczynski] is in it. Zak Sally collaborates on a story with a writer named Brian Evenson, which is really great. Kurt [Wolfgang] continues his "Nothing Eve" strip, which is also another book collection that I'll be looking forward to because it's going to be a great graphic novel when it's all done. And Sophie [Crumb] and Paul [Hornschemeier] have another chapter in their strips. I just think it's a nice balance. There's a slightly transgressive bent to this issue that I don't think was in the earlier issues.

What's coming up next?

Well, we're putting number 10 together right now. It's got some good stuff and some good new folks. It's got the second part of the Woodring stories. It's 20 pages, and he's the biggest thing in there. The cover is by Al, and I'm stoked about it because it's the first time that we haven't used a panel from the interior of the book [for the cover]; it's actually an original front and back cover that he did for the book. So that's kind of sweet. There's a new story by Robert Goodin, and this will be his second story in 'Mome." He's a great guy and a great cartoonist and I've been encouraging him to do some more stuff. The two other new people in it are John Hankiewicz and Dash Shaw. Dash's story is a mindf--k and a total tour de force . It's kind of like that Emile Bravo story where you read it and you wonder, "How did he do this?" So I'm still trying to mix it up.

One thing that I've really changed gears on, and I think it's been for the better, is that rather than insisting that people be in every issue I've just been telling people that I want them to be a regular and I want them to do something as often as they can. That's enabled me to bring a few more people into the fold than we otherwise would have been able to. It's just given me a bit more latitude from issue to issue. So again, I feel like I'm having it both ways.

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