"Cartooning is an incredibly isolating thing on top of existing in what I think is a very isolated society," says Paul Hornschemeier, who broke into the field with the self-published comic Sequential in 1999. "When I started off, Sequential was primarily just gag strips," he says, "but after spending that much time by yourself over and over again, you really start to gravitate toward very sad stuff, which is not good. It's not very beneficial to your mental health or for other people either--you don't want to get bummed out reading all that stuff all the time."
After two years and seven issues of Sequential, which evolved into a dark, introspective work, Hornschemeier began the work he's best known for, the series Forlorn Funnies. A story from the series's second through fourth issues, "Mother, Come Home," will be published by Dark Horse Comics at the end of this month as a collected graphic novel.
"[Dark Horse] apparently fell down on their heads a lot when they decided to do this," says Hornschemeier. But with only four years of serious cartooning behind him, he's gotten a significant amount of critical acclaim for his work. In the past year Forlorn Funnies has earned a nomination from the second most recognized comic book awards, the Harveys (for best new talent), and two nominations from the industry's equivalent of the Oscars, the Eisners (for best coloring and best new series).
Like most cartoonists, Hornschemeier's a born loner. "One of my mother's favorite memories is of us walking together and me holding her hand and looking up at her and saying, 'Mom, sometimes I miss you even when you're here,'" he says.
That sense of loneliness is all over Hornschemeier's work, even more so since he moved to Chicago. "I think Chicago's one of the best places to be a cartoonist, especially if you want to do a sad cartoon, because this is such a gray, depressing city," he says. He arrived two years ago, straight out of college, precisely because he didn't know anyone here. "It was an opportunity to start from scratch, and you don't get many of those chances." Plus, he says, Chicago is a city where people come to work, not to hobnob or hang out: "Dan Sinker, publisher of Punk Planet, actually said this in some interview he did--Chicago's a really great place because it's a place to come if you want to work. I agree with that. If you want to be seen, go to New York. People actually do work here. They stay in their studios and get stuff done. While that may not work with your social life, it's certainly very cool to see all the stuff that comes from it."
Hornschemeier, a 26-year-old Ukrainian Village resident, grew up in the small farming community of Georgetown, Ohio, where he spent countless hours drawing and inking his own comic books. He never thought he'd grow up to be a professional cartoonist, especially not after he learned about the treatment of people like Jack Kirby, who helped create many Marvel Comics mainstays like The X-Men and The Incredible Hulk, and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman in the 30s for DC Comics, by big comic publishers. All three were more or less excluded from the profits made from their work.
Not having laid eyes on an underground comic before college, Hornschemeier didn't see an outlet for the kinds of stories he wanted to tell. Then a girlfriend at Ohio State gave him a copy of Daniel Clowes's graphic novel Ghost World, a story about two teenage girls living in the hell of suburbia. "It would be akin to if you had only seen blockbuster movies then saw Citizen Kane," he says. "It was just a very well written story."
He was studying philosophy and taking a few art classes on the side. College art departments aren't exactly known for encouraging the comic arts, but one of Hornschemeier's courses turned out to be instructive: "It was this two-dimensional-design class where the professor was hell-bent on us constantly making Xerox books. So I'd be going in and making these design books, and at the same time I was drawing these daily strips [for the Ohio State Lantern], and I thought, Hey, I could probably make a book of cartoons. So I did that, and that was the first Sequential--all whopping 30 copies of it." He persuaded a couple of Columbus comic stores to carry those Xeroxes, which sold out.
He still had to teach himself the rest of the underground-cartooning game. "Initially I was just kind of grabbing any information I could find, like what kind of pens are people using, what kind of paper," he says. "I had no idea. That was a somewhat kind of traumatizing experience, to just start working in this vacuum. Cartoons are unique in that if you say, 'Oh I want to learn how to do design,' then there are just tons and tons and tons of books. If you say, you know, 'I want to do the next FoxTrot!' there are several books on that. You can go look up how to get yourself syndicated. And then there's, 'I wanna draw the Marvel way!' Well, there's a book named that." (It's by Stan Lee.) "That kind of stuff has always been readily available, but I knew I wasn't going down that path. It's very, very difficult to know what people are doing, particularly in underground comics."
In Sequential Hornschemeier experiments with time and pacing. In "The Devil's Lonely Day," a three-part story, for instance, the pages run out of order but still manage to convey a narrative. Each issue made gains in terms of design and production. The first was xeroxed, stapled together, and only 20 pages long; the final issue was perfect bound and 128 pages long.
When Absence of Ink Comic Press, a comics publishing house in California, got in touch with him about publishing Sequential, they were initially thrown by what Hornschemeier had planned for the next installment.
"It was going to be this 128-page full-color book," he says, "and Ed Irvin [Absence of Ink's publisher] was just like, 'Uh, well, I don't really have the money to do that. What else did you have in mind?' And I said, 'Oh, well, I have this series in mind called Forlorn Funnies--just a normal 32-page full-color comic.' And his response was, 'Oh, yeah, OK, we can do that.' But the thing that you don't know, and I don't think that even my publisher knows, is that that was total bullshit. Because Forlorn Funnies was not something I had in mind. I had no clue what it was going to be at all. In fact, Forlorn Funnies was just an alternative title for Sequential that I had floating around in my head."
The first issue of Forlorn Funnies was a lot like Sequential--a loosely connected anthology of strange, funny short stories. But the second issue took a turn with the start of "Mother, Come Home," an alternately realistic and surreal story about a father and son coping with the death of the family's mother. "It was jarring, but not entirely surprising," says Alan David Doane, publisher of ADD, a comics blog. "One thing Hornschemeier has always done is keep readers guessing as to what he'll do next."
"Mother, Come Home" was originally intended as a screenplay, but when the opportunity for Forlorn Funnies came around, Hornschemeier decided to use the idea in comics instead. It was partly inspired by a thought he had when he was home visiting his parents for the holidays. "I was sitting in a kitchen with my parents and starting to realize that one of them is going to die first," he says. "Any story I write is just pretty badly masked autobiography. In 'Mother, Come Home,' the father happens to look exactly like my father and [the son is] exactly how I looked as a little kid. My mother happens not to be dead. There's all sorts of things that mirror my personal life.
"But as far as opening myself up, it's not like I'm scared that anything bad is going to come of it, or that someone's actually going to, hell, write me a letter," he continues, "because most people don't. That's kind of the weird thing, and I think this is unique to underground comics to some degree--you can put these intensely personal stories out there and only a couple thousand people are going to see it. It's like the least public way of opening yourself up possible."
The upcoming "Mother, Come Home" book probably wouldn't be coming up at all if Hornschemeier had thought of some other way to show his gratitude to Dark Horse editor Diana Schutz for mentioning Sequential number seven in a letters page. "I wanted to thank her, so I sent her some books and one of those was Forlorn Funnies number two," he says, "which she said she liked quite a bit and said we should talk about doing this story."
The collection will reprint the story as it appeared in Forlorn Funnies, with one alteration: "I wasn't particularly happy with the last line, and my editor hated it," says Hornschemeier. "I don't want to say what the last line was or is, but it seemed too abrupt and seemed to pop out of the story just as the reader is fading out of it. The exit needed to be made smoother."
Hornschemeier is currently working on "A New Decade for Eli Guggenheim," the second story arc for Forlorn Funnies. He describes it as "bar none the weirdest thing I've ever written. It's about a teenage boy that has the superability to time-travel anywhere within the year 1979. He travels to hell and all these other places, but it eventually becomes a metaphor for useless ability--having ability that is possibly impressive within some realm, but in actuality having no real positive effect."
He describes his process: "The typical method is, I'll come up with a quote, or a still image, or very finite scene, that I just have a description of verbally, and these are all put down on little separate pieces of paper. In 'Mother, Come Home,' there was the little boy with the lion mask walking through the snow and then there was some sort of father figure sitting on a really barren bed in an attic. I have stacks and stacks of these. My apartment acts as this huge sketch pad, and I just start moving the pieces closer together. It's just a constant refinement of ideas and little episodes. Things just seem to make perfect sense to me in a certain arrangement, as if the story was already that way somehow. I find myself saying, 'Of course it has to be that way. That only makes sense,' when, of course, nothing makes any sense."
One of the nice things about working in a niche medium like independent comics, he notes, is that you don't have to make sense. You don't have to play to a test audience or sell a lot of books--no one, not even your publisher, is expecting huge numbers. You don't have to please anyone but yourself. And if you're the kind of person who becomes a cartoonist, even that's a long shot.
"I can't see it as like, 'Oh, these are things that I'm doing so that people can read them and have a jolly time,' or anything like that," says Hornschemeier. "While I'm loath to call myself that, I am an artist. I'm sure Picasso wasn't like, 'Oh man, I don't know if I should do this whole cubist thing. It's kind of weird.' I'm sure it's just what he felt he had to do--and please don't think I'm comparing myself to Picasso, but I think you get the point. You just get to a point where you're going to do what you're going to do."
Mother, Come Home comes out on December 31.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.