Interview – Paul Hornschemeier pt. 1
– by Shawn Conner
Paul Hornschemeier‘s 2004 graphic novel, Mother, Come Home, impressed readers, critics, and awards jurists (it was nominated for a Harvey, Ignatz, and Eisner) with its gentle and heartbreaking story of a father and son grappling with absence and grief. (It was originally published in Hornschemeier’s comic, Forlorn Funnies.)
The Three Paradoxes, the Chicago-by-way-of-Ohio cartoonist’s follow-up, was more formally ambitious in its use of several stylistic techniques and layered storyline. In the first of a two-part interview, The Snipe talked to the 32-year-old artist about these projects, his family, and his (now defunct) indie-rock band Arks. In part two, we discuss his work as a colourist on the Jonathan Lethem-penned Omega the Unknown for Marvel, a Marvel “indie project” anthology, and why everyone should go to the San Diego Comicon at least once.
Shawn Conner: Is this going to be your first time in Vancouver?
Paul Hornschemeier: It’s my first time ever going to Vancouver. I’ve only been to Canada twice – Toronto and Winnipeg. I mean, who doesn’t go to Winnipeg? I worked for a printing press there in Winnipeg for two years, I was their representative in the U.S. I was going up there to meet with people, also because one of my books was being printed up there.
SC: Do you remember which part of the city the printing press was in?
PH: The cold part.
SC [laughs]: Right, the cold part.
PH: It was late October, and already snowing. I thought Chicago was cold, but Winnipeg – much colder.
SC: What’s happening with Arks?
PH: It is deceased. That band is no longer with us. We released our full-length album in late 2007, maybe…? I don’t remember, my brain has turned to mush. Basically, the band split into two separate bands after that. I wanted to do weird different things, and that was not the general idea… the band, I sort of wrote most of the music, and found myself writing one kind of song over and over again. That kind of bored me.
SC: In your comics, the two that I’ve read, anyway, you’re expanding your techniques.
PH: In those books, I’m switching the way I’m drawing and bouncing around different styles to represent different things. It’s the same thing with music. I’ve never understood why you would do everything with one method. I mean, I kind of come from a science background—my whole family is a very nerdy science oriented group of people. You don’t solve every problem with the same equation. I feel that’s bad science, but it make for bad art too.
SC: Can you tell me more about your family background?
PH: It’s science and law: my parents are lawyers, my mom’s also a judge. My father has a degree in biology but he went into law. My older sister’s an astrophysicist. It’s a very dumb family. We just sit around and consume copious amounts of cola and talk about the virtues of American Idol. Nothing against American Idol… I’ll get some backlash from Vancouver American Idol fans.
SC: We have our own Canadian Idol.
PH: A competition to see who can garner the most beaver pelts. That was always the running joke when I worked with the printing press, I’d be talking to people and they’d be like, “So what would the price be in Canada,” like the conversion was some crazy thing that couldn’t possibly be understood.
SC: We still have the barter system up here. Paper money, what’s that?
PH: So I mean my family, I don’t know. We tend to be an over-thinking bunch, hence the overly intellectualized comics I produce.
SC: You studied philosophy in university?
PH: That’s what my degree is in. I mainly studied philosophy, but I was principally interested in philosophy of physics and cognitive psychology, more the math and science side of philosophy and logic.
SC: That’s a little more apparent in The Three Paradoxes, but philosophy also seems to be part of Mother, Come Home.
PH: In the beginning of the book, some of my logic notes are used as the background. The last name of the family, Tennant, is from my symbolic logic professor.
SC: Obviously, Mother, Come Home isn’t autobiographical.
PH: There are elements of it that are from my life and from my father’s life. It’s sort of a combination of a lot of things. I’d been engaged to a girl and that hadn’t worked out. I was examining what was going on with my life, and coming to the realization my parents were getting older, and that one of them is going to die first, and these people I’ve always known as a unit, one of them would be without the other, and what would that be like, combined with some other things.
There was a moment in one of my classes with that professor I mentioned where he was talking about being on safari with his wife, and they had taken this anti-malaria medication and she had had a completely adverse reaction to it and was basically on the verge of death, and he just kind of lost it in the middle of class at one point, but in this couched-in-logic, still-trying-to-hold-on-to-some-semblance-of-control way. He was talking about the Center for Disease Control, and how they had done this testing and how they had paid attention to doing a double-blind experiment so he was talking about it in those terms, but at the same time you could see the undercurrent which is, “I’m going to lose the person I love and there’s nothing I can do about it.” That had a huge affect on me, because I saw something of myself in that, which I think is more expressed in The Three Paradoxes – my attempt to try to control the chaos that is life, or get your hands around all these different variables that are beyond your control.
SC: And you don’t have the luxury of coming from a broken home.
PH: No, I just come from a history of chemical imbalances. We’re just nuts, other than that we’re completely well-adjusted.
SC: I was looking on your blog and you’re obviously excited about the movie adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, and then I thought that must’ve been an influence on the lion mask Thomas wears in Mother, Come Home.
PH: I hadn’t thought of that. I didn’t realize until the last five ten years how few people, like Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Charles Addams, and Jim Henson, really influenced me. I didn’t realize how many of my favourite things were Maurice Sendak stories, and likewise with Jim Henson – I didn’t necessarily put together Sesame Street with The Muppet Show and The Dark Crystal. But I think the lion mask was principally influenced by a store my mom and I would drive by when I was a kid, and it would have masks in the window at Halloween. I never got any of them, but it was a nice memory with my mom.
SC: What’s the difference between the Fantagraphics version of Mother, Come Home that’s just been published and the original Dark Horse publication?
PH: Just production value-wise, it’s superior. I kind of saw the book as hardcover originally, that’s what the cover design was based on. It’s just closer to what I had kind of envisioned originally. As far as changing anything, I might have corrected a couple of errors. But if you go back and start changing stuff you’re going to end up with the first three episodes of Star Wars.
SC: So it’s not the Mother, Come Home Absolute edition.
PH: Right, there won’t be any deleted scenes. The only thing that changed about the book was, the very last line in the original comics [Forlorn Funnies] was a totally different line. My editor pushed me on that. Being a typical stubborn ass of an artist, I was resistant to it at first, but then I spent some time thinking about it and came up with a line I think is way better.
SC: You were the colourist on Omega the Unknown, which I thought was a great book, especially coming from a mainstream company like Marvel.
PH: It got a little pocket of attention, but I think it flew under the radar. It’s funny, I go into [comic] stores, they see my name on a credit card, and they always say, “We really like that Omega book. It’s one of our best sellers, we’re always telling people ‘Read this, you’ll like it.'” It’s a weird sell, because people wouldn’t necessarily know about Jonathan Lethem if they didn’t read novels. Mainly the reason I worked on it is I’m friends with Farel, and a fan of Jonathan [Lethem]’s writing. And I got to work on Gary Panter‘s stuff too. [Panter did the cover and some interior art for an issue.] I just had to colour it the way I thought he would colour it. After, I was basically checking my email inbox waiting for the rejection, for them [Marvel] to tell me that no way they’re going to go with this, that it’s off-register and psychedelic. But I think by that point in the series they’d thrown up their hands.
SC: Now, what’s this story you’ve done for Marvel, “Nightcrawler Meets Molecule Man”?
PH: I liked the Bizarro books that DC did, I thought hat [letting alternative comics artists tackle the DC universe] was a really good idea. I don’t know what they’re going to call the book, but my story is basically a philosophy and physics rant, with Nightcrawler and Molecule Man having this intense conversation about free will for four pages, which is what we were given to work with. I had two different Spider-Man stories completely written and scripted, but they were too long to fit into four pages. I kind of doubt those’ll ever see the light of day.
SC: Any superhero skeletons in your closet?
PH: I will say I’m not into the superhero world, though I loved that Batman manga book. That, and the Fletcher Hanks book [I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets]; both kind of showed where superheros could have gone, where they were going for awhile. It’s like you take Nirvana, and three generations down the road you get Creed. They’ve chucked all the good stuff, and now everything’s gritty Frank Miller type of stuff.
SC: This of course leads to the movie version of Watchmen…
PH: I thought Eric Reynolds kind of nailed it on the Fantagraphics blog: it’s like seeing somebody who really loves a song doing that most faithful rendition of that song and still just fucking it up. It was very faithful to the aesthetics and look of the book. I think the major thing was, I didn’t care. While I was reading the book I cared, and I think it moves really well. I’m glad they took all that pirate crap out of the movie. It does help the book as a pacing device. Otherwise the book would move a little too quickly. I think the main thing too was that I was watching the movie with my girlfriend, who had no experience with the book, and I was thinking about what she was making of these characters, and what this must be like for the average person coming in who hasn’t read the book.
SC: Your girlfriend is joining you on tour?
PH: She actually hasn’t been to any comics events, ever. She works at the Museum of Contemporary Art, so when we kiss each other goodbye in the morning, she goes off to the museum, and I go upstairs and work on comics. On this tour, she’s going to get every single kind of experience, the art gallery [Charles A. Hartman] in Portland, the convention [Emerald City ComiCon] and after-party in Seattle, the comics store [Lucky’s] in Vancouver.
SC: Hopefully some people will be in costume in Seattle to really give her the full effect.
PH: I was looking at the people attending, who the guests are, and there are too many big name guests for there to not at least be someone in costume. In 2001, in the wake of 9/11, I was at a convention in Baltimore, the least populated convention ever, and the most fun I’ve ever had at a convention, there were even people dressed up at that. There are four people there, and half of them are dressed as Thor.
SC: You’ll have to take her to the San Diego Comics Convention.
PH: Yeah, it’s one of those things. I tell people you have to go at least once. The major mistake I think people make, and that I made the first time, is going every day for long periods of time. You’re in San Diego, so there are other things to do. But it’s everything about pop culture happening at once. My first year I went I was at a table the whole time, every single day, and the problem with the convention is, it’s everything possible in the emotional spectrum turned up to 11. A little kid is in the most beautiful innocent state when he sees someone dressed up as Batman, and then you’ve go the guy dressed as Batman trying to push everyone out of his way, and some 40-year-old guy trying to realize part of his youth by buying this gun that goes with that action figure, and the guy selling it to him for three times what he knows it’s worth, and that’s like within a three-foot radius. But like I said, if you’re going to go, just pop in for an hour or two, and then get out.