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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Three Paradoxes -- There are comics about what it feels like to be alive, and there are comics about comics. The paradox I found in Paul Hornschemeier's new graphic novel is that it is both of these at once.

The Three Paradoxes is published by Fantagraphics Books, and you can see the cartoonist's fascination with process right on the wraparound cover, seven distinct panels playing with time, mood, and perception. Further investigation of the dustcover -- that is to say, taking it off -- further uncovers Hornschemeier's techniques, as the hardcover beneath the dustcover rolls back time to an earlier, unfinished, blue-pencil and ink version of the cover. It could just be a talented book designer having fun with his newest project, or it could be a statement about his intentions for the work and its effect on the reader. Or, it could be both, and probably is.

Throughout his cartooning carrer, Hornschemeier has played with form and content far more deeply than most of his peers. Only Seth and Chris Ware come to mind as fellow travellers of Hornschemeier's, always conscious not only of the impact of plot, dialogue, art and design, but further journeying into the unknown country that is the tactile, almost quantum effect on the reader by manipulating such seemingly invisible elements as paper stock and binding. Hornschemeier seems to invest his efforts into an almost obsessive control over the finished product's look and feel, which is why later issues of Sequential and all of Forlorn Funnies (his two forays into periodical publishing) feel as much art objects as they do funnybooks.

When I interviewed Hornschemeier a few years ago, he expressed some dissatisfaction about his graphic novel Mother, Come Home, and I'd have to guess that he feels The Three Paradoxes addresses some of his concerns. A single story broken down into separate sections and techniques, it still feels more natural and graceful than Mother, Come Home. And while Mother, Come Home impressed me as an ambitious and well-done book, I have to admit the richness and variety in The Three Paradoxes suggests a work I will be pulling off the shelf more often, to revisit its subtle mysteries and marvel at its artwork.

If you've read Hornschemeier's work before, you may be familiar with his blue-line pencil work or his fascination with making some of his images look old, discarded. All of that and much more is on display in The Three Paradoxes, the actual story of which is quite simple: A young artist named Paul visits his parents while he works on some comics and prepares for a first meeting with a woman he met online. It sounds much simpler than it is, though, as Hornschemeier weaves all his above-mentioned obsessions -- time, mood, perception, comics -- into a rich, rewarding tapestry that makes The Three Paradoxes his finest, most complete and forward-looking work yet.

Flashbacks and flights of fancy are demarcated by a number of artistic styles that echo various periods and artists throughout comics history, suggesting influences as diverse as Charles Burns and Hank Ketcham. Where another artist -- or even this one, earlier in his career -- might have presented such work as well-intentioned but scattered, Hornschemeier is in full control of what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. This allows the reader to fully immerse in the cartoonist's technique without ever losing sight of the main point of this or any other story -- the theme. In The Three Paradoxes Hornschemeier unpacks his growing and impressive toolbox to reflect on his life, what he has learned, and where he is going.

The reader is not bashed over the head with obvious roadsigns, and neither are they forced to guess at Hornschemeier's intentions. Rather, the graphic novel unfolds its ultimate goal one panel at a time, one page at a time, the cartoonist in perfect tune with his art, saying what he wants to say, how he wants to say it, and in a way that is both a delight and a wonder to experience. The final panel suggests much about what is to come for Paul as a character and as a comics creator, and it says even more about the journey he has just allowed us to take with him.

The very best comics creators put their lives and minds right there on the page and invite the reader to observe, analyze, even judge. The Three Paradoxes is, as I said at the start, both about what it feels like to be alive, and about the process and wonder of creating comics. It's visually arresting, emotionally resonant work. On every page of The Three Paradoxes, Hornschemeier is telling you about his history, his fascinations and his future. This is a book by a cartoonist getting better all the time, and the best example yet of why Paul Hornschemeier is among the most vital and promising creators working today.



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