Paul Hornschemeier on ‘Life with Mr. Dangerous’


At Work

Forlorn Funnies, the title of cartoonist Paul Hornschemeier’s periodical of short prose comics, aptly characterizes all of his work: bleak subjects leavened by drollery and gags reigned-in by finely drawn anxieties. The author of the graphic novels Mother, Come Home (2003) and The Three Paradoxes (2007) and two collections of shorter work, Hornschemeier recently published Life with Mr. Dangerous, a graphic novel he began serializing in Fantagraphics’s comics anthology, Mome, in 2005. The story concluded last winter, and the novel, which tells the story of a young woman adrift in bad relationships and obsessed with a little-known cartoon show, appeared in book form last month. I spoke with Hornschemeier from his home in Evanston, Illinois.

The story was serialized in Mome over a period of five years. Was the story whole in your mind when you started, or did you create it as you went along?

With most of my stories, I have key scenes in mind and I almost always have the beginning and end done right from the start. With this one, I definitely had key emotional notes I wanted to hit, and I knew how it ended and the set up. But it was strange in that I was both writing it as I was going, and, as it was coming out in Mome, I was going back and editing the story and inserting new pages. So in the book, there are thirty pages that weren’t in the serialized format.

What was needed that wasn’t already there?

I could see there were beats I hadn’t hit that I wanted to go back and reemphasize, pacing issues and characterization issues that I wanted to resolve. I produced that graphic novel really differently than my other graphic novels. Mother, Come Home was very act 1, act 2, act 3, and they were written very much as acts by themselves. And The Three Paradoxes was as close as possible to what a full screenplay would be, because it was so complex, with interlocking narratives. But this one was just a huge, jumbled mess.

Did your perspective of the story and the characters change over time?

It took me a while to figure out what exactly Amy’s problem was, because, although it’s totally fiction, she was very autobiographical, so I think I was trying to figure out what my problems were. She changed over time because of that, but hopefully it was fairly organic. There definitely wasn’t any moment when I thought, Oh, okay, now I need to make her a totally different person.

Life with Mr. Dangerous is formally subdued. It doesn’t contain the mix of styles or the surrealism that characterizes much of your other work. Had you originally conceived of it as a more straightforward project?

I knew I wanted Amy to be obsessing over this cartoon show and to be escaping into the daydream world, but that was as far as I wanted to go. Mother, Come Home is about a family on the verge of madness, sinking into depression, and it does have all these postmodern things happening, playing with what is real and what is not, how much is true and what is not. With Amy, I wanted it to be like we’re looking at her mental world as much as she is, seeing it spinning out of control, something that’s barely within her control. I really didn’t want it to be something that was quite as crazy as some of the stuff I’ve done. I mean those narratives, The Three Paradoxes and Mother, Come Home, deal with more disjointed mental states. With Amy, one of the problems she’s facing is that her world is even-keeled and consists of the same thing in a loop over and over again. So jarring it too much out of that, too routinely, wouldn’t have fit the story.

Your aim was to keep it tied to reality as close as possible?

As much as possible while having a character who is obsessing over a cartoon show and having low-grade hallucinations. For me that’s a very straightforward, normal story.

If it’s partly autobiographical, why did you make her female?

I think a lot of the story ideas I come up with I don’t see as being autobiographical. Then I write them for more than five minutes and realize, Oh my God, that’s completely me. I think that’s the only way I could ever write anything that seems honest. I grew up with two sisters, and my mother was very much the breadwinner of our household. I don’t mean this as something against my own sex, but I never fit in with the other boys. There were just so many things in the masculine vernacular, the masculine world, that I was never really a part of.

Some of that was that I had overintellectual, overprotective parents. Any cool movies that had any of the good stuff—guns, horror, nudity—I wasn’t allowed to watch. Masterpiece Theater was fine. Anything that was on PBS. I was allowed to watch Oklahoma and West Side Story. My mother reared me to be an eighty-year-old, gay man from England, so I think I had some identity issues. I feel like the voice that cut through my childhood was more female dominated. As I embarrassingly said once on NPR, my bathroom reading was about Toxic Shock Syndrome. So revisiting that voice was a very natural thing for me.

The psychological portrait of Amy depends largely on one-sided conversations she has with herself, her cat, and her friend Michael over the phone.

She acts as her own therapist to a large degree. Even when she’s not having a one-sided conversation, with Michael, he’s presumably saying something, but I don’t think she’s at a place in her life where she’s ready to hear what other people have to say. Her own mother doesn’t hear what Amy has to say, so even though they’re decades apart, they’re in the same sort of place in life.

Are you intentionally drawing a connection between Farmer Greg’s amnesia and that period in your early twenties, when your identity isn’t set?

Mr. Dangerous is the neighbor of Farmer Greg and that’s all he is, and he’s just trying to get on with his life. But Farmer Greg has no awareness of who this person is or what he’s supposed to be. So Farmer Greg becomes the problem of the mid-twenties. Amy sort of talks about that, I don’t know if she’s necessarily putting it in those terms for herself, but that’s one of the reasons she’s latching onto this show that apparently nobody else watches. And her watching that show and being familiar with it when nobody else is definitely comes from my familiarity with popular culture as a kid, where I felt like everybody knew about these shows that I never got to see and never had any idea what people were talking about.

Your style and tone is frequently compared with those of Chris Ware. From your point of view, is that an apt comparison?

When the very first color comic I had was coming out, I remember saying to Jeffrey Brown, who I’ve been friends with for a long time, Get ready for the Chris Ware comparison. And sure enough, that started happening immediately. It makes sense to me on an aesthetic level, in terms of our color palettes—we both have muted Midwestern palettes in general, and I think we’re concerned with some of the same subjects. I don’t feel like our storytelling techniques or our line quality or the page layout or a lot of other things that are significant have anything to do with one another. But it’s fine, because then nobody talks about how much I feel like I’m ripping off Charles Burns and Dan Clowes. Let’s just throw up that smoke screen and we’ll all move on.

Are Clowes and Burns artists you actively look to?

There are certain people who, in everything they do, are scrambling and scratching and trying to pull themselves to the surface of this unnameable thing that they’re going after and trying to evolve with every work. I certainly see that in Chris’s work, but I feel it and connect with it more in Clowes’s work and Burns’s and Jim Woodring’s.

The adjective depressive is frequently used to describe your work, but it’s a rather playful kind of depression.

Mother, Come Home explored a very specific emotional landscape—it needed to be that kind of book—but that’s not really the kind of story in general I want to spend a lot of time doing. And while I do think there’s a depressive quality to a lot of my stories, because I probably spend some chunk of time when I’m by myself being introspective and maybe a little sad—that’s not life. As I was writing my “About the Author” for Mr. Dangerous, I was looking outside and there was an abandoned Christmas tree covered in snow waiting to be picked up with the trash. I was moping about that and then a cute dog walked by and I was completely, totally elated—Look at the cute dog!—and then I was fine. Yes, there are very sad moments, and my life can attest to this. But I can be in the middle of crying and still make a fart joke. That’s comedy to me, and I’ve always found relief in those moments.