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Another relationship, not happening:
“Oh, I’m sorry, perfectly nice guy, I just can’t do this because you don’t worship the same cartoon I do, and you say the ‘wrong’ thing when there isn’t really a ‘right’ thing, and you didn’t look sad the right way during the first part of the movie…”
Amy Breis is angry and confused by her response to her own actions in Evanstonian Paul Hornschemeier’s funny and moving graphic novel for grown-ups growing up, “Life With Mr. Dangerous.” The book, Mr. Hornschemeier’s fourth, is published by Villard, an imprint of Random House, and was released just this summer. He is its writer, penciller, inker and colorist, and his wok is equally effective visually and narratively.
The story (like life) is at once simple and complex: Every day, Amy Breis takes the same bus to work, passes the same buildings along the same streets. She works in a clothing store, an unexciting job at best, and often simply unsatisfying. At the end of every day she finally goes home to her apartment and those with whom she can relax and feel comfortable – her cat Moritz and her favorite cartoon, “Mr. Dangerous.” Amy’s interactions with everyone feel wrong to her, especially since her very close friend Michael moved away. She loves and misses him, and stays in touch with him by phone and mail. Though she tries out new relationships, she continually finds herself uncomfortable and unhappy, shutting them down before they can really get started. Amy’s relationship with her mother is discouraging, and she doesn’t connect with her coworkers. On the verge of turning 26 as the book begins, Amy Breis is not a happy young woman. Oh – and then she and her boyfriend Eric break up.
The gifted Paul Hornschemeier (pronounced “Hornch-meyer”) is spot-on in his cartoon representations of Amy, of the people who surround her and of her imagination-overload-fantasies as well as in the language “they” use to tell the story. Some things the author/ illustrator does so well overlap the written and the drawn in a delightfully significant manner. When Amy, for example, is not absorbing what those around her are saying, their words are shown to be literally outside her frame of reference: Only the lower bits of their speech-bubbles, are drawn within the given frame. Sometimes the words are completely outside it.
As Amy goes through her day, sometimes events trigger memories. Sometimes a memory of herself as a little girl, doing things with her mother, will emerge. She goes back over a number of her unsatisfying relationships with men in another. And she remembers her Michael.
Amy’s imagination leaves her in the dust sometimes, turning her into a cartoon character in the mode of “Mr. Dangerous.” The mini-comic that cartoon-Amy inhabits when this occurs is drawn in a less controlled, less realistic style, and depicts Amy’s thoughts and fearful meanderings in seemingly contradictory sharp relief.
This is true also for the snippets depicted of the “Mr. Dangerous” TV show itself, which sometimes airs in prophetic reruns and metaphoric interactions between characters: It is an oblique commentary on her life, which Amy sometimes nearly understands. It does finally wiggle into her subconscious, allowing her to see certain things about life, and about her life in particular, much more clearly. Cartoon, fantasy, life intermingle for Amy and face her head-on; that is, Amy faces herself.
While there is occasional swearing and a little nudity and sex, it is not gratuitous, and, as these things go, is pretty chaste.
Paul Hornschemeier was born in 1977 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the middle child of parents who both have degrees in philosophy and both went into law. Mr. Hornschemeier’s mother is a judge (“as are all mothers,” he says) and his father an attorney. The family moved to small Georgetown, Ohio, “a five-minute drive from Kentucky.” He himself moved to Columbus, where he, too, earned a degree in philosophy. Mr. Hornschemeier’s younger sister, Mary, lives in Chicago, and is the coordinator of the DePaul College of Law Death Penalty Clinic. His older sister, Ann, is a field and particle astrophysicist working at NASA.
The question, “So is she a rocket scientist?” has to be asked. Mr. Hornschemeier’s answer: “No, that’s her husband!”
Clearly his is a serious family. How the middle kid – the only boy – ended up in comics in Evanston (when he is not on a book-signing tour) was among the first questions the RT asked.
“I lived in Columbus and had a relationship that failed. I was looking for a clean start,” says Mr. Hornschemeier. He worked for a printing company in Canada as its American rep, and when they said he should move where he wanted as long as it was somewhere where “some publicity was going on,” he thought first of New York, where he knew a lot of people.
What brought him to the Chicago area was twofold: Chicago, “because basically I didn’t know anyone here and it sounded great,” and “mainly, because it’s really beautiful.” They moved to the area right after 9/11, in 2001, first to Ukrainian Village and then to Pilsen some years later, before settling down in Evanston. Now he writes, draws, and teaches one class a year in creative writing at the University of Chicago. His wife, Emily, is an administrator in human resources at the Chicago Museum of Modern Art.
As a kid, Mr. Hornschemeier says, he drew a lot. “In junior high drawing comics was about all I did.” But philosophy was his first choice of major in college; he took electives in philosophy and physics. “I didn’t draw for the first couple of years [in college]. I took an art class or two, then started reading comics again. When I found out about the industry I didn’t see a place for my comics in the mainstream.”
Then, however, a girl he dated in college lent him “Ghost World,” by Daniel Clowes (published by Fantagraphics, 1997), in his third year at college and he started drawing again. “I thought about switching to … art, but I was so far along, I just stuck with that [philosophy] degree.” He says he took “very specific” classes that taught material he now uses every day: photomechanical reproduction, lithography, color theory. Mr. Hornschemeier says, with a laugh, “I got bad grades in them,” but he has been nominated for Will Eisner Comics Industry awards several times as colorist and as writer.
Mr. Hornschemeier has also received positive reviews for his books from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. His books include the semi-autobiographical “The Three Paradoxes” (Fantagraphics, 2008) – which itself contains the hilariously intellectual strip “Zeno and His Friends,” peopled by large-headed, toga-clad, cartoon Greek philosophers. His collaborative work with Jonathan Lethem on ‘Omega the Unknown” (Marvel, 2000) was very well received.
The earliest of his books, “Mother, Come Home” (published by Dark Horse, 2nd edition, 2004), that originally appeared in his “Forlorn Funnies,” a deeply sad graphic novel about a boy dealing with the death of his mother; it is biographical to a degree about his father Mr. Hornschemeier says. Published around the same time was “All and Sundry: Uncollected Work 2004-2009” (Fantagraphics, 2009). “Forlorn Funnies, Vol. 1” is due to appear in January 2012.
“Life With Mr. Dangerous” is also semi-autobiographical, says the author, despite the fact that its protagonist is female.
The original story idea, he says, “popped up when I was in New York, just shortly after moving to Chicago.” Some of the ideas were in place then (“being poor, a student, horrible food” among them), but it was when he “revisited” the story later in life, after having experienced more, it “became more interesting.” Mr. Hornschemeier points out, too, that his observations of his sisters’ and their mother’s relationship over two decades also fit into place.
Femaleness is, Mr. Hornschemeier says, “not that strange of a head space for me to occupy. I’ve always understood women better than men. Dad’s a nice guy but not a forceful personality. My mother and sisters set the tone more for the first 18 years of my life. Going back and speaking that language wasn’t hard for me.”
And, in “Life With Mr. Dangerous,” he speaks it so very well.
Mr. Hornschemeier is working on two other graphic novels, though other illustrators will draw them. He is also working on a book for now titled “Obvious Amenities.” It is, he says, “a slightly more chipper ‘Death of a Salesman.’” Mr. Hornschemeier has also just released a set of art postcards (Chronicle books, Aug. 3, 2011) called “So-So Heroes.” This work is available at Comix Revolution in Evanston, through Amazon and other booksellers.