Good Grief

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Sorry for the delay, folks, but I've been waiting for something to write about. I finally found it in Paul Hornschemeier's new book, "Mother Come Home" (Dark Horse Books; 128 pp.; $15.95), a collection of issues two through four of his "Forlorn Funnies" series of comicbooks. TIME.comix first spotted Hornschemeier's work two years ago, with his amusing and experimental first issue. Now his graphic novel smartly puts formalism at the mercy of a serious story.

"Mother Come Home" focuses on Thomas, a boy whose age seems to be somewhere between eight and ten. Thomas' mother has recently died of cancer, leaving his father severely depressed to the point of non-functioning. As the book begins Thomas compensates by picking up the slack as best he can. Donning a lion mask and faux-ermine cape he begins to think of himself as "the groundskeeper." But Thomas' uncle soon discovers the dysfunction and one day Thomas comes home to find his father packing to check himself into a clinic. After moving in with his aunt and uncle, Thomas devises to break his father out, a scheme his father plays along with, resulting in a briefly happy reunion that ultimately turns tragic.

Hornschemeier explores the nature of melancholy and bereavement and the ways people find to cope. That he does this by using the unique language of comics is what makes "Mother" so fascinating. For example, the opening dream-like sequence depicts Thomas' father floating around an empty landscape, looking for someone. The colors are muted and deadened. It's a strange scene that through its visual queues sets the tone of the father's state of mind. When Thomas arrives, the colors brighten. At other times the drawing style will "degrade" to a child-like simplicity where all the characters are animals. These sequences act as little metaphors for the dramas in Thomas' mind, as when his aunt and uncle conspire to feed him mush that will make him love them. Hornschemeier has a sharp sense for the aesthetics of comics. In spite of its themes of guilt and sadness, "Mother" has some lovely images and a fascinating color palette.

Thomas and his dad, asleep at the top left, along with other characters from "Mother Come Home"

Many of the details of "Mother, Come Home" only become apparent with second or third readings. A similar-looking flower links two different and seemingly unrelated sequences, for example. Not many books make you want to read them at least twice, but this one has enough going on to merit the effort. The only criticism would be of its unleavened tone. Without a sense of humor some of the more experimental aspects of the book come off as pretentious. The peculiar way the book has been presented as the introduction to an apparently fanciful series, for example, seems unnecessarily confusing. In the end, though, we appreciate artists who stretch.

Paul Hornschemeier's ambitious "Mother, Come Home," makes for the first really interesting comic of the year. Many will instantly see a similarity with Chris Ware, author of "Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth." Hornschemeier certainly shows good taste in his influences and will undoubtedly make ever more unique and valuable works.