The Three Paradoxes by Paul Hornschemeier

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The Three Paradoxes
Paul Hornschemeier
Fantagraphics Books

3paradoxes.jpgAfter a series of delays stretching back to at least 2005, Paul Hornschemeier’s latest book, The Three Paradoxes, finally debuted at this year’s SPACE and APE cons. I’m a huge fan of Paul’s work, having been stunned by both Mother, Come Home and Let Us Be Perfectly Clear, so I was predictably thrilled to finally get my hands on a copy. Unfortunately, the quality of the final product is (and I cringe as I write this) mixed. I don’t mean to say The Three Paradoxes is a bad book – far from it – only that it doesn’t quite live up to the standard of Hornschemeier’s earlier work.

The Three Paradoxes is explicitly autobiographical. The story is set during a visit by Paul to his parents’ house in rural Ohio, where he sits drafting pages for a story called “Paul and the Magic Pencil.” Very little happens in the present tense – he goes for a walk with his father to snap pictures, to turn off the lights in his father’s office and to buy a bag of chips. Much of the book’s action occurs in a series of increasingly disparate digressions, which include Paul’s childhood, the childhood of a disfigured gas station clerk, and a lecture by the pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno.

Fans of Hornschemeier’s work will recognize themes from his earlier work, such as father/son relationships and childhood scars (both physical and psychological) that are carried into adulthood. His storytelling is at once indirect and deeply personal – there’s little explicit conflict to be found in the book, but Paul also freely discusses embarrassing and painful memories from his childhood.

As the book’s title suggests, the real “core” of the story is Zeno describing his three paradoxes denying the possibility of change. To understand what the story is really getting at, think of the three paradoxes in relation to other parts of the story. For one example, compare the paradox of the arrow in flight to Paul’s camera freezing moments in time. For another, think of the paradox of a runner stuck permanently at a disadvantage in relation to the gas station clerk’s adolescence.

Whether or not you buy any of Zeno’s paradoxes (personally, I’m with Paul’s dad on this one), you have to admit that it’s rare to read a graphic novel with this sort of abstract philosophical depth. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the plot of The Three Paradoxes was also frozen in place. It’s complex and thoughtful, to be sure, but I didn’t come away with the feeling of it having moved or accomplished anything by the final page.

Visually, Hornschemeier is as stunning as ever. His inks and colors are extremely clean, and his imitation of old golden age kids’ comics in “Zeno and his Friends” is spot on. Even more importantly, I can’t think of a single book designer working in comics who’s better than Hornschemeier. Much like Let Us Be Perfectly Clear, it’s a delight just to hold a copy of The Three Paradoxes in your hands. The wrap-around dust jacket is sharply composed and lettered, and underneath, Paul sets the blue-line “skeleton” on the hard cover itself. If it were up to me, I’d personally recommend Hornschemeier for the Harvey in Production/Presentation.

As I said, The Three Paradoxes is not a bad book. It’s visually impressive and formally daring, but at the expense of having an interesting, linear plot. Fans of Paul’s work should definitely check it out, but newcomers would be better off starting with Mother, Come Home. Still, I think that Hornschemeier is one of the finest young cartoonists out there, and I’m eagerly anticipating his next one.

—Ben Pogany

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