Isaac Butler of the Parabasis (theatre, comics, the universe, and everything) blog knows I’m a fan of Kevin Huizenga, and invited me to have a diablog with him about the latest issue of Ganges, Huizenga’s occasional series for Fantagraphics about Glenn Ganges, Huizenga’s possibly somewhat-semi-autobiographical stand-in and everyman.
Well, I’m happy to oblige. We’ll be talking about Ganges #2 tomorrow some, so I thought I’d get a jump on it by talking a little bit about what I admire so much in Kevin H.’s work.
We are fortunate in that Douglas Wolk included a review of the Huizenga collection Curses in his wonderful tome Reading Comics. I’ve taken a good deal of notes myself, but I’ll be referencing Wolk often, I’m sure.
There are several hallmarks to Huizenga’s comics of which I’m particularly fond.
- His penchant for layering stories within stories (and sometimes within another layer or two of stories).
- His formal experimentation.
- His mixing of fiction on non-fiction.
- His concern for everything.
His Concern for Everything
By his concern for everything, I’m referring to the attention he gives to everyone – from birds, to the lonely souls of his life, to the missing children on the flyers that arrive in Glenn’s mailbox. As Wolk puts it, “everything has an intrinsically interesting story of it’s own.”
In Curses‘ “Jeepers Jacobs”, Kevin H. devotes most of the story to a devotedly Christian friend of Glenn Ganges’ brother. Huizenga spends about 14 pages looking deep into Dr. Jacobs’ psyche, and giving real attention to figuring out the man’s motivations. Dr. Jacobs is writing about hell, and so we also get a brief foray into the orthodox version of hell’s principles. The fact of the matter is that in most indie comics, Dr. Jacobs would more likely be the butt of a few jokes. In Kevin H.’s work though, this kind of character is a likely subject of exploration and empathy.
There are examples of this kind of empathy and curiosity throughout Huizenga’s oeuvre. In “Lost and Found”, also in Curses, Ganges starts out pondering the lives of missing children and the junk mail their faces occupy. This leads to a couple of pages on the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan. Or Else #4, sub-titled “Glenn Ganes in The Wild Kingdom,” is largly without dialogue and is almost entirely concerned with stories and scenes of Glenn’s interaction with wildlife in the suburbs – squirrels, birds, bigger birds, insects, cats, and what appears to be a boll weevil.
Ganges #1, published by Fantagraphcs in 2006, contains one of my favorite examples of Huzenga’s incredibly un-self-contered viewpoint. In “The Litterer”, Glenn sees a kid on a bike empty his pockets on the ground. Enraged, Glenn starts to consider what the kid could possibly have been thinking at the time. He considers the child’s possible future at the “CEO of a big company that dumps waste in the river” and then he devotes a couple more pages to figuring out how the kid got to this point and how he might turn into a giant, a politician, or a murderer. The whole time, Glenn never imagines his face, we only see the side of his face, and always with his biking helmet on. In a lovely turnabout, Huizenga points the finger at Glenn, though, when his wife realizes that for all his outrage, Ganges didn’t bother to pick-up after the kid.
Stories within Stories (within Stories)
The first story in Curses is called “Green Tea” and it has, by my count, 27,729,847 layers of story.
To start with, it’s a story that Huizenga is telling to us, so there’s one. It begins with Glenn telling us a story, and that’s 2. Within that story Glenn is sorting through some papers that his landlord’s brother wrote, and comes across the story of the Rev. Mr. Jennings, which he proceeds to quote at length.
So, now, we’ve got Huizenga telling us about Glenn telling us about the landlord’s brother telling us about Mr. Jennings. Four layers. So, guess what happens next … Mr. Jennings tells us a story – a couple of them actually. Five layers. Wow.
Huizenga does this kind of layering often, though not usually to this extreme. In the Ganges stories, he also plays with the role of the narrator, sometimes letting Glenn tells his own stories, sometimes using a narrative voice in captions and placing Glenn as the subject.
In a couple of stories in Ganges #1, Huizenga starts telling one story, only to pull back and have us realize that that story is being imagined by Glenn and Wendy in the context of a story about their slice of life.
In Or Else #2, in a story titled “The Groceries,” Glenn and a pregnant Wendy (his sometimes wife/sometimes girlfriend) put away the groceries. That’s all that really happens. However, during the course of this story, the couple imagines their varying visions of the future together with their child. Once the groceries are put away, and Glenn and Wendy are eating what appears to be watermelon, Wendy treats us to a long story about her sister.
This layering is used to a great effect in Ganges #2, as we’ll discuss soon.
Hey! You Got Your Fiction in My Non-fiction
Kevin H. obviously takes some pleasure in facts and figures. No big surprise, considering the amount of sheer wonder he seems to feel in the face of the world. And so, he frequently takes a tangent in his narratives for the edification of his audience. We’ll start with Curses once again and work our way out.
We’ve already mentioned the short dissertation on hell to be found in “Jeepers Jacobs. In “The Curse (Based on a True Story),” another Glenn Ganges piece, starts with a simple problem – a flock of starlings have moved into the tress on Glenn & Wendy’s block, making it impossible for anyone to hear, to sleep, or to walk around outside without gagging from the smell of bird droppings.
Well, before Glenn can get to a solution, Huizenga decides to give us a quick run-down on the starling’s introduction to America, a well-known but oft-mis-understood Shakespearean reference, the history of farmers’ attempts to deal with the pests, and the reasons for their evolutionary success. Huizenga follows this with a beautiful page of illustrations of the birds flying in formation.
Back in Or Else #2, in “The Moon Rose,” Glenn finds his (Sudanese, I believe) neighbors staring at the large, bright, red, moon, and one of them utters, “It means the end of the world.” Glenn, in an attempt to help, replies, “there’s a scientific explanation for all this.” And then, he gives it to us, complete with 11 pages of tiny, detailed drawings of lunar eclipses and the science behind their huge, red appearance. After which he says, “So don’t worry, okay?”
The fact is, I could write a week’s worth of posts about the ways Kevin H. twists and turns the comics form from time to time. His deceptively simple style (Wolk calls it “spare, whimsical, almost old-fashioned”) lulls the reader into thinking this is another friendly, expectations-meeting slice of life comic (which would be fine), but then Huizenga suddenly turns everything on its head with stuff like this. Look at this amazing work from “Time Traveling” in Ganges #1.
Amazing. Somebody (McCloud, Eisner, maybe) said that comics are time. Here, Huizenga proves it and uses it in several fantastic new ways. Look at Glenn moving diagonally in time. WOW.
To really understand what I’m talking about here, however, you’re going to have to go out and get the books. Curses is wonderful, and a beautifully designed book at that, but at $22, it ain’t cheap. If you want to get started with Huizenga’s work, I suggest you seek out Ganges #1, which is widely available, especially online, and at $7.95 it’s a steal. Furthermore, it contains my favorite Huizenga piece, it’s the last one in the book. Here’s a tiny, tiny taste of that.
More on Kevin H. very soon.
Kevin Huizenga’s website is here.
Over to you, Isaac …