guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

September 2006

Kevin Huizenga, Or Else #4 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2006) $5.95 ; Ganges #1 (Fantagraphics/Cocinino Press, 2006) $7.95;Or Else (Drawn and Quarterly, 2006) $21.95

by Jared Gardner

Kevin H.’s work always seems to be on my bedside table—both in his ongoing and occasional Or Else, and also in his work in several of the best anthologies in the last couple of years, including Blood Orange, Drawn and Quarterly Showcase, and Kramer’s Ergot. I don’t even remember buying it, but there it is and it keeps multiplying. It gets into my dreams, back in the corners of my cluttered brain. But even though it’s complex, often dense work, I recently realized that I have been reading Huizenga for a couple of years now without ever feeling compelled to articulate what exactly I think about it. Of course, 2006 is proving to be the Year of Kevin H. and his alter-ego, Glenn Ganges, whose adventures and surreal epiphanies are featured this year in no fewer than three collections. All of this culminates in the long-anticipated Curses, which collects several of Huizenga’s earlier stories. There is a sense of watching a young comic artist fully coming of age only to discover that, at age 29, he is already one of the most mature, nuanced, and sophisticated comic artists of a generation. It was time to sit down and reread his work in the light of day.

In the cold light of morning Kevin H.’s work is as hard to pin down as it was in my insomniac dream-reading. He often composes in small clusters of stories connected by a unifying theme or motif. For example, the pieces collected in
Or Else #4 turns around the theme of “Glenn Ganges in the Wild Kingdom,” a series of meditations on man and nature in the suburban Midwest. Like a musical suite, the tones of the pieces change dramatically from movement to movement. Glenn confronts a range of wildlife in his adventures, including a mousquito (whose violent death results in a Nike logo smeared on his bedroom wall), several squirrels (fortunate and tragic), and a pigeon stoned out of his mind on McDonald’s french-fries.  The tones of the individual movements range from surreal, to lyric, to slapstick, yet there is only very rarely a sense of discord or self-indulgence.

It is hard not to read Kevin H. in relation to Chris Ware. Although their styles are very different (Kevin H. favors a lighter comic-strip line, as opposed to Ware’s immaculate chrome-plated figures), they both share, in addition to a brilliant design sense, an obsession with questions of time and memory and the grotesque beauty (beautiful grotesque?) of modern suburban life. But where Ware tends toward a Realist’s scientific dispassion toward the figures in his graphic Petri dish, Huizenga’s relationship to his characters is warm, affectionate, and forgiving.

One exception to this is the uncharacteristically longer piece “Jeepers Jacobs,” collected in
Curses (and originally appearing in Kramer’s Ergot). This story provides an opportunity to see Huizenga’s color work (the vast majority of his work is in black and white), but its tone is very different from most of his other work. Jeepers is a conservative colleague of Glenn’s brother, a professor at the seminary. After a Sunday game of golf Jeepers is caught off guard when he discovers that Glenn does not go to church. The rest of the long story focuses on Jeeper’s struggles to finish an essay defending the concept of Hell against reformist theologians, all the while meditating on how to save Glenn’s soul. Unlike most of Huizenga’s work, this piece has a cold cruelty to it, and Jeepers is left alone at the story’s conclusion to a most undignified fate. It is hard to know if the coldness here is the result of working in the mode of the longer narrative or of moving the focus away from the semi-autobiographical Glenn. In either case there is reason to hope he avoids both such temptations in the future. (And indeed, the turn to the longer narrative by talented short-story comic creators is not always a happy turn, as Tomine’s more recent work suggests.)

I will also admit to being less excited about Huizenga’s work that relies more explicitly on social satire or commentary. A piece he did for
Time magazine on “The Hot New Thing” in 2004 is collected in Curses and feels easy and somehow dated. More fairly, it feels like the work of a twenty-something, to which Kevin H. is certainly entitled. But it is work that will ultimately be relegated to entertaining juvenilia as his career unfolds.

As exciting as it is to have
Curses (especially for its collection of the remarkable suite of stories “Lost and Found,” “28th Street,” and “The Curse,” originally published in D&Q Showcase #1), what ultimately prevents it from being quite as successful a book as the shorter Glenn Ganges or Curses is that, as an anthology, it never quite has the natural rhythms and unity of his Ganges “books.” Huizenga is a creator of suites, not pieces, and it is in allowing them their full range within the covers of his volumes that he does his most profound work.

For this reason, perhaps, the most successful of these three terrific books is
Glenn Ganges #1, Huizenga’s first in what promises to be an ongoing series for Igort’s Ignatz Press series (published in this country by Fantagraphics). Each story in this volume is perfectly folded into the next. Beginning with “Time Traveling,” a remarkable graphic tour de force and meditation on graphic storytelling’s unique abilities to represent time and memory, there is not a false note or a missed beat in the entire book. And having an opportunity to read Huizenga’s work in the larger 8X11 format of the Ignatz series and seeing his control over the page is a real treat. This volume focuses on Glenn and Wendy, and on the way in which the most personal and pedestrian of domestic rituals and concerns folds inevitably into the most cosmic and overwhelming of meditations and insights. It is in many ways Kevin H.’s most personal work (along with the trio in Curses about Glenn and Wendy’s epic struggle to have a child), and it is by far his most accomplished. On the eve of Huizenga’s 30th, there is every reason to believe that this “Year of Kevin H.” is just the beginning of the most promising career of the next generation.