Friday, February 25, 2005

Or Else #1

It's a testament to Kevin Huizenga's talent that I regard the advent of a new "Glenn Ganges" story to be probably the single most exciting comics event possible right now. After career-making appearances in the fifth Kramer's Ergot and the first Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, he is poised to become the leading cartooning talent of the moment - and considering that the past few years have also revealed the likes of Jeffrey Brown, Mat Brinkmann, Marjane Satrapi and Paul Hornschemier, this is no small statement.

The main feature in Or Else #1 is "NST '04", an eleven-page Glenn Ganges tale. Surprisingly, Ganges has proven a remarkably elastic vehicle for Huizenga's multi-faceted and complex narratives. So far we've seen Ganges rake leaves and water his lawn, eat a meal with an ogre and play golf with an over-zealous evangelical scholar. Ganges' almost aggressively banal and engagingly normal existence provides a surprisingly facile lever into just about any odd situation that Huizenga wants to explore: Ganges' adventures - like our own daily adventures - are disjointed and seemingly random, sometimes profound and sometimes prosaic, and intercut with daydreams and fantasies. The context of Glenn Ganges' life allows Huizenga access to the most phenomenal range of topics imaginable.

"NST '04" is broken up, chronologically, without any indication of the time span elapsed. The "present", in the context of the story, involves a late-night trip to a cemetery with Glenn and his girlfriend. (I say "girlfriend" because this story seems to occur at a time before other Ganges stories, before they were married and living together considering that this story is an amended version of "NST '99”, which would make sense.) But what could perhaps have been a relatively straight-forward story of a lazy Indian summer night is given extra weight and heft by the way Huizenga plays with the timeline - events from the story's subjective "past" are played out simultaneously with stories from the "present", allowing parallel narrative threads to develop and comment upon each other. Once you read the story for the first time you can then go back and piece together the different threads in order to form a more cohesive arc, and in so doing this you perceive any number of additional factors that went unnoticed during the first reading.

Any Ganges story presents a smorgasbord of closely-intertwined thematic elements. "NST '04" seems to be concerned with the variability of time perception from an almost relativistic perspective. In a brief conversation (taken from a random point in the "past") touched upon in the course of the narrator's reminiscences, there's one quote that strikes the reader as particularly revealing:
...but still, he's after a description of the world outside time, from a perspective he himself knows is impossible... outside the world of accident and succession...

Huizenga knows that the perception of time is absolutely critical to the perception of dramatic irony - in order for there to be any surprises or harsh juxtaposition, there must also be causality, events flowing smoothly in ordered succession. But, as humans, we are simply unable to perceive the kind of asynchronous universe envisioned by Gödel to exist in the realm of theoretical physics, so we are basically stuck with an intrinsic sense of time, a sense of narrative flow and causality that flows inexorably even if our perception of time is upset or rearranged.

"NST '04" uses the cartooning medium to illustrate how the "future" can be used to comment ironically on the "past", from the subjective perspective of the reader's vantage. If you were to clip apart and paste together all the panels of "NST '04" so that they read in objective chronological order, you'd have a slightly interesting but unexceptional story - basically a big set up for a very small gag. But as it is the narrative as a whole gains momentum on the principle of a kind of accumulated simultaneity, so that at the end of the story, when all the pieces are placed together on the page, they succeed in adding up to far, far more than the sum of their parts.

The story's "climax" - a beautifully rendered two-page sequence of increasingly impressionistic bike-riding - would have taken place somewhere nearer the middle of the story, instead of coming as it does at the 3/4 mark, just before hitting the contemplative note on which the story glides out. Again, as with many other Ganges stories, Huizenga knows when to back away from the rigid stylistic straightjacket with which he approaches the Ganges universe - portrayed in a kind of EC-Segar-meets-Ron-Rege-Jr. deadpan - and insert just the right splash of stylistic flair necessary to deliver a crucial epiphany.

There is another Ganges story in the book, "Jeezoh", which tells the bizarre myth of the Jeezoh, an iconic figure in "Midwestern American beliefs" who aids the spirits of prematurely dead children who suffer in Hell. At five pages long it is just long enough to be weird, disturbing and somehow melancholy all at the same time. This story will probably be more significant if you've read any of the Ganges stories dealing with infertility, however - particularly the story in the first D&Q Showcase wherein Glenn and his wife must deal with their crippling inability to have children.

"Chan Woo Kim" is entirely different from Huizenga's Glenn Ganges stories, even if it obliquely touches upon many of the same issues involving abundance and infertility. text from the adoption papers of a young Chinese orphan are juxtaposed against sparse scenes of Asian landscapes. The effect is not unlike that of pure poetry, in particular haiku, where sparse language and selective imagery combine to create the very pointed effect of a brief and vivid sensory experience.

The book is rounded out with a one-page "Fight or Run" gag that is probably the closest thing to a superhero story we'll get from Huizenga. The small deformed figures remind me of something you'd expect to see in a Mat Brinkman or Marc Bell tale, and the whole thing hinges on a visual pun that is both clever and funny.

Or Else #1 is only 32 pages long, and it's a little smaller than the average comic, but it is one of the most concentrated and powerful doses of comic book goodness that has crossed my path in quite some time... at least, since I saw the last new Kevin Huizenga comic. If you don't already have a copy, you should.

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