Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ganges #1
By Kevin Huizenga

I went shopping recently with a friend of mine who had never heard of Kevin Huizenga. I had finally found a copy of Ganges #1, which had sold out instantly at the comic shop I used to frequent, and which I had not come across in the intervening months. “Who is Kevin Huizenga?” my friend asked. She knows a fair amount about comics, at least the bigger names – she knows Chris Ware and Gary Panter and can even spot the difference between Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine (most of the time) – but Huizenga just isn’t anywhere near as big a name, not yet. My split-second reply was that Huizenga was our greatest living cartoonist.

Which is, of course, something of an exaggeration. Except, when I think about it, it’s not really that far off. It’s weird to think about just how new he is, relatively speaking – looking back on the early days of the decade, it seems almost as if he sprang fully-formed from the proverbial godhead. None of that growing-up-in-public stuff we used to see: his work was eerily good from the very moment he caught peoples’ attention. Come to think of it, I think most people who weren’t following his minicomics throughout the 90s caught on at pretty much the exact time, and it was something like an instantaneous paradigm shift: one minute there was no Kevin Huizenga, the next minute there was. If that sounds hyperbolic, well, I haven’t had very many reading experiences that equal the impact of my first exposure to “Jeepers Jacobs”. I can’t even remember if that was the first Huizenga I read or not, but I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I read that story in Kramers Ergot #5. And I also remember immediately flipping the pages back and reading the story again: not something I feel the need to do an awful lot these days.

And nothing he’s released or repackaged since then has disappointed. Huizenga's work hews a very canny line between experimentation and emotion, with stories that somehow manage to incorporate the strict formalism of the post-Fort Thunder crowd with a kind of honest sentimentality that only seems rare considering the dearth of melodrama in modern art comics. (Seriously, how many cartoonists out there contemplate humanity with all the empathy of bugs under a magnifying glass? Or, conversely, try for dimensionality and end up in the land of trite precocity? It's really hard to make good characters: just about the hardest thing to do in all of art, really.) Glenn Ganges isn't Kevin Huizenga - he's made that abundantly clear from interviews and other assorted statements. But reading about Ganges it is easy to understand why the temptation to connect him with his creator is so strong: there's an ease of feeling that defies trivialization.

Writing comics about ordinary life is extraordinarily difficult. A lot of people believe that you need to have led an interesting life in order to be able to write an interesting story about your life: just look for any online review of an autobiography for some variation of this tautology. But I've never believed that this is true at all. It's all about perception. Some of the most interesting books I've ever read were autobiographical studies of exceedingly banal events which were told in the most riveting way possible. Chester Brown's classic diptych of The Playboy and I Never Liked You are, simply on the face of their subject matter (adolescent angst over masturbation and girls, respectively), two of the most pedestrian books ever written, and yet they collectively set a high-water-mark for confessional autobiography that has rarely if ever been equaled. (I was going to mention Justin Green's Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, but on second thought, there actually is a pretty remarkable story just in Green's warped perceptions, whereas the actual facts of Brown's life are pretty remarkable simply for their ordinariness.) Like Justin Green, Huizenga isn't afraid to bend the line between relative (cartoon) naturalism and outright surrealism, and the somewhat liminal nature of Ganges' character - not quite an avatar for Huizenga, not quite entirely fictional - allows for a surpassingly supple manipulation of fictive reality.

To this end, one of Huizenga's favorite tricks is to warp the reality of the comics page in such a way as to allow the characters - and the reader - a sideways glimpse at the mechanical processes undergirding the actual reading process itself. It's not flashy like a Grant Morrison comic - which sometimes can feel a bit like Morrison standing on stage waving a big neon sign saying "Look how clever I am! You're reading a comic! I'll bet you didn't know that!" - but rather, Huizenga uses these little metatextual devices as a way of illuminating the interior life of his characters instead of any kind of large "Gotcha!" moment. It only makes sense, after all, that Glenn Ganges' understanding of time resembles the tiers of panels on a comic book page. What could have, conversely, been a wonky exercise in sequential poesy instead acts as an insightful peak into his character's interior life, a convincing look at the kind of silly, stupid, precious, profound thoughts people really do have when they allow their minds to wander.

Huizenga builds his stories out of seemingly nothing - the bare outlines of domestic episodes, woolgathering sessions and dime-store epiphanies that somehow add up to convincing snapshots. Unfortunately, Huizenga tries a couple different effects later in the book that don't quite add-up as well. In one instance, he interpolates song lyrics into the story in an attempt to juxtapose familiar, overplayed pop sentiment with more authentic emotion. It doesn't work partly because the song he picks is "She's Leaving Home" by the Beatles. I can see his thought-processes - in wanting to pick a song familiar enough so that as many people as possible would know it - in order to tap into the sort of shared-knowledge collective unconscious experience necessary in order for the emotional pivot of the story to work. But it never quite takes off, because the Beatles' song is so familiar that it makes for a jarring inclusion, and the song itself is, frankly, not one of the Beatles' high points. (Honestly, it's mawkish and silly and considering how much I loved it when I was a kid I don't think I ever need to hear Sgt. Pepper's again: it's a hard album to love considering it's probably the most overexposed cultural artifact of the last fifty years [or, at least, up in the top five with Star Wars, Thriller and Harry Potter]). Trying to dig deep into "She's Leaving Home" to make a genuine emotional statement seems forced - I would not say trite or lazy, because Huizenga makes an honest attempt, but it just didn't work for me. Similarly, an episode with a kid dropping a pocketful of candy wrappers on the ground seems repetitive, almost predictable in the way Glenn Ganges uses the episode as a springboard for daydreaming.

But after a wobbly middle section, the book picks up at the end, when Ganges' stray thoughts lead him straight into affecting territory: anxiety over growing old with his wife. This is where he was trying to build with "She's Leaving Home", the universally evocative image of growing old with your lover. It's a testament to his strengths as a storyteller that even though the middle portions of the book felt strained he was still able to land his proverbial jump with pinpoint accuracy: we are left with Glenn in the dark lying next to Wendy, feeling very much alone and afraid. The video games seen fleetingly throughout the book - and which take center stage in Ganges #2 - present death in an offhand manner, a temporary setback that can be overcome with the help of a reset button, just as time in a comic strip can be rerun merely by turning back the pages and reading again. Time can be a loop or a treadmill, and there is comfort in these repetitious motifs: how many times, exactly, have you seen Charlie Brown try to kick the damn football without success? You know how it ends, but there's comfort in the pageant of familiarity, a familiarity so often denied us in everything but comic strips and overplayed pop songs.

And how exactly does it end? It doesn't, really, it just sort of fades to black as Glenn gradually falls asleep in his darkened bedroom. Just like life.

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