More Formal Comics: Kevin Huizenga

Ganges #5Ganges #5; Fantagraphics; 2016; $8, 32 pgs; in print.
Ganges #6; Fielder Media; 2017; $8, 36 pgs; in print.
Fielder #1; Drawn & Quarterly; 2017; $8, 36 pgs; in print.

As far as results in mainstream comics go, entertainment is the number one priority, generally. But what if a creator(s) wanted to add something else to the mix? More extraneous content, such as a secondary, or plural purpose behind their intentions? Formal comics, as I call them, take into account a creator’s desire to go beyond simple entertainment. Such as adding a “profound” point, or perhaps displaying further inclusions into the author’s mind. Perhaps, dare I say it, comics providing an additional level of sensory experience?

Kevin Huizenga, what one could label a contemporary formal cartoonist, has been working for a number of years now, eschewing powerful fictional leads and situations, and produced some truly thought provoking work, with a talent that still entertains, yet seeks to provide another layer of humanism to the mix.

Initially in self produced “fanzine” formatted mini comics, Kevin has explored subtle questions about a variety of personal interests, pushing the expectations of comics in a uniquely different direction, while simultaneously giving himself aesthetic challenges to what comics depict, as well as attempt to reveal questions that puzzle him and provide impetus to produce comics, and test the mettle of his act of creation.

These examinations look toward the real and the imagined, the easily visible and experienced, as well as the realm of unreality itself. Whether it be a more traditional biographical approach, incorporating the side tracks and inroads towards non visceral, imagined, and theoretical reality as well.

His narrative approach, while seeming scattershot at times, reveals an artist that loves tangents, forks in the road as it were, to explore and develop as he goes along and discovers them, all the while keeping a touch of narrative approach to keep the reader on board. These little pamphlets have the physical ability to be both charming, intellectual, yet never entirely give up on the basic goal of comics themselves: to keep the reader reading, take them on a journey, and prove to them its an interesting journey in and of itself.

Now this approach can be fortuitous with success, or a disaster that leaves the reader lost, whirling in an undefined haze that ditches the needs of the reader for an egotistical self navel gazing mess that no one but the creator is interested in. For every rare successor, there are countless others that have left the witness behind in a surreal dimension that is neither interesting and fails utterly to come close to entertainment.

Yet, Huizenga’s craft level does this, submerging his personal context to keep the oddball topics accessible and even provoking. This is even reflected in his artwork that continues this approach, sublimating any type of recognizable style of rendering for a simple, basic, shape based set of visual icons that doesn’t bombard the reader with fancy visual tricks. It almost could be categorized as a non art type of visual, leaving no overt personality to interfere with the ideas he’s exploring.

Ganges #6

Such mundane topics as cohabitation, video games, sleep disorders, as well as fascinations with historical figures and events are all delivered with an almost generic method of depiction, yet the effect of page layout on the way your eye travels across the page are all done with the utmost care during this process, each with its own set of visual cues that the witness can grasp, and have fun with on this journey.

We comic readers generally all have this “stack” of unread comics we’ve accumulated yet not read, and when I recently purchased a copy of Huizenga’s Ganges #6, and discovered I had a copy of issue #5, they both fell into a two issue examination of the life and experiences of protagonist Glenn Ganges, a character I assume is a metaphor for Huizenga himself. Shortly after, I came across his newest comic, Fielder, that nicely rounds out a good reading challenge.

Ganges #5 explores many domestic topics including his relationship with Wendy, Glenn’s wife(?), their shared careers in creative art, the interaction of family members during a funeral that winds up with feelings of misplaced guilt that pretty much anyone could relate to. All of these topics work within the 12 page story, and despite its all over the place approach, comes off as linear and relaxed. The second, which begins as an overview of James Hutton, the originator(?) of modern geological theory, segues into an existential treatise on the passage of time, and how perception can completely turn around your view in an instant, all the while keeping its narrative focus and avoid being a didactical mess. It’s rounded out by a few pages of short bursts, comprised of little questions thrown at the reader to puzzle and explore.

Ganges #6 significantly ups the ante, utilizing almost the entire issue depicting reflections of Glenn’s perception of reality, seamlessly integrating a more complex set of visual tactics, dense packed with as many things as the brain can handle, yet it still comes off as a structured narrative, with as good a conclusion as we can produce in our own real time. All this and accomplishing a developed set of visual devices while still maintaining a non personal, simple drawing style that keeps the focus on its proceedings. Ganges #6 would have to be one of the more complex comic books I have ever read, yet keeps its identity as an accessible, entertaining exercise in its own right. Incredible.

Fielder #1

Fielder #1, the most recent, entertains, yet provides a half book length exploration this time putting forth his formal recreation of an abysmal third rate 60’s style adventure comic, breaking it down into pieces to examine its elements, and displaying their strengths and weaknesses for us to contemplate. The final set of short stories, one featuring Glenn Ganges and an overview of the mixing of sleeping and waking perceptions, features little reference to personal life pretty much entirely, and another more abstract video game interpretation of creation(?) round it out, except for the final tale, an unmistakable auto biographical foray in to Ganges life as an artist, takes a 180 degree turn as it is realistic, and cannot be confused with anything other than a mature cartoonist at the crossroads of his career and life. It comes off as somewhat melancholy, and discusses in length developments in his drawn work, and is purposely I believe depicted in as personal and realistic(?) manner as Huizenga has ever shown. While troubling, it may signify an end(?) to his previous approach, and sadly to this reader, an unknown sense of whether we’ll see him again. Nonetheless, Fielder #1 remains a solid example of what has come so far, and I really want to see what comes next for this impassioned, thought provoking artist that many can relate to, and of course, enjoy. I also noticed that the time it took me to read these three 32 page comics was just about 2 hours total. Try getting that much experience from three issues of the X-Men.

While Huizenga is not a simple read, he pays great dividends to the comic readers that will appreciate a road less traveled, as well as one that transcends typical storytelling methods for a greater reward, and perhaps an expanded view of what comics can be and achieve.

Patience (March 2016)

patienceThe past is far behind us / the future doesn’t exist sing the puppets of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. But eventually everyone runs out of time. Never truer than in Patience, which longtime Daniel Clowes fans may not find to be his best work, but is nonetheless unlike anything he’s ever done before – and first time readers will find it an excellent introduction to his talents. Clowes has never created a book of this length or focused upon a protagonist so intense as Jack Barlow, a haunted man whose surname references the vampire of Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot. Like an ageless ghoul, Jack lurks outside of time, referring to himself at one point as a ghost. The story begins with the murder of his pregnant wife, the eponymous Patience, so he’s already dead inside – at least until the discovery of time travel gives him the opportunity to somehow prevent that murder.

The story begins by establishing Jack’s total adoration for Patience and his hopes for their future family are a breathtaking refutation of the divorce-trauma cynicism about traditional family life which characterized Clowes’ generation. Strong stuff from an artist whose name was so synonymous with Gen-X in the 90s that Coca-Cola hired him to design packaging for ironically, intentionally mediocre soda pop. His Fantagraphics contemporary Peter Bagge eventually got married with children too, but even Buddy Bradley’s embrace of fatherhood over any hedonistic autumn years as an aging ink stud (or even Robert Crumb’s for that matter) was never celebrated so sincerely as in these first few opening pages before the bottom drops out. Clowes has also never written a protagonist so obsessively focused on one singular life-or-death matter as Jack’s quest to recover the new beginning his new family symbolized. Personally, Clowes’ The Death-Ray speaks to me more but maybe that’s because I’m not yet a husband or father. There’s palpable excitement for the reader upon realizing how ruthlessly driven Jack Barlow is about what may be an impossible effort, and knowing he has the rest of the heavy tome to see that one objective through.

Except for a few pointed scenes of internal narration by Patience herself, Barlow constantly narrates directly to the reader, alternately terse and conversational. Clowes has done similar character narration before, but never with the film-noirish tone of a furious and potentially doomed man as his star. His anger is far removed from the outbursts of frustrated, semi-passive loners to whom Clowes usually gives center stage. Barlow may be angst-ridden but he’s no nerd; he’ll cave your face in if you get in the way of his mission. He’s also scarily funny, when sometimes indulging the one typically Clowesian trait bestowed upon him; his lack of patience (ahem) for any oblivious idiots blocking his path. The absurdity of these remarks within an otherwise extremely grim story compounds the occasional comic relief into an unexpected shotgun blast; Enid Coleslaw with a laser rifle. Fuck you, asshole – I’m from the future! Even on top of the havoc played with the metaphysics of time-space, Barlow makes the book exciting and unpredictable by sheer force of his personality, and with a menace previously unexplored by the author.

A brief look into the future and some striking double-page spreads of Jack’s body traversing the fourth dimension are the only scenes in Patience as colorful as the front cover and endpapers. They seem like bait to lure in sci-fi fans, because the vast majority of the book’s settings are the fascinatingly banal suburban vistas which Clowes is now a practiced master at rendering. Every scene is deliberately staged for the simplest, most naturalistic compositions, so as not to distract from the long-form character drama. In terms of exploiting the comics medium’s unique qualities, his longest work is also his least ambitious. It’s a far cry from his previous book Wilson, which changed art styles drastically on every page. Patience probably would have worked better as a limited 5 or 6 issue mini-series but Clowes and Fantagraphics know that no one reads comics “issues” and you can’t count on super-creeps noticing your new, capeless title one rack over from the Harley Quinn jack-off material and Deadpool: Crisis On Infinite OMGWTFLOLs. The book’s length actually made it the first time I’ve had to read anything of his in two sittings, which is a new experience. Fortunately there are basically chapter demarcations every time Jack Barlow travels to a new year, so you often have good points to pause and digest at your own pace.

Until this book, I’d never noticed Clowes’ simultaneous disgust for both the upper and lower classes that reoccurs throughout all his work. The plot of Patience hinges on both the privileged amorality of rich overprivileged jerks and the alcoholic violence of underprivileged rednecks, with white trash as almost constant white noise in the background. The always impeccable character designs put as much vivid detail into the stony sidelong glance of an overpriced boutique baby clothes saleswoman, or the condescending smirks of fey urban hipsters, as the glazed bovine misery of midwestern housewives, or the rodent giddiness of their skanky daughters. One great scene finds Jack in a trendy city bar full of pretentious sophisticates who love how “futuristic” his clothes from the future look. Clowes grew up in Chicago and has previously expressed in Eightball his unease with that city’s overly self-conscious compromise between wealthy and working class cultures. He also knows well the spiritual wasteland of the small towns beyond; Jack stalks Patience’s past through her entirely hateful hometown which bears the generically Midwestern name of “White Oak.” The crux of his future wife’s life is escape from this dead-end place, but even as a married couple living together in the (generic, but probably Chicago) big city, they can’t help feeling cheated that there’s so much wealth all around them when all they want is enough to get by and raise their child.

The question of what will happen to our antihero if he’s successful in changing history is deftly sidestepped because Jack isn’t the type of guy to think that aspect through – explicitly, he twice shrugs off any such theorizing as “sci-fi bullshit.” Somewhat disingenuously with the book’s packaging, including the cheekily hyperbolic (but not inaccurate) back cover tagline “A cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love” – the story is at its core a murder mystery with time travel used as a sleuthing method rather than a “time travel” or “sci-fi” adventure. Clowes seems to have only slightly less disdain for genre trappings than Jack Barlow. Only a few pages are spent in a Sixties-ish retro-future for providing him a time travel device, and late in the story when another visitor from the future makes an appearance, he come clad in a ludicrously stupid looking costume. Towards the end I found myself guessing a predictable paradox and sure enough, Jack/Clowes mentions that possibility as an obvious pitfall he’ll have to avoid. Our protagonist’s contempt for “sci-fi bullshit” allows him to see a Twilight Zone twist ending coming just as well as the reader. The actual conclusion cleverly ties together every story thread in a logical way while cohering with the plot’s depiction of time travel; it’s emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Recommended for everyone, but especially husbands and fathers.

CREDITS

Writer, artist & colorist, Daniel Clowes; production and technological assistance; Alvin Buenaventura; editor and associate publisher, Eric Reynolds; publisher, Gary Groth & Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

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