Or Else #2
By Kevin Huizenga
Published by Drawn and Quarterly; $5.95 USD

This is one of the books that makes it all worth it.

I am going to state right up front that I loved this book, that I think you will love it too, and that writer/artist Kevin Huizenga is one of the most thrilling creators working in comics today. And this isn't even new work. Actually, some of it's half a decade old. But this is no 'historians-only' chronicle of how far the creator has come from his humble origins. This is live, electric comics, probably missed on its first appearance by most audiences, and now available in a more palatable format to the Direct Market, with the backing of a respected publisher. This doesn't mean that the work wasn't already excellent in its first incarnation, just that it now has access to a wider audience, an audience (like yourself!) that deserves to read comics this fine.

All of the material in here, save for the covers and center fold-out, was originally presented as the fourteenth and final issue of Huizenga's minicomic series Supermonster. This new release by Drawn and Quarterly is well-packaged with a firm spine, although the dimensions of the book reflect its origins: it's only 4.25 X 5.5 inches in diameter. It's 96 pages long though, and the quality of the content more than justifies the six dollar price tag.

There's essentially three stories in this book, and the concerns found within will meet with swift recognition from readers of Huizenga's "The Feathered Ogre" (as seen in Drawn and Quarterly Showcase Vol. 1, the place where many of us were first exposed to his talents. The initial story, which sports two distinct titles ("Wendy Caramel-Ganges in: 'At Work'" and "Glenn Ganges in: 'The Groceries,'" follows the title(s) couple as they unpack their groceries and constantly fantasize about the immediate future life of their soon-to-be-born child. All of their reveries end in near-disaster, suggesting a deep concern about the onrushing arrival of parenthood into their lives. They also have a nice chat about Wendy's sister, which only reveals more of their own uncertainty as they try to establish their emotional maturity over others in their family. It's funny, with excellent dialogue (and more importantly, excellent placement of dialogue, like Glenn's repeated refrain of "My wife has a little baby in her tummy. She has a little baby in her tummy." But the details of the plot aren't particularly important; the themes we see here (reflection on responsibility, the uncertainties of family, the depth of the interior human world) will extend well past the boundaries of this story into the rest of the book, creating an unusually unified total work of individual shorts. Indeed, I only divide the first two stories in this book at all because there's an obvious time-jump between them, rather than a continuous string of conversation or events, though you certainly could see this material as one big saga. Perhaps Huizenga feels that way, since the entire book bears its very own special title, "Gloriana," right on the cover.

Moving on (and maintaining my own division of material for the purposes of clarity), the center story in this volume is easily the longest, also sporting two titles ("Glenn Ganges in: 'The Sunset'" and "Glenn Ganges in: 'The Moon Rose'"), and featuring some of the most beautiful uses of the potential of the comics form that I've seen in quite some time. The set-up is simple: Glenn is telephoned by Wendy while unpacking groceries (again with the groceries!), and he begins to tell her a story about what happened to him at the library. "Earlier, I was at the library," he begins.

And for the next 29 pages Huizenga's art erupts into a bravura representation of everything that's happening in Glenn's head at that very second, the same captions repeated over and over and cut into pieces to suggest a constant overlapping of time as Glenn exists at all points in the library at once, with all of the library's patrons standing in different panels in exactly the same position, a parade of human similarity.

"Earlier, I was at the library," "I was at the library," "the library."

And the captions fragment as Glenn's day is everywhere and every time at the same moment in his mind, and then our very comfort in the "realism" of Huizenga's visual representations breaks down into a swirl of doodles and nature scenes and musical notes and random comics iconography (plenty of random flop-takes; the boy's head is packed with comics!). We are fully inside Glenn's (and his creator's) mind now, and the panels break off into dozens of tiny images, some of them in sequence, some of them not, few of them familiar to us, though we recognize them as half-remembered bits of Glenn's life, without context. The book then literally folds out into a four-page spread depicting wind and leaves and cheery cartoon birds swooping across the panels of Glenn's mind, a whiff of ecstasy and clarity. And then the panels become fewer and more distinct, and we realize we're outside the window of the library, and Glenn is still there, and his memory reconstitutes itself into a traditional sequential form (the set-up of the page itself reformed as the author's eye pulls back into the conscious memory).

The memory ends.

And Glenn is back on the telephone with his wife, and he has finished his sentence, over one quarter of the book later from when he started it.

This could only be accomplished in comics. It's an invigorating sequence, one that slaps the reader awake to the possibilities of the form. One that can be appreciated for its technical excellence as well as its mysterious emotional power.

And the story isn't over.

It's a complimentary story in technique: Glenn continues to chat with his wife and he relates an encounter with a neighboring family, paralyzed with religious fear at the presence of a blood-red moon (unsurprising: mystery and supernatural elements are always around the corner in the world of Glenn Ganges). Fortunately, Glenn has a scientific explanation for it all, and we're then treated to 12 pages of text and diagrams explaining exactly how a blood-red moon comes to be. The tricks of the mind now replaced with the tricks of science. It's kind of dry. It sets the earlier reverie off pretty well, lunging to the other extreme, one of total logic and fact. And it nicely matches Wendy's behavior in the previous story, of trying to feel superior to another person through a front of consummate maturity and experience. I discovered this when I realized that Glenn's own uncertainty is still present in his lecture: in one diagram, he's holding his child-to-be, marking his little informational session with his (and the book's) earlier concerns.

The deployment of an educational presentation in the context of a story isn't a new technique for Huizenga; devout readers will recognize similar sequences in both "The Feathered Ogre" and "Jeepers Jacobs," Huizenga's contribution to Kramer's Ergot 5. The use of such material was smoother in both of those later works: in "The Feathered Ogre" the plight of refugee children provides an ironic contrast to Glenn and Wendy's efforts to conceive a child, and in "Jeepers Jacobs" the lengthy academic discourse on evangelism is completely necessary to empower the later scenes of human-to-human contact, a complimentary set-up that matches Huizenga's use of balancing visual motifs here, but in a more natural fashion. There's not quite as much integration of this material into the whole of the work in this earlier volume, which fortunately suggests that Huizenga is still improving, still growing, despite the already formidable state of his abilities on display here. The story ends with a silly joke, as perhaps it should, a final grounding in the normalcy of life in the face of the spiritual.

There's still one more story, this time clearly set off from the rest of the book (the cover even uses the qualifying term "Plus:" in announcing the short, explicitly putting it aside from "Gloriana"). It's an autobiographical short, with none of the Glenn Ganges cast, focusing on the Huizenga family's relationship with the game of basketball. It's fun to note that Huizenga draws himself as similar to but distinctly separate from the Glenn Ganges character, and it's a sweet little story, ending with a consideration of the power that art and image have on the mind, with all of Huizenga's reminisce centered on the music he plays as a jumble of city lights and scenery is glimpsed out of a bus window, the anchor of his memory. It's a fitting coda to this book, so concerned already with the human interior: the intellect and the subconscious in the middle story, and fantasy and personality in the first story, and the gnawing uncertainties behind so much of it, as all of them overlap.

No kidding around here. I urge you to purchase this book at your earliest possible convenience. It's valuable to seasoned fans of the creator but it'll provide more than its share of enlightenment to brand-new readers as well. If you are not familiar with Kevin Huizenga, you should be, and here's your chance to get acquainted with his open, searching mind, splashed across the page, folding out and folding in.

-- Jog

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