Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
This month we're looking at the career of a relative newcomer to the comics industry, Mr. Kevin Huizenga.
Why he's important
Even amidst a generation of cartoonists that includes such stellar folk as Anders Nilsen, Dash Shaw, Dan Zettwoch and Eleanor Davis, Huizenga stands apart for his artistry and ingenious, inventive use of the medium. In many ways he also embodies many of the characteristics of his contemporaries. To wit: an interest in comics of all types and genres resulting in a bevy of disparate influences, and an interest in formalism and experimentation that parallels an interest at more straightforward storytelling and characterization. In the short time he's been making comics, Huizenga has shown himself to be an author of considerable talent and probing sincerity.
Where to start
In addition to arguably being his best known work, the award-winning Ganges series remains the most emblematic of Huizenga's comics so far and thus the best place for newcomers to start. Fantagraphics has published three issues to date as part of the oversize Ignatz format and all are worth getting and reading, preferably in order. The series follows an afternoon and subsequent evening in the life of Huizenga's everyman Glenn Ganges as he goes to the library, plays some video games, reminisces on a previous job and battles insomnia. It sounds like drab minutiae, but Huizenga has a wonderful way of making the everyday seem not just relatable in the "I've been there too" sense but significant. He also is the only cartoonist I know of that is able to visually express difficult to describe thoughts and emotions in ways that make you wonder how no one ever came up with them before. His portrayal of Glenn's frantic attempt at sleep in issue 3 for example, drawing him awash in a sea of random thoughts and word balloons is inspired.
From there you should read
Curses collects most of Huizenga's best work up till now, including the stellar short stories "28th Street," "Green Tea," and "Jeepers Jacobs." Most of these stories star Ganges again in one form or another and are actually interrelated in so far as they loosely follows Ganges and his wife Wendy's attempts to conceive a child. Huizenga shows a deep interest in folklore, religion and mythology here that examines how spiritual and a belief in otherwordly or supernatural forces affect our perception of the world around us.
Huizenga temporarily attempted to publish a semi-regular comic book series via Drawn & Quarterly entitled Or Else. There were only five issues released, and about half of the work has been collected in books like Curses, but interested readers will want to track down a copy of issue #2 (currently out of print), which contains the lovely "Gloriana" story (which in turn was originally serialized in Huizenga's Supermonster minicomics) and #3 (also out of print), which offers a more autobiographical slant (sort of).
Flight or Run: Shadow of the Chopper showcases Huizenga's more avant-garde side, as it presents an odd video game of sorts where abstracted, seemingly voiceless characters battle it out in all sorts of bizarre ways (to get a better idea of what I'm talking about, check out Huizenga's Fight or Run blog.
Having come from the minicomics world, Huizenga has actively kept a toe or two dipped in that culture, with books like New Construction, which offers a loose collection of sketches and preliminary drawings, and Rumbling 2, which continues a story he started in Or Else #5 (and which you can read for free at What Things Do).
Huizenga collaborates regularly with a number of his fellow cartoonists, most notably on the Ripley's Believe It or Not parody Amazing Facts ... and Beyond, which he does with Ted May and Dan Zettwoch. A couple of published mini-comics collecting the strip are easily available via Huizenga's online store.
Huizenga's most recent book, The Wild Kingdom, is by no means to be avoided -- it's a stellar work, examining man's relationship to nature and consumerism in a invigorating left-of-center fashion, but it's not the best place for newcomers to begin as it's a highly experimental work that eschews narrative in favor of quick asides and impressions (or, rather, it jumbles several narratives and moments together to create an effect that's not unlike zipping past several cable TV stations via remote). I heartily recommend reading it, but only after you've explored his other offerings.
Next month: Herge