Friday, August 9, 2013

That Is All: Amazing Facts and Beyond

Kevin Huizenga and Dan Zettwoch (along with occasional contributions from their other USS Catastrophe crewmember, Ted May) did something quite unusual in this day and age for alternative cartoonists. They actually had a successful and long-running comic strip in an alt-weekly (the St Louis Riverfront Times). Both of them manage to combine their different cartooning sensibilities in a strip that is a combination of Ripley's Believe Or Not and John Hodgman's fake trivia books in describing the anecdotes and adventures of one Leon Beyond, trivia master. One can immediately tell which artist is handling the strip on a given page, and it's not just because Huizenga and Zettwoch's art styles are so different. Zettwoch treats each Leon strip like he does all of his comics: as an excuse to indulge in his love of comics-as-diagrams. Huizenga's strips are more sparse and more like a Ripley strip, but they're also more deliberately funny than Zettwoch's manically detailed entries. Both artists share in shaping the personality of Leon, creating a ridiculous mythology surrounding him and the world of trivia.

That mythology is partly a lampoon of sports, partly a lampoon of secret societies and part Wimbledon Green-esque absurdity. What makes the strip work so well is that it's mostly played with a straight face, as Huizenga and Zettwoch (abbreviated Wu-Tang Clan style as HZA and DZA at one point) never come out and say that these "facts" are false. They also add enough true tidbits here and there to make readers think twice about some of Leon's claims.Indeed, I really wanted Zettwoch's strip about certain abandoned water towers in St Louis being used to store alcohol during prohibition to be true, especially the detail about hobos huffing alcohol fumes from them to this day. While much of Zettwoch's work is lighthearted to begin with, the real revelation in this book is Huizenga. He's mostly known for his philosophical, experimental and formally ambitious work in places like Ganges and Or Else. However, Huizenga always managed to inject sly and dry bits of humor in those books. Furthermore, he's done plenty of minicomics that had funny and strange overtones, like his "Fight or Run?" series of strips. A look at Huizenga's blog reveals that he's a fan and student of classic newspaper comic strips. Given that, it's not surprising to see him try his hand at writing a gag comic, albeit one where the laugh is generated less by a punchline and more by an accumulation of details.

At over 200 pages (including a color reprint of the story "The 66-Year Stink"), this is a very dense read. The Zettwoch strips in particular are absolutely crammed with details and eye-pops, Uncivilized Books publisher Tom Kaczynksi keeps things simple in terms of design, as the authors wisely chose to arrange the strips roughly by subject. This results in some sections being dominated by one cartoonist, like Zettwoch and sports, but it also results in amusing single-entry chapters like "Chainsaws". The collection also has the original covers to the earlier Beyond collections, including one of the greatest titles of all times, Back That Fact Up.I greatly admire Huizenga and & Zettwoch's relentless commitment to their gag, as the best Leon strips were the ones where he was off on some trivia-related adventure or event, or else refining or explaining his personal brain space and how he used it. I thought the more meta strips, like "reader correction" emails and the occasional presence of Huizenga or Zettwoch themselves in the strips (they are, after all, merely illustrating Mr Beyond's factoids) served as needed palate-cleansers for the book. Even as crazy as some of the strips got, there was a sameness to them that never quite reached formulaic, but got close from time to time. That said, this is a book that should be read slowly and in small chunks for maximum enjoyment. The longform stories included here are excellent, as they allow the gags a bit more room to breathe while at the same time doubling and tripling down on the initial concepts as the two cartoonists wring every bit of humor imaginable out of  them. If the artists ever choose to do anything more with Leon, I'd hope it would be in that sort of format, like an old-fashioned 22-page comic book.

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