Friday, December 19, 2008

Huizenga Bonanza

Rob reviews a batch of comics by Kevin Huizenga (and friends). Included are THE FACTOIDS OF LIFE, OR ELSE #5 (Drawn & Quarterly), FIGHT OR RUN: SHADOW OF THE CHOPPER (Buenaventura Press) and NEW CONSTRUCTION #2.

Kevin Huizenga is a hard cartoonist to pin down. In an era when most cartoonists are looking toward book deals, Huizenga's new work came in the form of four simultaneously published minicomics. Each one shows a different face of perhaps the most important cartoonist to emerge so far in the 21st century. Huizenga owes a lot to classic cartooning, especially in terms of his figure work. He also looks at comics as a sort of diagram, constantly exploring form and structure. The themes of his comics run the gamut from metaphysics to sheer whimsy. One story might be a complex phenomenological exploration of time and space, another might be a video-game inspired series of iconic character battles, and a third might be a gag strip involving a fake trivia maven. In every one of his comics, one can sense a probing intellect, a restless problem solver and a dry, sharp sense of humor. Huizenga's spontaneous-looking line manages to bring an understated quality to his work, even stories that are heavy on formal pyrotechnics. That restless quality seems to be a big key in why he chooses to do a number of smaller projects rather than gear up for The Big Book. While none of his individual comics this year are quite in the same class as the new releases by Chris Ware or Lynda Barry, when one considers his work as a whole it's clear that he had as good a year as any cartoonist in 2008.

NEW CONSTRUCTION is a fascinating peek into the working process of Huizenga and the other USS Catastrophe artists (Dan Zettwoch and Ted May). This mini features thumbnails from all three artists of familiar work, in an effort to display just how useful thumbnailing can be for an artist. Like Barry, who urges drawing and doodling as a means to unlock one's muse, Huizenga enthuses over the use of thumbnails as a way of getting started and creating a quick visual layout. What's great about this comic is that we see three very different visions of what a thumbnail sketch is. For May, it's a fast, loose and sloppy way to lay out his story, throw in dialogue and generally get down gesture and composition. For Huizenga, it seems like panel design and structure is key; he mostly sticks to stick figures. For Zettwoch, it's a scribbly, messy page that simply serves as a source of information and a rough compositional outline. If I were teaching a course about comics, this mini would be my reference for teaching the importance of thumbnails.

The USS Catastrophe artists have been collaborating on a ridiculous fake trivia strip for a local St Louis newspaper called AMAZING FACTS...AND BEYOND! The first collection of these strips, THE FACTOIDS OF LIFE, is a delightfully assembled, complete with a list of other (non-existent) volumes in the series, like "Underwater Facts!" and "Facts On A Plane". Each artist sticks to their strengths here: May's strips tend to be less in a "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" format and more absurd vignettes, like "Cell Phones". This strip posits that cell phones trigger an imaginary veil of privacy in their users (letting them talk at top volume about intimate details), and then notes that scientists developed a drug that did the same thing to ease anxiety--causing people to talk out loud to no one in particular. (One passerby yelling "What do you not understand about Planet of the Apes" had me laughing out loud.)

Zettwoch's strips invariably involved some kind of complicated gizmo or process, almost like a Rube Goldberg strip. His strip about how the basketball game of H-O-R-S-E originated with the Aztecs was both hilarious and disgusting, while "High Spirits" intricately describes how bootleg liquor was kept in abandoned St. Louis water towers. Huizenga goes in some truly strange directions, like his "Bible Fu" strip that imagines a missionary mixing the Bible with Shaolin kung-fu stories, creating "Fight Or Run" style matchups between the likes of Ruth & Leviticus (armed with a Scroll of Unclean Discharge). The single funniest strip is "Cat Calendars", telling of the secret history of cat calendars, like Joseph McCarthy going after communist sympathizer calendars such as "Revolution of Preciousness". This minicomic sees these artists at their most accessible, yet totally within their own wheelhouses in terms of interests and style. It's clear that all three are having a ball coming up with gags.

FIGHT OR RUN features a series of short strips not unlike the first part of GANGES #2--a comic book representation of video game-style fights to the death. There are hints of influences from sources as diverse as Mortal Kombat, EC Segar's POPEYE, Mad's Spy vs Spy feature and Mat Brinkman's flowing, rambling adventure strips. The simple format of two odd-looking characters meeting and a decision made to fight or run actually opened up a huge range of formal possibilities for Huizenga. Some strips are straightforward fights, others are more meta (like "F" battling "R"). Some strips are intricate, like a battle between Duck and Rabbit (two characters who look exactly alike until you consider them within their named contexts), while others are stick-figure extravaganzas (cute-girl McSkulls vs everyone). The strips in this book are a relentlessly delightful exploration of cartoon problem-solving. Huizenga starts from a premise and finds ways to take that idea to an ultimate, logical extreme. While well-drawn, there's a spontaneity to Huizenga's line here that gives each page a lot of pop and energy. FIGHT OR RUN is just as instructive in its own way as NEW CONSTRUCTION in how to maintain spontaneity and build structure.

OR ELSE #5 is the most wide-ranging of these comics in terms of content. It's funny that even though this is a release from preeminent art comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, it looks like a very nicely-designed minicomic. This comic consists of quietly personal anecdotes, a sweeping, post-apocalyptic story featuring Huizenga everyman Glenn Ganges, and more abstruse strips like "The 100 Most People In America", "Profiles" and "Which Sentences Are We Diagramming?" "Profiles" is a remarkably clever strip that uses the size and abstract symbolic content of word balloons to create a coherent narrative despite the fact that no recognizable words are used. Tongue firmly in cheek, Huizenga then gives us a "preview" of the next 19 issues of "Or Else", spanning the next dozen or so years. In addition to assorted adventures, furniture refinishing, and interviews with wise celebrities, the last issue promises a "description of a new world and way of life" reviews. Perhaps the oddest thing in the issue is what appears to be a scathing parody ad for something real: a seminar on "Revelation Offers Hope In A World of Terror". Belief and metaphysics has always been a running theme in Huizenga's comics, and this ad parody is a pretty vicious take on what he obviously views as exploitative fearmongering.

Huizenga's work is so effective because of the way he's able to balance a number of seeming contradictions. His line appears to be free and spontaneous, yet his thumbnails reveal a meticulous planner. His approach ranges from enigmatic to easily accessible, often in the same comic. He's daring but not ostentatious, quietly providing eye-popping surprises and (at times) big laughs. There's a thoughtfulness to his work but also a sense of whimsy. His comics sneak up on you, rewarding multiple readings. While one can spot his influences, he's not beholden to any singular artist or style. He's an exciting artist to watch because it's difficult to predict what he'll eventually evolve into as he matures.

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