Monday, 25 October 2010

Space Available: an Interview with Kevin Huizenga

An unavoidable tragedy awaiting to take flight (or not) in 'The Wild Kingdom'

Even before his recent - and much deserved - Ignatz award win for Outstanding Series with Ganges, Kevin Huizenga was a creator with no shortage of acclaim. Numerous reviewers and commentators have projected the idea that, a few years from now, he will be seen as one of this generation of creators’ finest, and, speaking from a personal perspective, it certainly seems hard to refute. Behind his "stylised, friendly art" (as NPR's Glen Weldon described it) often lies a complex layering of meaning that gives his work a real weight and value, and has won him favourable comparisons with Chris Ware, amongst other equally deific names. 

His latest Glenn Ganges collection, The Wild Kingdom, might initially seem like somewhat of a departure from his best known works. Primarily made up of material found in earlier releases, it still holds all the hallmarks readers may expect from his comics, yet this arrangement of stories takes a slightly more oblique and fractured narrative route. Here, the reader is rewarded with a slow-burning curation of scenes that converge thematically and intensely over time. One of the most enchanting graphic novels this year, you'll understand that it was with some excitement that we approached the creator for an interview.

Filled with his characteristic humour and intelligence, read on for Huizenga's insights into the book; the creation of the comic's non-traditional story structure; his influences; and talks about how he is absolutely, positively not Glenn Ganges for the millionth time. 

Congratulations on your much-deserved Ignatz win! How did you celebrate?

I allowed people to buy me beers. I wish I wasn’t terrified of speaking to a room of people, because it would be nice to have been able to make a real acceptance speech. Someday I’ll be able to do that—speak to a room of people—and I’ll feel like I’ve really accomplished something.

From 'The Wild Kingdom'

You chose to contextualise The Wild Kingdom by stating that your aim was to collect several related scenes “in which certain general laws appeared to reign independently of the individual peculiarities of each”, your hope being that this exercise might “aid in arresting unfortunate tendencies” in yourself and “in the times.” What do you consider these tendencies to be? 

I don’t know. I would have named them if I knew. When you name something you’re on your way to being able to control it. I’m not sure these dark forces can be controlled! Also, that passage tested well with our focus groups, and we had some pressure from the sponsors to include it.

The “general laws” of The Wild Kingdom slowly become apparent as the reader progresses, and what starts as a seemingly fragmented collection of stories and vignettes starts to merge together to create a more complex narrative mood. As a storyteller, what do you think is the key to building macro-level meaning in a work?

I don’t know that there’s a key. You put together things that seem to work together. You repeat things and come at them from another angle, or you follow ideas down different alleys. You vary the mood of things, then circle back to where you were earlier, and the earlier thing is amplified the second time around. You go back and add something to the beginning that you thought up later, and it makes it seem like it was planned.

The work becomes meaningful insofar as its form allows people to invest it with meaning, like a sign in a field that says “space available.”

I’m the kind of writer and reader who likes it when very different subjects and forms play off each other. (I don’t like music that does this, though.) I like anthologies and magazines. I would like to be able to stick with a long story, a sustained thing, but in order to stay interested I have to build something in a modular fashion.

Ironically, for me, it felt that the point where all the individual threads in the collection became unified was through the voice of another writer, Maurice Maeterlinck’s via the extract of his The Life of the Bee. Was it your intention to include this passage as a thematic touchstone? Please tell us more about Maeterlinck’s influence on your work.

There’s no influence, strictly speaking. He came along pretty late in the game, when I was working on the second version of the story for Or Else #4. I had been reading about Colony Collapse Disorder, and I think a blogger mentioned Life of the Bee and Virgil’s Georgics. Those nature writings fit so well with my own “research program” that I had to incorporate it somehow. I also wanted to get some of the Georgics and more Walt Whitman and other pretentious name-drops into the mix, but there was only so much time.

An example of Huizenga's great, close-to-the-bone advertising parodies in 'The Wild Kingdom'

We’re really considering getting The Hot New Thing, but we’re having trouble deciding between getting the original model, the second model, or the Hot New Green Thing X. Which do you think best suits our needs as consumers?

You know, about a year ago I found myself in the same place as you: “Hey I like these Hot New Things, but which one is right for me?” Speaking for myself, as a future-focused, change-oriented knowledge worker, I wanted something that combines flexibility with style, especially in this economy. I called up the HNT World of Mystery Hotline (WOMH) and after a pleasant exchange with one of their qualified customer service softwares, they offered to send a local HNT consultant to my home to do some mind-mapping and go over some literature. At that point I was like, “fuck this.” But you should give them a call.

The Wild Kingdom’s cover is emblazoned with another reoccurring feature of your work – diagrams. Your diagrams in the book, especially those that precede the final section, seem to teeter between the realms of the functional and the esoteric. What were your intentions when including diagrams in the comic?

They fit into the mix of things that made up The Wild Kingdom. When you’re having a panic attack, something like a diagram that seems so calm and collected can just add to the escalating dread.

It’s interesting to note the similarities between your own and Chris Ware’s work, in that you’re both known for obliquely building wider narratives through successive, disjointed stories whilst simultaneously gravitating towards the condensed information of diagrammatic forms. What informs these kind of structural choices when you plan your work?

I think when he was starting out, Chris was very influenced by my work. Clearly it’s made a real mark on him. Speaking for myself, I guess I’ve wanted to avoid writing in the dramatic, character-centered, social realist approach. I’ve always been more attracted to other models of storytelling or writing—essays, or variations on a theme, or song forms, etc.

You continue to draw the continually awesome Amazing Facts... & Beyond! with your USS Catastrophe brethren, Dan Zettwoch and Ted May. Way back when you started, what was the process behind creating and designing the great man at the centre of it all, Leon Beyond? Do you think he’s developed over time.

Dan and I pretty much talked it out, after we met Leon. I suppose the strip has developed but I couldn’t say how. It’s a point of pride as a cartoonist to want to be in the local paper if you can, and I’m proud to be in there. But sometimes the deadline can be a real pain. The weeks go by so fast.

I’d like to point out that Dan and I have offered to do customized strips for an extremely reasonable price and that is still an open offer. Details on the blog. We initially got a few takers, and maybe people don’t realize that we’re still open for commissions. Dan Zettwoch is an incredible cartoonist, and I really believe that people are fools for not getting a Zettwoch original for such a deal.

A Huizenga-made edition of 'Amazing Facts... & Beyond' with Leon Beyond. If someone wants to commission one for our birthday, we won't be complaining!

You’re well known for your appreciation of classic cartoonists like E.C. Segar and Floyd Gottfredson, and Hergé is frequently evoked by reviewers when describing your art. Given that Picasso is often (and possibly falsely) attributed with the quote “Good artists borrow, great artists steal”, we wanted to ask about which cartoonists' influence you feel were instrumental in the development of your own style.

I’ve stolen some panels compositions from Frank King. I’ve definitely stolen words from here and there. In a superficial way I have tried to draw like the old newspaper cartoonists, but really, my comics wander far from those strips. I zoom in too often, and I try to mix in things like diagrams and formal gimmicks. I’ve barely even read much of that stuff. Any names I could drop here would just make me feel like a fraud. But I am far more interested in King, Segar, Herriman, Crane, and Little Lulu than I am by any superhero or fantasy cartoonists.

I think some artists—stronger artists than I—are more concerned about style. They have become artists because they have a strong taste for certain aesthetic qualities, certain forms and styles, and their love is so strong for those things that they work to perfect their own version of it and can’t bear to deviate from it. The source of my creative energy is different, I think, and I don’t hold onto my tastes for styles all that tightly.

I often feel that I’m not really a true artist or a writer, just a fan whose playing make-believe. The inner compulsion I have is to put together something with a kind of complex structure, with some complex arrangement of things that surprises me, or makes me feel like my favorite comics do. The other compulsion is an addiction to the flow of work and daydreaming that happens when I’m working on something and it’s going well—a state that became more and more difficult for me to get into in the late Zeroes, with all the distractions available with the Internet and piles of books and streaming movies and etc. etc. More and more I have to fight to carve out a clean, empty space and deny myself the pleasures of browsing and sorting through collections of things.

Finally, you’ve stated several times in interviews that Glenn Ganges is not your fictional avatar. We’re asking for proof. We demand 5 reasons why you’re absolutely, categorically not Glenn Ganges. Go!

You should just trust me and take my word for it. I’m not sure what a fictional avatar is, and I don’t remember using those words. He’s not an avatar in the sense that he stands for or represents me. It’s not particularly remarkable or meaningful to think he is—I don’t reveal any secrets of my heart or anything like that. Any comparison between my own specs and Glenn doesn’t open up anything meaningful in terms of the story. I tend to put more of my own personality into Wendy, if anything, when she acts cranky. If I were writing about myself and not just, like, some general stuff, like walking or trying to get to sleep, more or less universal things, I’d have to go much more into personal particulars, such as my religious upbringing, my troubles with women, my life in comics, and so on. I’m not interested in writing about those things right now. I’m not telling “my story,” or even Glenn’s story. It just goes story to story, and hopefully they’re interesting or amusing to others besides myself.

We'd like to extend our very sincere gratitude to Kevin for giving us his time in order to take part in this interview. Due to the global shortage of Hot New Things in retail outlets currently, readers are directed to purchase the next best thing by visiting the Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, and USS Catastrophie webstores (links below) for Huizenga's comics and graphic novels. By way of happy coincidence, Chris Mautner of Robot 6 has just penned a great introductory guide to Huizenga's work; so none of you have an excuse. Well, except you completionists who already have everything, but you can always buy extras as gifts for others. Go!


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