Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Graphic Lit: "Curses" and "Lucky"

There have been a number of up and coming cartoonists in recent years, all vying for the title of “best new comic artist.”

Few of them, however, seem as worthy of that mantle as Kevin Huizenga.

Having spent a number of years toiling in the world of avant-garde anthologies and Xeroxed minicomics, Huizenga has produced an impressive body of work in a remarkably short time.

Recently he’s bumped up to the “big time,” (relatively speaking) with two new ongoing series, “Or Else” from Drawn and Quarterly and “Ganges” from Fantagraphics, part of their new Ignatz line.

Now a new book, “Curses,” collects many of the short stories that appeared in those anthologies and minicomics, most of which feature Huizenga’s twentysomething everyman, Glenn Ganges.

Like the author Nicholson Baker, Huizenga often uses everyday events to explore a character’s stream of consciousness. In “Lost and Found,” for example, Glenn reads a junk mail ad, which in turn leads him to contemplate the fate of abducted children, the Lost Boys of the Sudan and his own desire for a family.

Family, children and the longing for both play a big role in “Curses” as many of the stories focus on Glenn and his wife’s attempts to have a baby.

Another reoccurring theme is the fragility of our own short lives, as the nature of hell and the afterlife is contemplated in several pieces (“Jeeper Jacobs,” “Jeezoh”). In Huizenga’s world, the sacred and the profane don’t just intertwine, they are the same.

“My stories are about objects and ideas and landscapes, not just the dramatic relationships between characters.” Huizenga said in a recent e-mail exchange. “I want to draw comics about more than characters solving problems in a series of scenes.”

Huizenga’s art is deliberately light, simple and proudly cartoonish, in the vein of artists like E.C. Segar (“Popeye”) and John Stanley (“Little Lulu”). That goes a long way toward making some of the more heady and poetic aspects of his stories palatable. Glenn’s face, for example, is little more than a few dots and curved lines.

Glenn, however, is not an autobiographical stand-in for Huizenga, though some of the viewpoints may be similar.

“Glenn has to become his own man. Right now he’s like a generic, distorted version of me,” Huizenga said. “In a way he’s how I can write about my own experiences without getting caught up in the messy details and distortions that autobiography would require.”

“Ideally I would like to create a cast of characters that could embody different aspects of myself but stand as individuals too — something like Charles Schulz’s relationship to the ‘Peanuts’ gang,” he said. “But I’ve a long, long way to go.”

The best story in the book is “23rd Street,” an inspired retelling of the folk tale “The Feathered Ogre.”

Here, Glenn goes on a mission through strip-mall America in search of a mystical item that will finally enable him and his wife to have a baby.

It’s the author’s ability to combine the transforming myth of folklore and our world of Wal-Marts and Mobile stations that makes the work take flight. (In one sequence, for example, Glenn has a transforming vision by squirting “enchanted gasoline” into his eyes.)

I’m not spoiling too much by saying that success does eventually come for Glenn and his wife, but, as the title of the book implies, it arrives with some tragic, unforeseen consequences.

In my own stumblebum fashion, I’ve only hinted at the skill displayed in “Curses.” While many art-comics fans are no doubt already familiar with these stories, the book is a perfect introduction for those unacquainted with the artist and his ever expanding world.

‘Lucky’ Bell

Another new cartoonist worthy of high praise is Gabrielle Bell, whose new book, “Lucky,” (Drawn and Quarterly, 112 pages, $22.95) collects a number of minicomics she did a few years ago.

At first hearing, Bell’s comics sound like the sort of stereotype one automatically thinks of in regard to indie cartoonists: Autobiographical tales, focused on mundane details and events filled with heavy narration and a smidgen of angst. Dull news to some of you, no doubt.

But Bell’s dry sense of humor, combined with her thin, sparse, yet graceful artwork belie any preconceived notions you might have about her work. She’s far too talented to be pigeonholed.

“Lucky” doesn’t represent her best work. You’d have to turn to the new “Drawn and Quarterly Showcase” to see that. But it is an entertaining collection and underscores the notion that Bell is a cartoonist to watch out for.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


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