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    Kevin Huizenga Interview

    By Chris Allen

    READ THIS, OR ELSE
    Kevin Huizenga has
    been making comics for over half his life, gaining new fans and garnering near-universal praise with each new effort. Having risen to the top of the mini-comics field, while not abandoning it, Huizenga now collects past work in Drawn and Quarterly’s series OR ELSE and the upcoming collection of short stories, CURSES (due in October), as well as Fantagraphics new series, GANGES, in their Ignatz imprint. As challenging and elusive an interview as his own comics are, Comic Foundry thanks Huizenga for chatting with us.

    Comic Foundry: Kevin, when did you start making comics and what led to that?

    Kevin Huizenga: When I was around 13 or so, I started buying Marvel comic books from the drug store down my block (a kind of store that Walgreens has drove almost extinct). My first love was Captain America drawn by Kieron Dwyer. I immediately started drawing superheroes, like that very day. Until then, I guess I was a normal kid, except for reading a lot. This was the first time I had felt like drawing since I was a kid messing around with crayons. Haven’t really stopped since then.

    What is your artistic background?

    Since around the time that I discovered comic books, all I ever was interested in was drawing comics. My whole world revolved around reading and drawing comics. Sometimes I wonder what I got out of that — just power fantasies, I suppose, and a sense of fantasy, and action. Maybe there’d have been more value in becoming a poetry nerd, or jazzbo, or a folk music nerd or something. It’s not like there’s a lot of wisdom about life found in the kind of comic books I was into. But I did check out Peanuts and Lynda Barry and etc. from the library — the kind of comics that change your life and that are worth dedicating your life to, and I loved that kind of stuff, too — but sadly most of my time was spent thinking about Wolverine vs. Aliens or something like that…being a Marvel Zombie. I subscribed to Fantastic Four and Iron Man, even though both were terrible at the time. I have no idea why I thought it would be good to subscribe. I don’t know if they have this anymore, but there used to be ads in comic books for these mail order companies which would hype certain “hot” new comics, and I’d get suckered into ordering. I believed the hype and then ended up with an issue of “‘Nam” drawn by John Romita Sr. where Captain American and Ant Man fought in Vietnam.

    I started drawing and making comic books with my friends in high school. Since I had never really drawn before, I had to learn by copying comics. That’s why I still really struggle with the drawing and am not very good at it. My comics friends and I xeroxed our stories, made a few anthologies. Our model was “Dark Horse Presents.” We drew mostly superhero/sci-fi stuff.

    Cerebus was the comic that got me out of superheroes–it seemed so smart and mysterious to me in high school. Then, after getting into mini-comics, especially King-Cat and Optic Nerve, I began moving in that direction. My friends stopped drawing comics and I started drawing more artsy comics, auto bio, etc. around the time I went to college.

    But also I could mention that my mother really inspired a love of reading in me. I really devoured books growing up — a lot of it was sci-fi junk and Stephen King and Tom Clancy, but good stuff too — and if things had gone differently — if Walgreens had put that drug store out of business a few years earlier — I’d probably have tried to become a novelist. In college I didn’t plan on studying art at all. I was planning on studying philosophy and then going to seminary. I didn’t do English Lit because after a class or two I learned that I wanted to spend as little time as possible with English Lit students. They were even worse than the philosophy students, who were pretty insufferable. The nicest and most fun students were, in my experience, the nursing majors, followed by maybe art majors and the science types. At the absolute bottom were business majors and English majors. All this time I was drawing comics during my spare time, and printing up my mini-comics at the cheap copy shop on campus.

    During my second year I took an art class for non-majors, and the teacher saw my comics and made me realize that — whether I felt comfortable admitting it or not — I was an artist, and so maybe I should just be an art major. In retrospect that wasn’t really necessary, but it did give me some direction. I was half-hearted about seminary anyways. So I took art classes and made sculptures and paintings and all that, but after I graduated it was a relief to go back to just comics.

    The only real “marketable” skill I picked up in college was from working part-time in a graphic design office, where I was able to pick up Photoshop and graphic design.

    CF:Why the name “Supermonster” for these relatively quiet, reflective stories? Irony?

    Well, originally I was drawing comics with monsters and time travelers and the like. But the name “Supermonster” came from one day when I was in high school — my dad said, “It’s such a nice day outside, why don’t you go out and enjoy it instead of always sitting down here in the basement drawing your….supermonsters or whatever.” I thought it was funny that my dad said such a weird word. I didn’t know that technically a “supermonster” is like what you call Godzilla, King Ghidrah, Gamera, etc. until later. Eventually I grew embarrassed by the name. I hated telling people that I drew a comic book named Supermonster.” They’d get the wrong idea.

    Alliterative names certainly are nothing new to comics — Peter Parker, Wally West…why Glenn Ganges?

    Those are the names of two towns in Michigan. There’s a photograph in Or Else #4 of the exit sign off the highway I used to drive past in-between Chicago and Grand Rapids. I went to college in Grand Rapids. At the time I was drawing the first version of “Wild Kingdom” and I needed a name for the main character.

    How close has Glenn Ganges life reflected your own? Has the degree changed or fluctuated over time?

    It’s fluctuated. A lot of the stories come from my own experiences, but it’s pretty heavily fictionalized. I’m not like Glenn — I tend to be more negative and spend much more time complaining and whining. I’m not interested in doing autobiography anymore because I feel like it’s weird to draw yourself and become a “character,” and all the things that go along with saying, “this really happened to me” and pretending like you’re giving people the whole story.

    Let’s talk about “Green Tea,” especially since readers can at least read the first part here. The story takes some unusual turns, with Glenn studying so obsessively he experiences sleep deprivation and a disturbing hallucination, followed by a jump back in time to the writings of a similarly obsessed researcher, and then back out. What were you attempting with this story?

    I was attempting to do a good scary story for my friend Dylan William’s anthology “Orchid.” The concept behind the anthology was to take a public domain Victorian ghost story and draw a comic of it. Glenn was put in the story because Victorian ghost stories often are set up with one person narrating a story that they heard from another person, and so on, with the pretense that this ghost stuff “really happened.”

    In 2004, you began Or Else for Drawn & Quarterly, which has so far been a way to collect stories from your mini-comics and other anthologies in a handy place. I notice on the back of Or Else #1 a note that claims this is “KH Book #3,” following mini-comics Sermons and The Feathered Ogre, with Untitled already done and waiting to publish, apparently. Is Or Else going to collect everything you’ve done, or are you selecting the best material? Will there be new material for Or Else eventually?

    I’m not going to collect everything. A fair amount of it is new. Starting with #5 it will be all new, I think.

    The monologues of the various diner patrons is great — was this recorded by you from real people or made up from whole cloth?

    A little of both.

    Obviously, there isn’t time to delve into every story you’ve done, but “NST ‘04″ is a rich one and contains much of the defining elements of your work, such as the evocation of nature and respecting nature to the extent that you seem to let it guide, often end, your stories. This technique of using silent panels of nature to express mood shows up again in one of your most affecting stores, “Al and Gertrude.” John (King-Cat Comics) Porcellino also does this frequently. Is there a kinship there?

    John P is a huge inspiration and a great guy.

    The second long story in Or Else #1 is “Chan Woo Kim,” which uses text from actual adoption papers, set against peaceful mountain scenes in, perhaps, China. what were you intending with this contrast? Also, how was the shading achieved on the mountains? Was it a kind of wash?

    I had become very interested in Chinese landscaping painting in college, and this was what I did with that. It’s all just ink and pencil. The adoption papers were something I came across through a friend, who had been asked to evaluate the child’s medical records.

    Let’s discuss some of Or Else #3 next, as it appears to predate what was collected in Or Else #2. “March 6, 1999″ is easily one of your more emotionally freighted stories, bypassing Glenn Ganges for what appears to be your own voices narrating a day of worry over your other’s cancer. If it wasn’t in your work, I wouldn’t ask, but did she pull through it?

    Yes, it went away and came back a few times, but she’s been in remission for a long time is doing well.

    The storytelling is markedly different from much of your other work, veering away from the trademark humor, naturalistic dialogue and inventive page design — the most characteristic element is a very flat narration. Was this a way to work out your emotions on paper without getting maudlin? Was it a conscious concern?

    I try not to be maudlin. It was just something I had written in my journal that I thought would make an interesting little story.

    “I Stand Up for Zen” is another celebrated story collected here, regarding your time working for a wholesale arts and crafts distributor and having an issue with a piece of copy calling some cheap trinket “fashionably Zen.” Was this a real internal conflict you had?

    I worked in the marketing department. I have wondered if I should have made this a Glenn Ganges story, since the story drifts somewhat from what really happened.

    With “The Groceries” in Or Else #2, you appear to want to develop the world of Glenn and Wendy with details on Wendy’s family and showing Wendy pregnant. The story also contains one of your finest examples of Glenn’s tendency towards looking to the future with often negative results. Was there a conscious decision on your part to move Glenn and Wendy into another stage in their lives — parenthood? This kind of picks up from “The Feathered Ogre,” an adaptation of an Italian fairy tale you did in Drawn and Quarterly Showcase #1. Any reason that has never been explored since?

    I don’t know. I’m just making it up as I go. In this case I sat down one Christmas to draw and I drew a man and woman emptying groceries, and the woman was pregnant. It went from there. I struggled a lot with that story, and ultimately it’s pretty ridiculous.

    The next story, “The Sunset,” is one of your most experimental and hardest to pin down. Are stories like this more of an attempt to push yourself, to get out of a comfort zone? Despite its nonlinear nature, the page designs are extremely involved, so I’m guessing you did a good deal of planning on this one. It was inspired by a mini-comic by Ben Jones named “Thaz.” It’s one of the best comics I’ve ever read–probably 100 people have seen it. Also I was listening a lot to Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

    “The Moon Rose” is perhaps the apotheosis of what some would call the “Huizenga as educator” stories, where whatever you happen to be into or have knowledge of, whether arcane lore such as Jeezoh or in this case, the scientific basis for a blood red moon, is worked into a story. This time, you break away from Glenn for several pages of diagrams. Is it a concern for you–the balance between making entertainment and passing along information?

    After I moved to St. Louis I worked at a company named XPLANE, “the visual thinking company,” and we did “visual explanations” for different companies. Mostly what we did was try to explain dot-coms’ software to their venture capitalists and customers. Around that time I really got interested in diagrams. I think diagramming is an under-appreciated and under-practiced form of communication. There should be expert diagrammers charging big fees to clearly explain this and that.

    In pieces like the back cover of Or Else #2, which diagrams basketball’s pick-and-roll, there is a sense of play, a sort of, “yes, reader, I’m really going to take this all the way,” that is another similarity I see between your work and Chris Ware’s.

    It’s more like you just want to draw a diagram about something that lends itself to a diagram — I suppose the way that a writer wants to write about something.

    Untitled is “KH Book 4″, after Or Else #1 (KH3) and before Or Else #2, and it, like Sermons (KH1) and The Feathered Ogre (KH2) is more a mini-comic like the Supermonsters that provided most of the Or Else material, rather than the fancier Drawn and Quarterly stuff. With the upcoming CURSES collection being KH10 and yet not new material, I guess I have to ask what your numbering system is all about?

    CURSES is #10 because the majority of it hasn’t appeared in any previous of the “Kevin H books.” I wanted a way to organize all the books I do, whether published by someone else, or a self-published mini. It’s a golden rule thing — there are artists who I am a big fan of, who I wish had some system for keeping track of their work, so I wouldn’t miss any of it. I don’t know if there is anyone who would want to be a “Huizenga completist,” but if so, bless their hearts.

    Also, it’s a way for me to measure how many books I’m doing. Eventually I want to get up there in the 60s, like John P.

    Untitled is perhaps one of your most underrated releases, a return to mini-comics in a tiny format but providing great insight into your process if one cares to look. It’s about your struggle to come up with the title for the series that would become Or Else (as well as Ganges, another strong contender judging by the number of sample cover sketches). Among the dozens of titles you run through in several pages of lists and sketches and word association exercises, we have such also-rans as “Omega Bodega,” “Gunk of Crud,” “What’s Good and What’s Not” and “Billy Goat Plum-Stinger.” It’s simultaneously one of your loosest efforts, with very little actual cartooning to speak of, and yet one of your most intense, as you effectively, if humorously, convey the creative struggle. Explain why you chose to publish this one.

    It seemed like it would make a nice book. I have a hard time coming up with titles that I like. I’d like to do more books like it — notes and sketches and fooling around.

    “Jeepers Jacobs” for Kramers Ergot #5 is a signature work of yours, one of the longest Ganges stories and one which most explicitly explores your faith. Was this something you had wanted to do for a while? And what kind of balance have you made between your Christianity and the Buddhism you showed interest in in the late ’90s work?

    You shouldn’t really think of it as exploring *my* faith. I have a different view of the world than Jeepers. But that’s not important to know about while reading the story. I guess in a way I was trying to come to terms with the Dutch Reformed Christianity that I knew growing up. I even went to a Dutch Reformed college — Calvin College. I was brought up to believe in hell, but it wasn’t really ever discussed. But specifically the story is about the disagreement in theology of hell between those who think the Bible teaches that nonbelievers are annihilated and those who think nonbelievers are tortured eternally. That particular issue I had never thought about or read about until I was working on the story.

    With the start of the Ganges series for Fantagraphics’ Ignatz imprint, what is the plan for Or Else?

    Nothing specific. More comics.

    How did you come to be involved with the Ignatz line and Fantagraphics?

    (European cartoonist and editor of the Ignatz books) Igort approached Sammy Harkham, and Sammy got me involved. I didn’t really want to do it, but Sammy talked me into it, and I talked him out of it. I’m glad I’m doing it, though — it’s a real honor and a challenge.

    Looking at Ganges #1, it appears that with the larger page size you are taking advantage of it, with some elaborate, expansive storytelling. What are your goals for Ganges?

    Nothing specific. Taking it an issue at a time.

    “Time Traveling” features some involved storytelling devices to play with time (and making great use of the addition of a second color to your work), and yet, in terms of plot, it’s essentially a very small story not unlike something you would spend a page or two on before: Glenn going to the library and remarking on how often he’s made the same walk. Is there a concern in having this new series with the luxury of space you have?

    I don’t think it’s a very small story — it has a diagram of every possible universe in it! That’s big. It could have even gone longer, but I only had 32 pages and I wanted to the “Bed” story and have enough room. It’s not really a luxury as much as it’s a challenge to write a 32 page comic book that’s worth $8.

    How did you achieve that kind of crayon look with the blue shading in “The Litterer”?

    The blue crayon look is pencil on vellum tracing paper, scanned in and made blue. I like it OK but decided not to do the whole book that way. It’s nice to switch things up sometimes.

    “Glenn in Bed” is the final story in Ganges #1, and a real triumph. Since it ends the day for Glenn and Wendy, it was going to be the last story anyway, but did you know it was such a strong closer? What’s your favorite piece in the issue, or do you just look at it as a whole?

    I thought up the stories backwards, which is usually how it goes. I felt like it would be an interesting story. I would try to make it affecting and beautiful and I was looking forward to drawing it. But I felt like I had to earn it, so I wanted to do some other stories first.

    I think of it as a whole and as parts. But I think at this point I’ve done too many stories with Glenn speculating.

    Tell us a little about the USS Catastrophe shop you run with fellow cartoonist Dan Zettwoch.

    We sell other people’s self-published comics we think are worth buying. We pay the artists 60 percent of the cover and keep the rest for cocaine, etc.

    You have the Curses collection coming in October, and another Ganges issue or two before that. Any other plans?

    Actually it looks like GANGES #2 won’t be out until after CURSES. Right now I’m working on a booklet about the Center for Cartoon Studies. After that it’s GANGES #2 and OR ELSE #5. A collection of OR ELSE should be ready for late ‘07. And probably something for the next Kramers Ergot. And some self-published things, I hope.

    Kevin Huizenga’s fine books may be found at Fantagraphics Books and Drawn & Quarterly Publications. He has also recently started his own blog, The Balloonist.

    Posted by Tim Leong on June 5th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |

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