Kevin Huizenga spotlight in Wizard

“Kevin Huizenga Spotlight” / Wizard / Kiel Phegley / April 23, 2007

By almost anyone’s standards, Kevin Huizenga is the “it” cartoonist of today’s alternative comics scene. Spinning contemplative stories about everything from Beatles songs to Sudanese refugees in his acclaimed series Or Else from Drawn & Quarterly and Ganges from Fantagraphics and Coconino Press, Huizenga has earned a rep for illuminating everyday experiences in thoughtful bursts of short fiction. It’s no wonder then that Huizenga was chosen as one of the guests of honor at this year’s Alternative Press Expo, and as his Saturday spotlight panel (an open Q&A) showed, the creator is as ruminative and relatable as his signature everyman Glenn Ganges.

Before we get rolling, why don’t you introduce yourself?

HUIZENGA: My name is Kevin Huizenga. I started making superhero minicomics actually when I was still in high school, and then I found out about John Porcellino and the ’zine culture that was going on. That was really inspiring to me, and as I grew and left superheroes behind, I really got into minicomics like King Cat and Optic Nerve when it was still a minicomic. And in high school that really saved my life. It was a really big thing for me. I didn’t ever really think that I would draw superhero comics or anything like that. I never had any ambition to do that, so when minicomics came into my life, I said, “I don’t care what I’m going to do for the rest of my life, but I’m going to always draw and self-publish my comics.”

But then after 14 or so issues [of my minicomic Supermonster] Chris Oliveros at Drawn & Quarterly asked me to do something for the Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, and I did that. Amazingly, he wanted to keep publishing things, and so I’ve just been working since then with Drawn & Quarterly. And at the same time I’m doing another series with Fantagraphics called Ganges, which has been really great for me because it’s published in six different languages all at the same time. So in this short span of two years or so, I’ve gone from pretty much figuring on being an office drone and doing minicomics at night to sitting in front of you guys and trying to act like I’m worthy of having this talk on me. That’s where I’m at right now.

Are you doing comics full time now?

HUIZENGA: Yeah. Two years ago I quit my job at the museum, and I’ve been doing comics full time ever since. I mean, I’m definitely not making a living doing it. My wife is making most of the money.

Are you subsidizing your income with a lot of illustration work, like the piece you did for The New Yorker?

HUIZENGA: Most of my income is comics. I really don’t like illustrating at all. I’ve done a little bit of illustration work while I was kind of involved in marketing, and I hate that stuff so much. Once I got out of that, I said, “I’m never doing that again.” Illustrating for an article in The New Yorker is a whole different thing. I was really excited to do that, but a lot of my friends are illustrators. I think I just have a different personality than they do. I realized recently that a lot of these guys like getting visual problems from the client and solving them by drawing, but I just don’t have that at all. Ironically enough, the day before I got the request for the New Yorker illustration, I was telling my wife that I realized I’m not an illustrator and that I’m a writer. If someone asked me to write something, I would have no problem, and I would be excited to do it. Anytime anybody asks me for an illustration, I have a breakdown.

What’s the difference between your two series Or Else and Ganges?

HUIZENGA: The Or Else series for the first four issues was pretty much me reworking stuff that was already published in minicomics. I reworked a lot of it and redrew it, and so that’s what’s different from Ganges. Although, the other thing is that since Ganges is part of this Ignatz line of comic books that were dreamed up by Igort, this Italian publisher/cartoonist, the idea was that they’d be published in all these different languages at the same time. So the idea was that you needed to keep all the lettering and anything that needed to be translated in a black ink. Then you could use another ink to color. Working on Ganges I have to be real conscious of the fact that it’s going to be translated, and I personally think I should make it understandable to people in other countries who wouldn’t know all these little details about America, and so I wouldn’t have to add all these little footnotes. Over time, Or Else is something I can let loose on more, and it feels a bit more…I don’t like the word experimental, but I can try new things.

Does it feel like Or Else is a continuation of your minicomics work?

HUIZENGA: Yeah, but at the same time, a part of me wants to be this “professional cartoonist” and be like John Stanley doing Lulu after Lulu story. Ganges was a way for me to think, “This is the first time I’ve been given a job to do a continuing series of stories.”

Or Else #2 and different issues of Supermonster use a lot of diagram-like drawings in the stories. What’s your motivation behind telling stories in that style?

HUIZENGA: There was this job I had where I was working at a place called Explain, which was an illustration company that did these visual explanation things, and a lot of times that amounted to these diagrammatic/comics illustrations. That really got me interested in diagrams. And after thinking for a while about diagrams, the stories that I did while I worked there have a lot of diagrams in them, and that carried on through. I started collecting old science textbooks and so forth that had these nice illustrated diagrams. It made me realize that since I was in high school and Understanding Comics came out, I’ve always thought about the comics form. And something I started realizing recently is that we talk about comics being a mixture of image and text, but it really seems to me that a part of the way comics works is in this sort of diagrammatic space. You have a pictorial space, which follows certain pictorial norms, and then you have the text part of comics, which follows the syntactical structure of text and language. What comics does is it has this particular way of diagramming those things together using the panel unit and the word balloon as symbols for certain things. I really realized that that was the part of comics that appealed to me the most. When I look at other cartoonists, I think that they’re real pictorial cartoonists. They’re really interested in the image part of comics. And there are other cartoonists who are really interested in stories and the subjects we associate with literary storytelling like character, plot and so on. I realized the thing that interested me in comics is the way all of that stuff is diagrammed on the page and the way that you read it.

Your comics seem to involve a lot of story adaptations and references that help you focus the writing a little more. What are some of the things that you read that influence your work?

HUIZENGA: It’s been a big problem for me in the past year because I really stopped reading a lot of comics. I’ve read mostly nonfiction. Before that, I grew up reading novels and fiction, but I caught this need to read nonfiction. I think that’s in part because I feel like I’m not educated well enough and I need to be more sophisticated. And I would disagree, by the way. I think I have no idea how to write characters. That’s something I need to learn how to do. Reading all this nonfiction I think has influenced me to want to have really rich, dense information in my comics, and that was around the same time that I was thinking about diagrams and working at this job. So my thinking was really to transfer information to my comics and not have this block of text hovering over an illustrated cartoon image and then the next box. It works, but I think comics have so many more tools in that diagrammatic part of comics. There are so many more tools to make complex information more interesting.

How do you ride that line between diagrams and stories, or keep yourself from focusing too much on the visual aspect with no connection to the flow of the narrative?

HUIZENGA: I don’t know. I think I do that a lot. I start to digress and digress because I think it’s interesting and not because it adds elegance to the structure of the story.

But there’s a difference that keeps you from being a diagram maker, which would be perfectly valid to make artistic diagrams that weren’t functional. There’s just enough character in what you’re making, where you have a surrogate that brings you into a personalized space and experience the world through.

HUIZENGA: I use this character Glenn Ganges for my stories really for no reason other than I need someone to start the story rolling. There’s a tension for me in whether I feel like “Am I telling a fictional story about a character?” or “Am I writing an essay/nonfictional thing where I want to talk about this or that?” I constantly try to think of myself as a fiction writer where I try to make fictional stories, but sometimes I realize that all I want to do is put this information and diagrams into the story. I don’t know that I have the impulse that a fiction writer or storyteller has. I just want to make this complicated thing about this other thing. [Laughs]

Talk about Glenn Ganges, who’s not exactly you...

HUIZENGA: What happened was, I was working on the story called “Wild Kingdom” which was going to be about this guy walking through this area and seeing different animals, and that’s all. So I drew that, and I’d drawn it with the main character being this blank character with big eyes. When you’re younger and you’re a cartoonist, I think a lot of people draw characters that kind of look like smiley faces because they have these really simple heads and just a face. I changed it and made it more like an old-timey cartoon face with a little peg nose, and then I thought it would just be a character in this one story. But I needed a name for him. In Michigan, there’s this one exit that I would drive past on the highway all the time where if you get off one way you’d go to Glenn, Mich., and if you got off the other way you’d go to Ganges, Mich. So the exit sign just said “Glenn Ganges.” So that’s where that came from, and after that I had a realization about how artists work. [Laughs] I don’t really know how artists work, but every once in a while I go, “Oh, that’s how artists work.” And I had this realization at the time that artists don’t make up something new from scratch to do something with. They do things they’ve done before with a different context, so I thought, “I’ll just use this Glenn Ganges guy for another story” and so on and so forth, and I’ve stuck with him since.

Then eventually I gave him things like a wife and a house and stuff like that. Now he’s turning into this thing where if I do a story, I ask, “Is his wife in this story?” or “If I give him a different wife, will that be okay? Is that going to bother people, or is it going to bother me?” So there’s a weird thing where I didn’t ever want to get to the point where he was a character with a specific life and his parents were a certain way. I wanted him to be this blank—kind of like how David Lynch has these actors that play all the parts in his different movies. I wanted Glenn to be my actor.

Does he still seem like a blank to you, or is he a person?

HUIZENGA: To me, I still want him to be a blank, but in stories I’ve been doing lately, he’s this dude who thinks and worries about things all the time. I don’t know if I want to make him into that kind of character, and if that would be a character I’d like. Sometimes I think I could make Glenn like an actor playing a different character, so I would say “played by Glenn Ganges.” Then I could do autobiographical stories where Glenn plays me and spell that out. I could even have different actors playing Glenn, but that would be a bit too postmodern or whatever. That’s so ’90s.

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