Grown Over

Or Else #4

This one is kind of a mess, and this mess is one of a kind.

Granted, it’s just the sort of mess that I personally tend to enjoy, but it’d be nothing short of outright delusion to assume that such feelings extend to the comics reading population at large. A revised edition of material originally printed in writer/artist Kevin Huizenga’s minicomic series Supermonster (specifically issue #12, from 2001), this book is almost certain to deliver some measure of bafflement, and is likely to dissuade a few of those new readers attracted to the Huizenga oeuvre by Ganges #1, an altogether more simple (though not simplistic), emotional, and mild-natured comic. Popular too - you know you’ve ‘arrived’ when at least one well-traveled mainstream media outlet is posturing their official review of your latest work as a curative to overzealous fan reaction. There is no greater commemoration for having accomplished much today, here in our opinion-saturated instantaneous age, than the suggestion that you don’t deserve as much credit as you’ve gotten.

Saturation is an important element of this book; unlike the thought-drenched inside-outside beat of issue #2, nonetheless tethered to something resembling traditional storytelling, this one totally dispenses with any classical notion of plot or characterization. Rather, Huizenga presents a 100-page procession of events and intrusions, naturalistic observations gradually crowded out by noise and information overload - the saturation of organic and psychic nonsense into the natural world, and thus the comic itself. Titled Glenn Ganges in The Wild Kingdom, this is no simple examination of furry beasts and leafy things. Huizenga sets his sights on no less than the subjugation of natural states to the chaotic will of humankind; the cover art nicely outlines the story’s intent while winking at its limitations, in that it presents a lovely graph that can be recognized as providing a guide to all sorts of connected things, though actually grasping the details is all but impossible. It’s ok - form is function here, and style is substance (and in a medium that derives its power from the interaction between word and image, should it be anything else?), and if the book doesn’t really explain everything, its gradual surrender to madness at least makes it an intriguing case study rather than the textbook itself.

Good thing the book is pretty damn funny. Let me explain.

Following an amusing Table of Contents (which again, despite its positioning as a helpful guide to the proceedings, completely and knowingly fails to offer any help whatsoever), we get a prelude sequence that neatly encapsulates all of the book’s concerns right at the front. Glenn Ganges, noted everyman, wanders off the beaten path and into a strange zone of photographic backgrounds - basically, he enters the ‘real’ world. Peering through someone’s window, he spies an anthropomorphic bear thingy watching television. The familiar ‘Mutual of Omaha’ slogan is on the screen, immediately followed by Glenn himself, suddenly aged, standing amidst the rubble of a town, and declaring “I was saved… from my own life!” Young Glenn is horrified, and suddenly sits upright at home. It was all a dream. But his body is strangely itchy - he spies what might be the culprit, a naughty bug. He smears it against the wall, and it leaves the familiar Nike symbol with its guts. Glenn stares at his hand.

And then the proper story starts. For what it is.

Immediately, the collision of nature and decidedly unnatural human affairs is set up as a chief concern. The very juxtaposition of ‘Mutual of Omaha’ and ‘Wild Kingdom’ represents an odd clash - insurance monies being offered to provide economic security, rubbing shoulders with uncontrollable nature. The inside-back cover reflects this concern, providing an old advertisement that utilizes handy bird watching tips to sell destructive leaded gasoline. It’s clear that these two forces won’t get along well, and yet they’re smashed together. As Huizenga demonstrates with that smashed bug, the economics of human concern are in the very blood of living, nonhuman things.

The next 46 pages offer wordless vignettes following Glenn throughout his day. Huizenga’s art in these sequences is often scratchy, the grass and dirt of his earth composed of sharp jabs of ink and tight crisscrosses. It’s a normal, yet distinctly desolate surrounding, fine details like an tipped trashcan lovingly inserted. Up close, Glenn’s house plants have wilted, and he tries to eat a rotten apple, eventually throwing it to a squirrel. Later, Glenn drives to the post office, though he becomes distracted by an odd pigeon, which has gotten sick from eating chili fries dropped outside a fast food joint and is stumbling around, shitting all over the place. In a gruesome bit of suspense, the bird is ultimately crushed under the wheels of a car bearing a religious bumper sticker - the decal depicts a Jesus fish marked ‘Truth’ eating a smaller fish (with legs) marked ‘Darwin,’ human perceptions literally devouring biology. But nature sallies forth: a hawk swoops down and snatches the dead pigeon. Later at home, Glenn catches a beetle in a jar and releases it into his yard, where his housecat pounces on it. Human action thus fails to derail the patterns of consumption, merely twisting it around.

I realize that merely listing all of these little events and symbols makes the book seem hopelessly blunt in its execution. It does seem a shade overbearing once the first few readings are out of the way and you really examine it, bit by bit. I assure you though, that Huizenga’s visual skill affords this material a great deal of lyricism, his command of the comics form enough that you’ll be convinced that the whole thing would be an embarrassment in less skilled hands. From the excellent use of panels-in-panels to depict Glenn’s viewpoint, to the deployment of wide, two panel per page layouts in building suspense throughout the pigeon bit, Huizenga makes it all go down smooth.

And then, the train flies entirely off the rails, surrendering the next 33 pages to a crazed mass of miscellany, as the book is essentially taken over by advertisements of various stripes. And it’s funny, oh yes. The anthropomorphic fellow from the prelude, Uncle Animal, appears in many of these, offering delicious Mini-Wheats to cure anxiety over the war in Iraq, nanobot-powered carpet detergent to get you a great promotion, and plenty of homespun wisdom (“There are two sides to every numb nut.”). Eventually Walt Whitman shows up to sell tooth whitener, happy naked people dance in joy, people’s heads mutate in delighted pleasure, the line “I was saved from my own life!” appears multiple times in various forms, Tux Dog and a random Jason character pop up for no reason, there’s a hilarious reference to The Comics Journal, Glenn randomly flashes back to a childhood trauma, and eventually the ads start to overlap and mix into each other, the noise of consumer information becoming white - just like your teeth!

O my soul!”

The best thing since sliced balls.”

This is the language spoken, classicism turned to salesmanship. Before long we’re getting guides to the world’s fanciest pigeons, an empty, buzzword-laden monologue by Old Glenn (the end result of all this saturation?), handy guides to characters seen previously in the book (generally of little informative use, keeping up the standard), wildly complex charts, and an introduction to the works of Nobel Prize winner Maurice Maeterlinck, including a long, handwritten excerpt from 1901’s The Life of the Bee. Therein, Maeterlinck ponders the unhappy ways of the natural world. “And we, who dimly gaze on these things with our own blind eyes, we know full well that it is not they alone that we cannot understand, but that before us there lies a pitiable form of the great power that quickens us also.” As Huizenga tells us, Maeterlinck examined grand human concerns through the microcosms of the bestial kingdoms; this informs Huizenga’s own view, that of the intersections of the natural and human worlds, and the state they’ve brought the whole into. By adopting the form of nonsensical, contradictory barrage, Huizenga transforms his own work into its own symbol for the falling state of being, the consciousness (and thus the reader’s view) tumbling downward, downward.

And as a little exclamation point for the whole deal, Huizenga then presents ‘Appendix A,’ in which everything melts down into a conflagration of fire and smoke - and just when it seems our problems might be small compared to the vastness of the Earth and surrounding space, the author throws in a little extra punch for an explosive conclusion that maybe sums up his wishes for humanity. Or maybe he’s just being silly.

Bounding from visual poetry to thundering absurdity, always mixing and matching the oil and water of green and gray forces, the book seems ungainly when first set down. Willfully absurd, gladly off-putting, sometimes uproarious and sometimes oblique. What is certain is that Huizenga is devoted to exploring new visual possibilities, new ways of causing in-panel realities to clash through the use of the page, the textual/iconic potential of the form. That he sets off this time to provide a holistic formal experience rather than a discernable story or vivid characters will not please everybody. But those hungry for experiments situated to break entirely out of the narrative box, to operate on a plane separate from the overwhelming norm - they will want to look into this. And that it’s done in good humor, with a keen appreciation for gags and wordplay; well hell, let it be known that this is no staid proceeding. This is comics breaking out.