Not every cartoonist can make insomnia into a fascinating subject, fewer still can draw the topic out over four issues of comics, exploring all the different mental ramblings, associations, memories and fears one typically experiences on a sleepless night. Even fewer yet would attempt to up the ante by having the main character spend a good bit of time looking for a "boring book" to help him fall asleep and then attempt to depict the actual overstuffed verbiage of said book.
Kevin Huizenga can and does in the fourth issue of "Ganges," his ongoing series published by Fantagraphics as part of the multi-national "Ignatz" initiative, starring the suburban everyman Glenn Ganges. Having drunk far too much coffee, Glenn finds himself, in the latest issue, struggling to fall asleep, his thoughts careening from subject to subject and attempting to initiate slumber by perusing a book of academia that has never failed him before. Far from being dull, however, Ganges is vibrant and hugely entertaining, with Huizenga finding a number of inventive ways to express difficult thoughts, moments or concepts.
CBR News spoke with Huizenga about the latest issue, the Ignatz experiment and why he can't stop making minicomics.
CBR News: With the release of the fourth issue, it seems like "Ganges" is the only series left standing from the great Ignatz publishing experiment, at least for now. What do you make of that? What was your experience being a part of the Ignatz family? How do you look back on the format as a whole? Does it feel at all weird for you to be the last guy standing?
Kevin Huizenga: I don't know if any conclusions can be drawn from the way things played out. I certainly don't think of myself as the "last man standing." That's a mis-reading of the situation -- other artists already finished their series, or decided to stop working in the Ignatz format for one reason or another.
I've always said I thought the format was kind of a crazy idea -- a dust jacket on a 32 page comic book is a pretty weird design concept! Though I respect the crazy genius of it. Originally, the plan was to have each issue published in multiple languages at the same time, saving on printing costs by doing them all at once and swapping out the black ink, but almost immediately this began to fall apart as publishers and artists (like myself) flaked on deadlines and contracts.
An important point is that Igort's original vision was all about finding a way to help cartoonists get paid more. I can get behind that. I'd love to see more of that.
The first issue of "Ganges" was printed in something like five languages, so I made a lot more money than I would have had it just been English-language. I wish it had all worked out better. Igort's vision was a kind of big thinking you don't see all that much. It's amazing that he got it going. I thought it was doomed from the start, though. Maybe there would have been a way to make it work better. I know that originally we were supposed to do 2 issues a year, and I definitely didn't keep up that end of the bargain.
As an artist who seems to be interested in how the size of the publication affects the reading experience ("Wild Kingdom," "Curses," various issue of "Or Else"), what did the Ignatz format provide you as a cartoonist? Did it afford you creative opportunities a smaller (or even larger) format wouldn't?
There's all the obvious things about how the constraints (32 pages, 2 color, etc.) help focus the mind, but beyond that, nothing, really. I tried not to get too weird, tried to be accessible. I originally wanted to do a series that took place in a fantasy/sci-fi kind of world, but Igort talked me out of that. So that was good.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but you initially created Glenn Ganges to be an everyman-type character who could fit into a number of different situations. Has that changed at all? Has he become more defined and more of an individual as time has progressed? Has working on "Ganges" changed your perception of him or relationship with the character in any way?
Nothing has changed as far as I can tell. Continuity is fluid from story to story. I don't even think of him as existing, really, like you might think of a character having a solid, unchanging identity.
How did this particular "Ganges" series come about? Where did the idea for him facing a sleepless night come from and did that change or evolve in any way as you've worked through successive issues?
I don't remember where the idea came from -- it wasn't like the heavens opened. It was just an idea I had while working on the first issue. It grew out of the "Glenn in Bed" story, I guess. The idea of a body of work that all takes place at night, or even on one particular night, appealed to me, where Glenn was up all night. But I'm not totally locked into that idea-contract or anything. There are other threads of the story that I want to develop.
Do you see a definitive end for this series or do you imagine it to be an ongoing thing? Will morning ever come in Glenn's world?
I don't know. Maybe I'll do a whole other book about waking up.
"Ganges" reminds me a bit of some of the works of Nicholson Baker, particularly in the way you deal with stream-of-consciousness thoughts during minor moments in life, in this case a bad bout of insomnia. Was his work an influence at all for you while working on this comic?
Not really, but I've read "The Mezzanine," and I know how that's a classic go-to example of a particular approach to writing, so you can't help but think of it. It's an essay/fiction hybrid approach so he slows time down. You try to draw from the strengths of each and avoid the weaknesses. It's easy to see how this approach could lead to very weak writing. The dramatic, make-believe focus of fiction is lost in digressions. The essay form is weakened because you're hitching it to a fictional, make-believe world. As a reader it's hard to know what you are supposed to believe in. Some of it you want the reader to just let wash over them or laugh at, and some of it you want the reader to work hard and test and think about.
In "Ganges," particularly in the new issue and the previous one, you're attempting to visualize a number of difficult to express emotions and experiences and even some abstract thoughts. What was the biggest challenge in depicting these scenes and how did you overcome any initial roadblocks?
The biggest challenge with issue 4 that comes to mind was drawing grids that looked good. I drew them on the computer and then printed them out and traced them, but often they didn't look right, and I'd have to do it over again. It was really frustrating. The density of some of the pages meant that what should have taken a week would take two or three. Balancing all the tones and blacks in the art was also pretty difficult. My drawing skill is pretty limited, and I had to really stretch to pull off some panels that for a more natural artist would probably be no problem at all. On the other hand, the "Heilegra pages," which are very dense, went relatively well and quickly and I had a lot of fun drawing those.
As far as the writing, as with previous issues, the hardest thing was trying to fit everything I wanted to have happen into 32 pages and keep it dense and filling.
But you're right, the visualizing of thinking and mental experiences is one of the main things, is what "Ganges" is all about, for me. Most of the stories grow out of some idea I have about how to diagram some situation, in comics form, where you can build up and develop the diagram over multiple steps. That makes it sound more programmatic than it is, though.
While the first two issues seemed to stand alone for the most part, the latest issue moves directly from the third. Was that conscious on your part or did that happen organically?
I'm not sure in what sense you see issue 4 moving directly from 3. I think of them as being pretty different, though I suppose in both issues the focus is on Glenn not being able to sleep. They take different spins on the situation and go in different directions. The stories wander around but they don't stray too far from the ideas in "Ganges 1." The way I work on these comics is a mixture of planning and letting things happen organically.
You seem to have an interest both in straightforward storytelling and character exploration (i.e. a lot of the earlier "Ganges" material) and in more formalist, explorations like "Fight or Run." Does "Ganges" give you an opportunity to combine these interests?
I guess you could say that, but it's not like I ever thought something like "great, I can combine my interests" or anything that strategic. It's more like I keep trying out things and trying to expand what I do. I sit down and try to do a story inspired by something I read, like for instance a mundane everyday kind of story like John Porcellino might do, and then another time I'll try to do something that emerges out of doodling, like a Marc Bell kind of thing. And then I might try to take some of what I learned from both stories and do something that combines those modes. You learn to not try to reinvent the wheel every time. Sometimes just doodling around can suggest a line of thinking that can go for years.
A lot of your stories start in the "real world" and then take a sudden twist into the fantastic, and Ganges 4 does this a bit at the very end, sort of. Where does that interest in blending the mundane and the mystical come from?
Again, the question is loaded. I don't think of myself as interested in that, exactly. It all comes from visions where angels come and tell me what to write. I'm tempted to say that anything you put in a comix story can't be considered really mundane, since you're focusing attention on it and representing it in a new, energy-charged way, but I've read some pretty boring diary comics.
I suppose my religious upbringing has something to do with it, but that's such a complicated topic, and even saying "religious upbringing" doesn't even begin to get at it. I don't think in terms of mundane or mystical, but I guess I think if you were somehow going to write about one without some full sense of the other that would be wrong. Nowadays I think less in terms of mystical experience as something religious or supernatural than as something having to do with brain chemistry. Some people think that reduces it, but I'm not sure that's right.
Glenn obsesses quite a bit about the passage of time in issue #4 and worries about death in earlier issues as well. It struck me that you're one of few cartoonists -- at least of your generation, but I think a bit beyond too -- that seems really interested in grappling with these sort of existential issues. Anders Nilsen is the only other artist that comes to mind. Obviously it's natural for Glenn to want to worry about these things -- we all do when it's late and night and we can't sleep -- but I was wondering if you are attempting to explore or make a statement about our anxiety over our mortality.
Not really. Maybe I just have a lot of time on my hands to be morbid. I'm just following some particular ideas about time wherever they lead, and one place time leads is death, and etc., and then just trying to fit it together in a way that seems all right.
Is it fair to say that "Ganges" is your most successful (i.e best-selling) comic to date? It seems like it's reached a lot of readers beyond the traditional alt-comix market or at least gets talked about outside the general comics blog audience. How do you view it in relation to your other comics?
I guess it's the most successful, though I couldn't give you the numbers. I know they're small, though. I probably give it the most attention and time of all the things I do, pre-planning, writing and re-writing. Weirdly I still think of it as a side-project, in the sense that my default mental format is a minicomic/zine series, a solo anthology kind of thing, like my old "Supermonster" series. At one time "Or Else" was going to be the new version of that, but that seems a lost possibility now. I feel like I got sidetracked. So I keep thinking I'm going to get these damn "Ganges" things done, and get back to making little zines, like a mix of improvised screwing around with longer more developed things.
I wanted to ask you a bit about the "Leon Beyond" strips you do with Dan Zettwoch and (occasionally) Ted May. How did that come about? I assume most of the facts mentioned in the strip are phony but do you ever feel like sneaking in something true just for fun?
One of the editors of the Riverfront Times, the local alt-weekly asked Dan Z. if we'd like to do a strip, and we thought of our friend Leon and thought it would be perfect to get him involved, and we got together and hashed out the details. As for the rest I have no idea what you mean. I enjoy doing the strips a lot. For the first year or so I struggled with it, but I think I've figured it out now.
In addition to "Ganges" and your other projects, you put out minicomics on a pretty regular basis. What does making these books give you as an artist that a more traditional traditional format or with an established publisher doesn't?
I totally would rather work on a minicomic more than working on a "real" project. Working on something where other people are involved really screws me up. It's some kind of disorder. I assume they're going to be disappointed, and I resent them for that in advance, and then I start to hate the work and half-ass the project. I'd much rather work on something that no one wants, that no one has asked for. This has not helped my career.
Last year I started a series called "F" that was going to be like back to basics minicomics, hoping to re-kindle things, and I was going to only print 50 and send them out to friends and other cartoonists, of work-in-progress and experiments, whatever, and maybe sell a few to make back the printing costs. I was much more excited about working on those. Then I put "F" aside to work on "Ganges #4." Where I am right now is I really need to finish up some more "Ganges" material, wrap it up, and put together the book, but all I want to do is make self-indulgent zines with low print-runs. I'm hoping to find some way to combine those two things, so we'll see.