By Kevin Huizenga
Drawn & Quarterly
For a long time I’ve been seeing Kevin Huizenga and his work described thus:
“Standing out amongst his contemporaries, Kevin Huizenga is the leading cartoonist of his generation whose subtle mastery of the medium has earned him countless accolades and awards. Huizenga’s comics are at once straight-forward and experimental, serious and funny.”
But The Wild Kingdom is the first of his works I’ve read and, at least to me, it reads like a case of an artist trying to be too esoteric, too clever. Either that or it’s quite simply brilliant and I’m missing it – It’s a close call to be honest.
And having a quick wander round the web I’ve just read a great introductory piece on Huizenga by Chris at Robot 6 – which basically ends with (and I’m paraphrasing) – whatever you do, don’t be so stupid as to start with The Wild Kingdom if you’re new to Huizenga. Oh shit.
Which probably explains why I was largely unmoved and nonplussed by it all. Whilst it may be clever, it just fails to really connect. It’s a disjointed piece, firing off any which way. Confusing, complex and, in the end, just a little frustrating. The mix of beautifully simplistic artwork on the cryptic, near wordless Glenn Ganges strips with the more bizarre and experimental works towards the end just made me increasingly weary.
(The best of The Wild Kingdom comes from Huizenga’s lovely Glenn Ganges artwork – so simple, yet so perfectly done. From The Wild Kingdom by Kevin Huizenga, published by Drawn & Quarterly)
In The Wild Kingdom Kevin Huizenga’s everyman character Glenn Ganges finds himself a quiet observer of the simple nature of his quiet suburban environs. All the strips have a similar nature theme, as we look in on Ganges and the animals that populate his world. It’s relatively wordless as Ganges wanders round a fairly nondescript house, ventures into his backyard, drives around for a bit. And all the time his gaze is drawn to what little nature is on display. So we get dead houseplants, apples thrown for grateful squirrels and several pages watching a pigeon having what can best be described as a chilli-fry induced freakout, eventually wandering blithely under the wheels of a car whilst ganges watches in moderate horror.
(Those chilli fries aren’t going to prove a good idea. From The Wild Kingdom by Kevin Huizenga, published by Drawn & Quarterly)
And each interaction with his surroundings leads, somewhere in the book, to another piece. We begin to notice the repetition of phrases, of ideas, of symbols, of characters. It all starts to gather together. Or more acccurately, it all looks like it might gather together somewhere. Unfortunately somewhere isn’t in the 100 plus pages of this very attractive little hardback.
For instance, the squirrel and the apple are linked by a piece later on in cut out and keep style on the characters seen thus far, a recipe for Squirrel Brain (“A Kentucky delicacy” but “may transmit Mad Cow disease or dreams of mental maps of nuts.”) and a short strip with young Glenn sniffing out dead squirrel. What it says about nature, about Glenn, about Huizenga – that’s left to the reader to decide.
(The connectivity of Wild Kingdom – all playing off the squirrel Glenn fed in his backyard. From The Wild Kingdom by Kevin Huizenga, published by Drawn & Quarterly)
The surreality of the work is compounded as the book ventures onwards. What started as beautifully drawn simple, if unclear, black and white strips of Ganges and nature drifts into full colour and a series of tongue in cheek ads – cereal, odour neutralising, nanobot killing pet products, self help adverts, adverts for imaginary apples, the media’s obsession with the “Hot New Thing”. It all comes at you in a media frenzy. By the extra features towards the end, as any hope of narrative structure breaks down into flowcharts, encyclopedia entries, diagrams, a pigeon spotters’ flight of fancy with a double page of bizarre, made up varieties and more. Even a reprinting, in Huizenga’s font, of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Life Of The Bee following a quick, and cryptic cartoon biography.
And finally, Huizenga really goes all out, starting with a buzzard crashing and burning into powerlines (the same buzzard perhaps that ate the pigeon that Glenn watched go under the wheels of the car, that got messed up by eating the chili fries, that Uncle Animal bought i one of the ads…. that …. that .. oh screw it, you get the idea). And from then it’s apocalypse now Huizenga style – powerlines, housefire, neighbourhood burns, planes crash down, Earth goes boom – the interconnectedness ends in dire entorpy and disaster.
It’s cleverly done certainly, and Huizenga does have a way with off kilter connections, funny asides, silly captions that kept me smiling whilst I was wondering where it was all heading. And it’s funny, albeit in a wry, knowing way – take the flowchart “Truthfish” that plays off a bumper sticker earlier:
(Huizenga’s ideas, like this perfect, and funny, Truthfish diagram/infographic, are great, but there’s just too many of them, firing off in all directions for The Wild Kingdom to work for me. From The Wild Kingdom by Kevin Huizenga, published by Drawn & Quarterly)
The one thing I am sold here on is Huizenga’s artwork – simply lovely, beautiful linework, exquisite simplicity that’s just so very easy on the eye. Almost too easy, because it’s too easy to quickly jump across each page, missing so much of the details that really deserve a longer, lingering look:
I’m not averse to pretentiousness introspection or experimentation, but Huizenga just takes it all too far here. It’s a join the dots comic, with Huizenga challenging you to find the connections and links thematically between his short pieces. I think I need to take Chris’ advice and start with some of his other work. Maybe then I’ll eventually get into the rhythm of The Wild Kingdom. But something, a nagging feeling, tells me even then I’ll come away from Wild Kingdom unimpressed.
The thing is, on another day, in another mood, I may have rather enjoyed the manner of Huizenga’s experiment. And so may you. It’s certainly challenging. But I, for one, found it veering off into the realms of artistic trickery, something the artist may well enjoy at the time, but that I, as a reader, have no real desire to witness.