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Written and illustrated by Kevin Huizenga
Drawn & Quarterly
148 pages, $21.95
ISBN: 1894937864


Sequence from "Not Sleeping Together," in which we stay up late at a diner with Glenn Ganges and his pals; ©2006 Kevin Huizenga.


I really pity any critic who has to review work by Kevin Huizenga in five paragraphs or less. I say this because I'm here to review Huizenga's Curses in five paragraphs or less, and boy, am I ever in a self-pitying mood right now.

There's a strong temptation to reduce Huizenga to comparisons with the closest similar, like-minded artist, which feels like a mistake. First and foremost, it's damned lazy. Second, it limits the understanding readership to those familiar with the artists being compared. Third, it does a disservice to Huizenga, who after all is a unique enough artist to make his differences with the compared creators as interesting as the similarities. Finally, since there's no one fellow traveler to whom the artist in question can be easily compared, there's a further temptation to cross-reference a number of vaguely similar creators in the hope that one can find Huizenga somewhere in the middle. He combines the formalism of Chris Ware with John Porcellino's quotidian subject matter, all masked by many of Eddie Campbell's narrative strategies. Art? Somewhere between E.C. Segar and Shary Flenniken, I'd say. Express all this as a mathematical formula, and you see the problem. Indeed, the fact that you can express it as a mathematical formula demonstrates the problem with such comparisons:

Chris Ware + John Porcellino
Eddie Campbell
+Shary Flenniken
E.C. Segar

See what I mean? The results are as mundane and uncomfortable as a handjob from Doodles Weaver. Note to critics: Don't do this. Also, avoid references to obscure mid-20th century B-movie actors such as Doodles Weaver... and for God's sake, never use the words "handjob" and "Doodles Weaver" in the same sentence. Ewww.


Glenn faces a long-sought encounter with a feathered ogre, in the hope that it might help him and his wife conceive; sequence from "28th Street," ©2006 Kevin Huizenga.


Narrowing the scope from artist to work in question doesn't really help, either. Curses is simultaneously true to Kevin Huizenga's central vision and all over the map, and it's difficult to describe the book's formal complexities without losing sight of what a smooth reading experience it provides. In theory, Huizenga's work centers around suburban environments and the exploration of everyday life... which is as functionally useless a description as they come. In this volume you'll find King Henry IV, zombies, hallucinatory animals, an enchanted gas station, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a feathered ogre, Adolf Hitler and, of course, the Hot New Thing, whatever the hell that is. In the course of these pages, you'll see what begins as a meditation on lost children morph into ruminations on Sudanese war refugees, whose folk tales will then inform a magic-realist fable about cheating infertility, which will then turn into a discourse on how starlings came to be such a plague upon the American landscape, and all of it will be woven around the life of Huizenga's nominal stand-in, Glenn Ganges, and his wife Wendy, residents of a sleepy little community where the only magic available is what you bring to the proceedings. Which, in Ganges' case, is plenty.

This faculty for threading disparate topics and imagery into a smooth, single narrative gives Huizenga a generous mix for his stories, of course, providing him with the ability to let revelations arise from the juxtaposition of otherwise unconnected images and themes. But it also allows him to do the reverse, as well: Huizenga's approach to comics also allows him to zero in on single themes, turn around and look outward from unexpected angles. Take the short story originally printed in Kramers Ergot #5, "Jeepers Jacobs," for example. It's the tale of one of Ganges' golfing partners, a seminary professor writing an essay on the literal truthfulness of the Bible's depictions of Hell, and most of the story is told through the composition of his essay. Jacobs is concerned for Ganges' soul after discovering that he fell away from religion, and the creation of Jacobs' essay is presented as both an explanation of his concern and a look at how religious faith can shape one's worldview. It's an insightful and nuanced story; what might have become a jeremiad against the folly of religion in another artist's hands becomes instead a fascinating immersion into the mindset of a good, heartfelt religious believer, written without condescension or judgement. Moreover, Huizenga uses the conflict between spiritual aspiration and the anguish of the material world to turn ten pages of Biblical analysis into a fascinating comics scene — no mean feat, that.


A discourse on the knowability of God's acts illuminates the title character's motivations, in this sequence from "Jeepers Jacobs," ©2006 Kevin Huizenga.


To accomplish these marvellous feats of storytelling, Huizenga has assembled an intimidating collection of formal narrative tricks. He's especially adept at dividing the text and visual "tracks," letting one hold the story in place while allowing the other to lift off on imaginative flights of fancy, then stopping briefly for a traditional comics interlude before once again setting to sky in another direction — the "Lost and Found" episode is a particularly good example of this technique in action. It works because the setting is nicely grounded in the real world. Glenn Ganges serves in many ways as a fulcrum, an imaginary base to which a seemingly infinite number of odd and intriguing images and ideas can be tethered.

Every once in a while, Huizenga will indulge himself in pure formalism, as in "Case 0003128-24," breaking all ties to the larger surrounding narrative and seeing how far the base principles of comics storytelling can take him. He handles it well, but perhaps it's for the best that he only takes off for the outer reaches every once in a while. It's the mundane base of the everyday world that anchors his work, and without it, Huizenga just wouldn't be as interesting an artist.


A short sequence from "Case 0003128-24," which contrasts text from a set of adoption papers with artwork evoking middle-ages Chinese landscape painting; ©2006 Kevin Huizenga.


Kevin Huizenga is a deceptively direct yet deeply challenging artist, his considerable talents brought to bear against one of the most intractable problems faced by storytellers: to make the reader approach the everyday world from a new and fascinating set of eyes, an endless stream of metaphors for the endless stream of days... and making it work. That Huizenga succeeds at this task is a testament to the thoughtful approach and carefully deployed craftsmanship that he brings to his enjoyable and enriching comics tales. Curses may well be the best edition of cartoon short stories issued in 2006.

Mission accomplished. Now, if only I could whittle it down to five paragraphs...


This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.


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