The first two annual issues of Ganges were two of the most amazing comics I have ever read. The two issues were intensely creative and thoughtful evocations of the sorts of inner thoughts that rarely are depicted in comics form. Issue #1 presented one of the most moving depictions of marriage that I’ve ever seen in comics, while issue #2 brilliantly captured the bizarre and now almost unbelievable milieu of the dotcom explosion. Ganges #3 presents a very different comic than we saw in the previous two issues.
This issue is simply a depiction of the torture that Glenn Ganges goes through as he battles a nasty case of insomnia. That means that this issue isn’t highly plot-based, but it is the perfect idea for an incredibly well-produced meditation on the kind of battle that we all go through occasionally.
The comic works, and works beautifully, because Kevin Huizenga is a magnificent and incredibly imaginative storyteller. His panel and page arrangements are among the most thoughtful and innovative of any creator in the most recent few years.
That’s important because so much of this issue depends on Huizenga’s storytelling abilities. He has no plot to speak of here, so the success or failure of the comic depends on Huizenga’s use of recurring images, clever page layouts, and, of course, his ability to make readers feel interested in literally wandering around the inside of Glenn Ganges’s mind.
In other words, Huizenga sets himself a very high level of difficulty. However, being a world-class cartoonist, however, Huizenga delivers on his promise.
I found myself totally immersed in the story Huizenga tells in this issue of Ganges, completely recognizing my own issues with insomnia while watching Glenn Ganges struggle to clear his mind and fall asleep. I saw myself in every moment of Glenn’s struggles. When thoughts of tasks on his to-do list roiled through Glenn’s mind, it reminded me of my own racing thoughts of tasks yet unfinished that often haunt my nighttime excursions. When Glenn tries to make his body “like stone” in order to help him fall asleep, I smiled because I could recall trying the same silly trick myself – and having as little success as Glenn has.
But it’s not the recognition that really makes this issue special. What makes it special is the way that Huizenga presents it all. Few artists in comics history have had Huizenga’s sense of the power of repeated images combined with his playful and thoughtful attitude towards reuse of standard comics elements.
For instance, Huizenga very cleverly uses blank word balloons to depict the kind of echoing of thoughts in one’s head, the white noise that can often prevent one from falling asleep. The book opens with an image of Glenn’s head floating in a sea of black as empty word balloons hover above his head. One balloon even emerges from Glenn’s nose. The whole effect is kind of odd and disquieting, but also intriguing as hell. As a reader I wanted to decipher what Huizenga intended with those images, so it made me want to read the story further.
As the story progresses, readers get a better sense of what that image means, and in its recurrence it acquires real power. By the point that Glenn seems to be adrift in a sea filled with empty word balloons, when he literally seems to be fighting the balloons to stay above the fray, the images have real power as symbols of the white noise in his head. Moreover, the balloons are both playful and amusingly literal – Glenn is literally fighting his inner thoughts in an attempt to go to sleep.
That’s another secret of the success of the piece – its seeming playfulness. I love the recurring image of a “ghost Glenn” wandering around the body of the “real Glenn”, tantalizing Glenn with obscure thoughts and nags and concerns. The ghost has aching feet (depicted humorously as wavy lines), sleeps on tree trunks, and disappears down the nasal passages of the real Glenn. It’s hard not to see these images as funny at the same time that they feel a bit spooky.
By the end of the book Glenn has given up on his dreams of sleep, instead slipping noise cancelling headphones on his wife, Wendy’s, ears and instead starts to do work while playing music very loud. This produces more humorous images, as musical notes float ethereally over Glenn, Wendy, their bed, even their house. This image not only echoes the empty word balloons from before, but also is just a very humorous image to look at. By page 30 the musical notes are huge, almost the size of Glenn’s torso, as he dances along to the music in a very animated manner.
When the police show up over the last two pages, it provides a funny sort of dreamlike epilogue to Glenn’s struggles to sleep. We get a little bit of physical humor and a joke or two over those few pages, which takes the edge off of the rest of the issue and gives the reader a nice sense of closure as the story wraps up.
Ganges #3 is really nothing but an extended interior monologue. And at that, it’s an interior monologue with little grounding in reality. As such, it could have been deadly dull. But Huizenga, one of the finest cartoonists working today, brilliantly delivers a fascinating and deeply involving book. While it’s not up to the transcendent levels of the first two issues of Ganges, Ganges #3 is a brilliantly conceived and delivered comic that provides a virtual clinic on great comics storytelling.