I really, really, really love comic books. There’s pure alchemical genius in the way that a comic page comes together, in the interplay between words and pictures, in the incredible, nearly infinite number of different possible variations on the comic page. Comics can be anything — absolutely anything — and we can see that incredible variation in the hands of such diverse creators as Charles Schulz, George Herriman, Jack Kirby, Frank Miller, Eddie Campbell and the thousands upon thousands of creators who have participated in this incredible artform.
I’m constantly amazed by the amazing variety of works that can be created using comics, the way a virtuoso creator can find new and interesting and thoughtful and frankly breathtaking ways to manage the two-dimensional page of a work of comics Art with a capital A.
We saw that level of virtuosity in Habibi by Craig Thompson, a work of tremendous heart, technical virtuosity, playfulness and intelligence that creates a world that can only be created in comics form. Remarkably for a book of over 600 pages, there’s not a page — heck, not even a panel — in Thompson’s masterwork that seems unnecessary or wasteful or unnecessary. Each piece of the story adds upon itself to become a true graphic novel, a work that works simultaneously on multiple dimensions to become something that transcends and haunts and thrills and amazes and pleases the heart and the head.
And we see an incredible level of virtuosity in Kevin Huizenga’s latest volume of Ganges, a work that is so inventive and playful and thoughtful and that offers such a breathtaking level of technical virtuosity that it makes me want to climb up onto a rooftop and scream at the top of my voice “COMICS ARE FUCKING AWESOME” like some sort of lovesick geeky schoolboy in a bad 1980s teen comedy asking the prom queen to date him.
I have this problem whenever I review an issue of Ganges for Comics Bulletin. I always strain to describe the issue beyond the use of superlative adjectives: Huizenga is a world-class cartoonist creating transcendent, breathtaking, awe-inspiring, astonishing, brilliant work. Yeah, you say as a reader, but you know Ray Tate gives five bullets to the latest fucking issue of Detective Comics and well, doesn’t that demean the whole idea of a five-bullet comic? If Tony goddamn Daniel is creating five-bullet work (and more power to Ray for liking a comic enough to give it such a high rating — I’m jealous!), doesn’t that put that banal DC comic on the same level as this comic that you’re praising as the best thing ever?
Well, yeah, you make a good point, but all art is subjective and all interpretations of quality depend on your perceptions of art and therefore we all rate stuff on our own sliding scale. At least that’s the rule that we try to follow on Comics Bulletin and I’m all for that. Hell, I wish I could get five bullets of satisfaction from a Batman comic written and drawn by Tony Daniel. I wish I liked comics that much. I’d be like a nymphomaniac for comics, finding deep satisfaction with a decent comic, decently executed. I’d constantly find myself in a state of bliss so deep that I probably couldn’t drive a car because I’d be so stuck in my own happy world.
(Did you know that was actually true of Jack Kirby: he actually loved comics so much, and they took up so much of his concentration on a daily basis, that he never got a driver’s license. Roz had to drive Jack everywhere because he was always stuck in a more or less dreamlike state inside his own head. I think that’s freaking awesome.)
I tend to go the opposite direction with comics. I really do believe that there are comics that are objectively better than others. There are comics that embrace more interesting techniques than other comics, that explore ideas more effectively or in a more interesting way than other comics, comics that use innovative or interesting page layouts and designs than others.
It’s just a fact that there’s a difference in quality between the merely good and the great comic. We all feel this at times. Few of the people reading my rant will disagree that Watchmen (the comic, not the movie) is a technically amazing, thoroughly innovative tour de force of comics art. Most people reading Habibi would feel the same way, loving the fantastic way that Craig Thompson creates his pages and builds character and images in ways that you can only do in comics. You can quibble with aspects of his work, but Thompson is clearly aiming at a different type of reader than Daniel is. He has different aspirations, different goals with his work, a higher level of artfulness.
Which brings me around, at last, to Kevin Huizenga and Ganges #4, a comic that I adored and which haunts my thoughts — see the analogy above — but which just might be too obscure, too weird, too abstract, and yeah, too artful for some, I suppose. But it hits me in all the right places.
Ganges is so playful and thoughtful and nonrepresentational and so much of its own piece that it’s one of the most amazing comic book experiences that I’ve ever had.
The comic begins on the inside front cover with an amazing technique I’ve never seen before. Drawn like the flipping of pages, we get glimpses of the events that happened before the opening page of this comic. We just get slivers, small fragments of what has happened before, but the page provides valuable context for what we are about to read. We see the story’s nominal protagonist, Glenn Ganges, look at photos, have conversations with his wife, drive, talk about something he’s read — all the minutia and standard stuff of one’s everyday life.
There are no words on this page, or maybe it’s more accurate to say there are only abstract representations of words on this page, implying — what? Words don’t matter? Memory distorts words? Or maybe, as we see in the next page, all of these turning pages come from inside the head of one Glenn Ganges, stuck in bed with insomnia with the whole weight of ideas and events from inside his head all weighing down on his head.
Page One of this story is the first of many pages that feel amazingly unique and innovative to me. Heck, rather than tell you about the page, let me show it to you and then talk about it.
Just look at that page. Look at the amazingly interesting page design, the way that Huizenga shows the often overwhelming accumulation of a day’s events pile on top of a person’s mind. At first the thoughts are all abstract images, much like the images that would be going through your mind as you fall asleep. Gradually, panel after panel, the images become less and less abstract, but still appear dreamlike and surreal — is that the devil in Panel 5? Is that Glenn in a beard in Panel 6? — until we slowly have the story fall into place. “This night seems endless. If I could just sleep, it would be over.“
The page is so clever and so interesting that I could stare at it for a long time, piecing out all the different images and what they mean to Glenn.
As we progress through the book, it takes more and more of an abstract turn as it dwells more and more inside Glenn’s head. Page 4 has this wonderful image of Glenn lying in bed, unable to sleep due to his dwelling on all the different things he wants to take care of in his life.
I love the playful way that Huizenga approaches this page — the cute Y and N circles, highlighted with choices, and the captions that refer, classic Marvel style, to events that Huizenga chronicles in his comics and some that he doesn’t. Note, too, that Glenn the book lover sees items on his to-do list as books to be read and enjoyed. Everything is between two covers until the comic veers into a kind of dreamlike look at the young adult fantasy novel that is mentioned on the page. Glenn seems to be slowly moving into his dreams. Will he succeed?
Yeah, honestly, I do have to tell you that this comic isn’t a page turner if you’re looking for a tense, tightly plotted comic. That’s just not Huizenga’s game. He’s clearly not interested in character and plot as much as he is in abstract ideas and the notion of conveying complex ideas in comics form. As such, he does a brilliant job of showing readers a world of philosophical abstracts rather than direct facts.
On this wonderful page you can see Glenn struggle to make sense of a philosophic idea expressed by a difficult philosopher. I love the playful way that Glenn moves ideas around with his elongated arms while the logician sits, Sphinx-like, on the corner of the page imparting wisdom on Glenn. It’s clear that Glenn lives in a world of ideas and much of his life is devoted to ideas, and these ideas make his mind roll and flow and give him insomnia.
Or look at this page and the amazing way that Huizenga conveys the way that we all think about time passing. The impression of time exists purely inside Glenn’s mind, as an abstract concept displayed above his eyes like a series of computer monitors in the mind’s eye. Ideas and times float in and out of the grids, continually shifting under Glenn’s gaze as he tries to come to grips with important dates and regrets and all the thousands of thoughts that burst into one’s mind when they can’t fall asleep.
The sheer weight of page after page after page of pure unique and thrilling experimentation has a cumulative effect on the reader. We’re given more depth and complexity in this decompressed 34-page story than we know what to do with. Each page has an explosion of ideas and intelligence on it. Every page gives readers many levels of concepts to contemplate and many ideas to explore.
By the inside back cover, another “turning pages” effect that seems to spit in the face of narrative storytelling, Huizenga had me thoroughly in his bewitching spell. Ganges can be seen as a deep love letter for the passion that Huizenga has for comics. It’s a celebration of so much of what you can do with the pure alchemical genius in the way that a comic page comes together, in the interplay between words and pictures, in the incredible, nearly infinite number of different possible variations on the comic page.
I thought this comic was an amazing masterpiece, an innovative and thrilling exploration of the potential of this crazy artform. It’s truly breathtaking, if you really, really, really love comics. . Take that, Tony Daniel.
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he’d like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.