Kevin Huizenga: I'm Trying to Draw Something I Haven't Seen Before

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

Kevin Huizenga is one of my favorite cartoonists working in the comics industry these days. Huizenga's work is consistently interesting because of his style and approach to his work. Though the latest issue of his ongoing series, Ganges, takes place almost entirely in the main character's head, I still thought it was an absolutely fascinating exploration of abstract ideas, philosophy and, of course, comics art itself. I was delighted to get the opportunity to interview Kevin for Comics Bulletin. I think you'll find this interview as interesting as Kevin's comics themselves.

 Jason Sacks: One of the things I like most in your work is how you seem to have the ability to capture abstract ideas on comic form. How do you approach telling a story like the insomnia story in Ganges #4 or "Time Traveler" in Ganges #1?

Kevin Huizenga: There's no easy answer. It changes all the time. Sometimes it just flows right out and sometimes it's absurdly tricky and difficult.

Sacks: Do you feel that you successfully capture the abstract ideas that you explore in your stories?

Huizenga: It's not for me to say. I obviously feel okay enough to publish the stuff.

Sacks: You have effects in your stories that I've never seen before in comics, like the idea of panels slipping off the page as if from the periphery of vision in Ganges #4. Do you approach your work with the idea of experimenting in mind, and how much do you play with an idea before committing it to paper?

Huizenga: I'm sure these things have been done before. I don't like [the term] "experimental," because it gives the impression that the usual qualities of a good story are less important to me than formal trickery. I'm trying to draw something that I want to read, that I haven't seen before and that is still nicely designed and readable.

Sacks: Glenn seems to love reading about complex and abstract topics; do you see him as a character often trapped inside his own head?

Huizenga: Glenn's not in Brain Jail. I don't see him as trapped inside his head as, like, a mental illness. The story mostly takes place in his mind because it's a story about being unable to sleep, and that sets up a situation where most of the story is going to take place in Glenn's head. The rest of the world is asleep and Glenn would like to be there too, but he's not.

Sacks: Your books always seem to have a discursive and free-flowing path to them, but they also contain recurring images from elsewhere in the book. How much do you plan ahead in your work, and how much is improvised?

Huizenga: Improvising is harder than planning, for me anyway. You write and re-write, and some of the time you're writing the part of the story in front of you that you're drawing that day, and some of the time you're writing what's going to happen later. It's all writing. It's not easy to go back and re-write, when the drawing and computer-work takes so much time. So you have to think ahead and commit to something you aren't going to change your mind about later.

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Sacks: Your characters all have a very cartoony feel to them -- Glenn with his big nose, Wendy with her mouth to one side on her face. Who are your influences as cartoonists?

Huizenga: Instead of giving you a puzzling list of names, I'll just say I try to draw in a way that seems cartoony without being goofy, and at the same time I like to have things look a little bit clumsy, because I think it looks approachable. There's a middle ground between cartoony and realistic that I shoot for, I suppose.

Sacks: Do you have different influences as comic storytellers?

Huizenga: You try to be influenced by writers you love without imitating them while moving further into the area opened up by your own previous work. So, even though you might rather be more like one of your idols, you really have to follow the logic of your own work. Which is hard, because you're making it up as you go, and it might seem at times like a dead end.

Sacks: Issue #2 takes place at a dotcom. I've worked for years in the software industry and I felt that you captured that world really well. Did you have experience at a dotcom?

Huizenga: I worked for a company that did a lot of work with Internet companies.

Sacks: In Ganges #4, Glenn wanders to his wife Wendy's study where he looks through her books and finds, as Glenn puts it, "comics and graphic novels" as a seeming dismissive term. Do you dislike the term "graphic novel"?

Huizenga: I don't have a big problem with it. Glenn feels self-conscious about it. I think it still feels unnatural. It's obviously gross, but on the other hand I've never understood clinging to the word "comics." Whining about the term "graphic novel" has begun to feel overly conservative and reactionary to me. I see it as a failure on the part of comics critics that there's a lack of decent terminology for the variety of types of comics. The attitude that "hey, it's all comics" is lazy-minded. There should be more of a drive to make distinctions. I think that would be a sign of a healthier critical community.

Sacks: Ganges #1 contains one of the most breathtakingly lovely scenes that I've ever seen in comics, the scene where Glenn looks at Wendy and imagines loving couples all through history. It felt so heartfelt, sincere and intense. Is that based on some thoughts that you've had in your life?

Huizenga: That's nice to hear that it connected. I guess I often realize how things that happen to me or that go through my mind are probably common experiences. It's one of the things you hope for as a writer, I think, that you connect with people and they feel less alone and you feel less alone.

Sacks: After four issues we have a sense of who Glenn is, but do you see him more as a character or a medium for exploring ideas?

Huizenga: The latter.

Sacks: I love the idea of the inside front and back cover of Ganges #4 basically providing prologues and epilogues for the story in this issue; at the same time, they seem to almost defy the idea of narrative by implying that life continues endlessly. A lot of your work kind of defies narrative. Do you have a mistrust or dislike of narrative?

Huizenga: Not at all. I try to avoid clich├ęs and keep myself interested. I don't really enjoy drawing for its own sake, and it can be a struggle to stay in my chair if all I have to do is draw something. I try to keep focused on the work by playing around with stories.

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Sacks: Your work is completely and defiantly outside the comics mainstream, which I'm sure you don't exactly follow. Is that true, and what creators put out work that you enjoy?

Huizenga: There are tons of good cartoonists working right now. I link to a lot of cartoonists that I like on my blog, and I'm trying to do a better job with my blog plugging other people's work. In the pre-Internet days people would "plug" work they liked in their comics, and that was great for the scene, and that kind of linking and education happens all the time now with blogs and tumblrs.

It's actually kind of overwhelming, and you can feel kind of cranky about it but it's pretty great.

Sacks: I love the kind of playful way that you use comic tropes like the story titles and captions, almost in a mocking way. You must have a deep-seated love for comics despite the fact that you're in your own unique area with them.

Huizenga: I'm pretty into comics.

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