Based in St. Louis, cartoonist Kevin Huizenga is best known for quiet, introspective work that spins seemingly random trains of thought into beautifully designed, hilarious comics that often merge with metaphysics. Huizenga’s work often features the protagonist Glenn Ganges, a mild-mannered young man who, despite seeming comfortable with his overarching uncertainty toward life, has a tendency to get wrapped up in, and sometimes held prisoner by, his own musings on behavior, the universe, and the workings of his brain.
Huizenga’s newest book is Gloriana, a collection of four early Glenn Ganges stories that combine humor and impressionistic speculation using an overlapping narrative structure. Gloriana has just been published by Drawn and Quarterly. Huizenga corresponded with PW Comics World via email to answer some questions about the Gloriana stories and Glenn Ganges.
PWCW: What did you read as a kid--comics or otherwise? I'm curious about what some of your formative influences may have been.
Kevin Huizenga: My mom liked to read, and when I was a kid we’d go to the library and each bring home a stack of books. I was getting books from the adult science fiction section pretty quickly — the usual, Ray Bradbury, Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Dune and others, the anthologies, and I also got into Stephen King because my mom was reading those books. I didn't read comics until later, age 12 or 13, and then that mostly took over.
PWCW: What inspired these stories? Did you conceive of all four at once?
KH: I had been doing self-published comics for a few years and wanted to try something more ambitious. I didn't know what the stories would be about, I just knew I wanted to do a fat comic book and try out some tricky storytelling, maybe do a fold-out in the middle, and tie it all together.
I began page one not knowing where it would end up, and I guess the first story [“Groceries”] reads weird because it was improvised in pieces. The other stories were more planned out—one [“The Sunset”] inspired by musical forms and the other [“The Moon Rose”] by diagrams. "Basketball," the last story, is different than the Glenn stories, but in the original comic book series it was normal to have a mixed collection of stories, a one-person anthology kind of setup. I left "Basketball" in the book because it always felt like it played off the other Glenn stories in a pretty satisfying way, and I hope the book adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
PWCW: In the ten years since the Gloriana stories were originally released, are you aware of any particular changes in your work or in your attitude toward it?
KH: Two things that have changed since then are having my work published and quitting my day job. Careful what you wish for… It's tricky when your hobby becomes your job. I feel more pressure now, which has unfortunately slowed everything down and complicated my feelings toward what used to be a more pure pleasure, just playing around and making up stuff. It's all in my head, though. I really can't complain. As far as the work itself, of course I hope it's a lot better now, though I can see how I'm still fascinated by the subjects and styles that went into Gloriana.
PWCW: You use the word "euphoric" in your notes at the beginning of the book to describe a feeling you were trying to express in these stories. Did you have any specific experiences that made you want to replicate that euphoria?
KH: That referred to the feeling I felt at one point while working on the "Sunset" story, page 62. Something clicked and I felt really high and good about what I was doing, not that it was necessarily very good or smart, but actually that it was kind of stupid and weird, and had taken on a life of its own, and I felt good about everything in general. It felt really intense, out of nowhere. It was a rare thing, which maybe says something. No drugs were involved. But it had such a strong effect on me that I can't help remember it and think about it when I think about working on these comics. I wasn't trying to communicate that euphoria in the comics, necessarily.
I only mention that experience of euphoria to wonder if other artists sometimes get that feeling too. It's a topic I don't think gets talked about much? Usually, it's all about the hard work and the agony of self-doubt, etc. It's like it's bad manners to talk about the intense pleasure you sometimes feel while absorbed in your work, since it's such a private thing. It's good to remember how great it can be, and it's one of the big reasons you keep at it for years and years, hopefully.
PWCW: "Groceries" ends with a terrific joke. Did the joke come first, or did the idea for the story start some other way?
KH: I started the story not knowing what was going to happen, and then had to figure out a way out. I had read about Thomas Pynchon setting up an elaborate pun in one of his books, and it seemed like such a good/bad idea. Why not? All three of the Glenn stories end with a "punchline," in a way.
PWCW: Did the depiction of Glenn's explosion of thought in the middle of "The Sunset" come intuitively to you? Can you describe the process of designing and planning this seemingly-chaotic, abstract group of pages?
KH: The idea was to hit you with an unexpected, almost physical feeling, when it changes, and then a series of wallops and crescendos and noise, and to have it feel almost like music, and then build up to a busy fold-out, and then fade back to "normal." A lot of it was doodling things and playing them off each other. I put the pages on the floor and played around with the rhythm until it felt close enough.
PWCW: In "The Moon Rose," Glenn spends much of the story providing an extremely detailed description of the science behind the blood-red moon that he and his neighbors are looking at. You get the feeling that the neighbors, who initially see the moon's color as a bad omen, would rather that Glenn hadn't gone to the trouble. Do you share Glenn's fascination with "answers," or is free speculation about the nature of things more satisfying?
KH: I like a good story as much as the next guy. I don't think Glenn was giving them "answers" so much as he was giving them another way to think about what they were seeing. But if the choice is between the kind of story that sees a red moon as an omen of doom and the more naturalistic description, involving light and optics, I think the latter is going to be the more useful one in the long run.
PWCW: What is the upside of uncertainty?
KH: Not being certain and wrong? I don't know that there's an upside, really, but that's life—coming to terms with uncertainties—more or less!