Pretty Fakes | Professor Fury | June 19, 2008
CURSES reviewed by Pretty Fakes
Kevin Huizenga. Curses. D+Q, 2006. I’m glad I finally overcame my indifference to Kevin Huizenga’s work. It was based on that one issue of Or Else that I read a while back. There are two main stories in that comic, both included in this volume (and both of which benefit from being placed in a broader context): One in which Huizenga juxtaposes text from real adoption records with drawings of landscape to no particular effect, and another one whose fragmentary dialogue, elliptical transitions, and gentle surreality mark it as a tribute to Ben Katchor’s wonderful Julius Knipl comics. (OK, the fact that it’s set in a diner called “Katchor’s” also was a tip-off.) I closed that comic with a shrug: The first story seemed like a formal exercise that didn’t really go anywhere, and the second seemed content to play in Katchor’s sandbox without really articulating a voice of its own.
But a few recommendations from trusted sources later and I decided to give Curses a shot—and I’m glad I did. Douglas Wolk’s essay on Huizenga in Reading Comics thoughtfully and eloquently captures Huizenga’s gift for estranging the everyday, for revealing the secret and epic histories of mundane pleasures and annoyances, and for depicting characters who desperately want to make a difference in a sublimely sprawling world. As Wolk puts it,
In Huizenga’s comics, everything has an intrinsically interesting story of its own—even junk-mail ads and suburban sprawl and annoying bird noises, things that most people do their best not to perceive at all, become crucial parts of a grand and gradual narrative. (329)
Curses accomplishes this most explicitly in the stories that adapt traditional folklore to suburban settings, and I urge you to turn to your Wolk for discussions of those pieces. My favorite story in the book, though, is its last: “Jeepers Jacobs,” which features recurring protagonist Glenn Ganges, an atheist or agnostic, his liberal theologian brother, and two conservative evangelical profs at the local seminary. The unlikely foursome come together from a shared love of golf and end up, inevitably, debating matters religious, especially the question of the existence of hell.
When Glenn accepts a ride home from one of the conservative evangelicals, the titular Jeepers, and is treated to several minutes of right-wing talk radio, I resigned myself to reading a story in which Glenn’s inquisitive nature and his brother’s patient tolerance won over the more hidebound traditionalists. I probably would have endorsed that story’s theology but wouldn’t have found it very convincing. To my delight and surprise, it turned out not to be that sort of story at all: Glenn shuffles to the margins for the bulk of the story, which focuses instead on Jeepers as he works on an article about the question of hell. Is Hell (as he believes) really a place where sinners are tormented forever, or is it (as Glenn’s brother believes) simply a metaphor for separation from God?
In addition to the sympathy—rather, empathy—with which Huizenga treats Jeepers as he wrestles with this question, my favorite thing about this story is how beautifully Huizenga evokes the heteroglossic process of writing—especially scholarly or academic writing. We speak metaphorically of our having a dialogue with other authors and their books, but sometimes it can feel vividly literal, especially when we are deeply invested in a body of scholarship crowded with contending voices.
Allies and antagonists take on personalities and voices of their own and hector or encourage us as we gingerly seek our footing in their terrain; firmly held convictions are suddenly and disorientingly malleable at the moment of composition (even if we end up sticking with them anyway). And a great idea or a breakthrough can feel as exultant as any athletic triumph. Huizenga captures this beautifully in a panel depicting Jeepers coming up with a clever bit of wordplay for his article as he writes in his basement office; aside from three panels of Jeepers golfing, this is the only panel that stretches the entire width of the page. Coming after a series of small, crowded panels depicting a phone conversation, this image manages to convey a sense of release that we don’t traditionally associate with windowless underground rooms.
The other most impressive feat of “Jeepers Jacobs” is that it actually convinces me for its duration that golf is truly a transcendent, luminous, pastoral escape—something I’ve never quite been able to believe, perhaps because I’m not very good at it. My only qualm about the story is that I’m ambivalent about Huizenga’s final page, which I won’t spoil here. It’s not that he doesn’t prepare us for it, but I couldn’t help somehow feeling cheated. I suspect, however, that my reaction was simply motivated by my intense desire for the story not to end just yet.
What I did when I finished Curses: Went to the Fantagraphics site, ordered copies of Ganges 1 and 2.
Ideal background music for reading Curses: Yo La Tengo, . . . And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out.
MP3: Yo La Tengo—“You Can Have it All”