McGill Daily reviews Or Else & Dogs & Water

Dogs and Water

McGill Daily     |    Isodora Walsh    |    November 29, 2004

Dogs and Water is about a long, dangerous, and ultimately aimless journey; a journey undertaken across a series of barren and sinister landscapes by a boy who has “sort of a bad sense of direction,” a bit of food, some matches, and a teddy bear strapped to his back, the likes of which he muses to throughout the book. This is existential comic art at its best.

Dogs and Water’s narrative starts out a bit like a horror movie. When the main character turns around, wondering where the road he’s been hitchhiking down has gone, it’s hard not to want to yell “Turn back now!” like he’s a sexy teen about to open the cobwebby door of an abandoned mansion during a thunderstorm.

Nilsen maintains an atmosphere of quiet surreal anxiety throughout the book. His protagonist has brush after brush with death in its various incarnations, whether they may be packs of wolves or mysterious men with guns. Although the sheer frequency of these confrontations can seem a little ridiculous, they do prevent the reader from ever settling in too comfortably with the story.

The book’s design and artwork also work toward the same purpose. Dialogue is minimal, and the drawings on the page aren’t segmented into boxes like most comics, emphasizing the disorienting feel of the story. Dogs and Water consists mainly of painfully sparse black-and-white line drawings, with no grey tones and minimal shading. However, interspersed with the tundra-narrative are occasional pages printed in blue, illustrating the protagonist’s shipwreck in the middle of an equally vast and bleak expanse of water, just in case the disoriented sense of alienation needed reinforcment.

Dogs and Water is published by Montreal’s very own acclaimed independent comic book publisher Drawn and Quarterly (D&Q), so fans of other stylish D&Q comics like those of Chris Ware and Julie Doucet will most likely dig this book, too. Like so many of D&Q’s publications, Nilsen’s work is also breaking new ground.

Just as artists such as Art Spiegelman, author of the Holocaust-retelling Maus legitimized the comic book to a much wider audience as a means of social and historical commentary, comics such as Dogs and Water are now being recognized increasingly frequently as credible vehicles for interesting and philosophical stories and ideas. Like other intelligent, atmospheric comics such as Ethan Persoff’s A Man and His Elephant or Peter Blegvad’s Leviathan, Dogs and Water is a quick way of showing anyone not yet on this particular bandwagon that it’s been a long time since comics were limited to the antics of Superman et al.

–Lily Pepper

Or Else #1
Kevin Huizenga
34 Pages
Drawn & Quarterly

You don’t get a lot of high quality comics out of the Midwestern United States. Judging by those folks’ voting patterns, you’d have to assume that the entire belt was never introduced to the concept of irony. But an exception may have to be made for Or Else #1, a Drawn and Quarterly (D&Q) release of five shorts by Illinois native Kevin Huizenga.

Huizenga has been making a name for himself in the comic world lately. In October, he was given the Ignatz Award for “Outstanding Story” for one of his Glenn Ganges stories. The story, “The Hot New Thing,” was published in Time Canada. Needless to say, this is not your traditional Batman comic. D&Q doesn’t seem to publish anything with the word “superpower” in it. They’re more into the ultra-mundane post-modern. Following in the footsteps of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan series, the artist and insomniac Huizenga writes sad little ditties about the unspectacular: awkward human interaction, bleak moments, and silence. You’ll love it.

The first two stories feature Glenn Ganges, an ordinary guy in a Midwestern U.S. town. We are introduced to Ganges through six riveting panels:

1. washing dishes.
2. weeding his garden.
3. taking out the garbage.
4. staring out into space as he waters his lawn apa- thetically.
5. disinterestedly reading his book.
6. staring out into space, mulling over a cup of coffee.

The everyday is also explained with pop culture references to music. A character hears someone humming. “Is that Wagner?” they ask. “No…Roxy Music.” Our personal obsessions are examined.

Developing on the post-modern, Huizenga employs a pastiche of our traditional western forms with other traditional arts. In one of his stories, the artist narrates through the persona of Chineese artist Chan Woo Kin and creates an “action” strip out of a minimal Chineese-style landscape. Written in high contrast to the peaceful twisty trees and waterfalls, Huizenga cleverly contrasts a very modern tale about an adopted child with an ancient art form.

In Or Else, Huizenga reworks the comic form as we know it. In one short strip, the dialogue boxes break free of their owners and attack one another. Another story is told through the tangle of wind that a bicycle creates. Each frame is obscured by thick black lines and swirls – like the impossibly oblique Matt Brinkman, Huizenga is part of a new generation of comic artists who don’t spoon-feed you their stories.

–Isodora Walsh, with files from Genevieve Jenkins

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