Get It 'Or Else'

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"Or Else," Kevin Huizenga's series from Drawn & Quarterly, the second issue of which has just arrived in smart comix stores ($6), has its fascinating complexities encapsulated right in the title. Both a considered alternative ("Or else...") and a vague threat ("...or else!") the title represents the beginning and end of possibilities. One of the brightest, most interesting new comix authors to appear in the last five years, Huizenga's work contains mysteries and facts, often conflated, to better explore the wonder of the world and living in it. Reading "Or Else" requires an open mind and perhaps a bit of guidance to enjoy the work’s full rewards.

"Or Else" #1

Most of Huizenga's stories involve Glenn Ganges, a blank-looking suburbanite in the 18 to 35 year-old range with two dots for eyes and a preference for three-quarter length baseball T-shirts, sans logo. Page one of the first issue introduces him to us in a wordless six-panel tableau of Glenn doing household chores. Less imaginative comix would use the sequence to set up Ganges as a straw man for obvious jabs at the middle class lifestyle, but Huizenga invests something more into his character, whose name, after all, evokes mystical rivers of the East. The sequence ends, not insignificantly, with Glenn sitting on his stoop, lost in thought, with the moon over his shoulder. Is he a generic avatar or deep, complex character? Ganges becomes both as Huizenga puts him through various scenarios that straddle the border between reality and fantasy.

The first proper story in "Or Else" #1, "NST '04," introduces many of Huizenga's recurring themes and techniques. It begins with a naturalistic scene of Glenn and his girlfriend idling in a cemetery at night. "The air was thick with the smell of baking bread," reads one panel. When a shuffling sound comes from behind them they turn to see "the undead" rising from their graves. Rather than linger on this classic horror set-up Huizenga instead abruptly shifts the scene to bison on the plains. Though at first taken as a visual non sequitur, this peculiar juxtaposition signals one of Huizenga's curious shifts in time.

Glenn and his girlfriend ride bikes in "NST '04"

With the bison evoking an Indian Summer in the Midwest, the story moves backward in time to Glenn and his companion spending sleepless nights together. This culminates in a remarkable sequence of Glenn and his girlfriend riding bikes through the early morning streets, dragging their feet in the leaves of the gutter. Turning impressionistic, their bodies, bicycles and the swirling leaves become blurs of unified motion, eliciting the pleasures of movement and the sense of becoming lost in a secret world. By the end of "NST '04" it becomes clear that the zombies were never the point. Instead, using comix' unique tools of visual queues, it reads as a complex portrait of a budding relationship, particularly those private moments that bond people together.

Those new to Huizenga would be best served by starting with "Or Else" #2, which contains his most sustained, complex story. A small novella — at 96 half-sized pages — titled "Gloriana," it again weaves different timelines together, along with the fantastic and the ordinary. The girlfriend of "NST '04" has become Glenn's wife, Wendy Caramel-Ganges, and the two are expecting a child. In one witty and surprising sequence Glenn lays his hands on Wendy's belly but he says he can't feel it kick. Magically she transfers the pregnancy to him. "How about now," she asks.

"Or Else" #2

Following these playful domestic scenes, Huizenga dedicates the middle of the book, 22 pages in all, to capturing a single moment, a split second, when Glenn, sitting in the library, watches a feather fall outside the window and becomes blinded by the setting sun. At first the panels evoke the hushed atmosphere of whispers and books sliding out of shelves. As the time becomes more compressed so do the panels, which contain increasingly abstract, fragmented images of birds, circles and strange creatures that seem out of a vision. All of this culminates in a double-sized page that you must fold up and out of the middle of the book to behold. A fearless comix approximation of a transcendental blinding, it contains science, religion, nature, order and chaos. It's remarkable.

"Gloriana" ends with a strange encounter between Glenn and his next-door neighbors. The rising moon appears large and red on the horizon, a site his neighbors take as a sign of the apocalypse. Glenn attempts to disillusion them with a lengthy scientific explanation, which Huizenga depicts in a series of textbook-like drawings. These contrast with his figure style, which has a vague resemblance to the work of E. C. Segar and his "Popeye" characters with their soft shoulders and simplified faces. Huizenga concentrates less on the particular details of a panel in favor of its overall design. He also has no fear of actionless panels of environment to pace out the story. Even better, sometimes, if you look twice at a panel of a car driving in front a suburban home for example, you discover the toddler crossing the street, in possible mortal jeopardy.

One of comix' newest lights, Kevin Huizenga's "Or Else" series explores the hidden connections between things that superficially seem contradictory: religion and science; reality and fantasy; the quotidian and absurd. Mixing complex yet readable storylines with bold experiments in form and a sense of humor, Huizenga's work is a "must have" for anyone interested in the new possibilities of graphic literature. Or else be left out.

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