Walk into a comics shop and you’ll see rack upon rack of detailed and carefully rendered mainstream comics–“mainstream,” in comic-shop terms, meaning the style and aesthetic typical of superhero comics. Comics that methodically delineate every hair on a characters head yet seem to know about as much about the way the human body moves as an octopus man from the planet Xoth. Comics that obsessively-compulsively render every sidewalk crack and windowpane of a street scene, but fail to clearly communicate what’s happening there. Comics whose draftsmanship is at times photo-perfect, but miss everything that would invest their art with meaning, emotion, or life.
And then there’s Kevin Huizenga, whose comics look like the button-eyed, pipe-cleaner-limbed 1930s newspaper strips of Bud Fisher and E. C. Segar, and are among the most realistic comics currently published. Before I go further, I want to make it clear that this is not genre-bashing. Only a superficial (and dull) interpretation of “realism” would equate it with realistic subject matter. Anyway, although most of Huizenga’s comics are set in suburbia he often uses fantasy–Curses collects several magic-realist tales, and he’s serializing a post-apocalyptic comic on What Things Do. What I mean is that Huizenga’s cartooning is more evocative–better at seeing and understanding the essence of an experience and translating it into marks on a page.
Take Ganges #3. Glenn Ganges, Huizenga’s all-purpose protagonist, spends the first chunk of the book trying to drift off to sleep and getting stuck halfway there. A hypnagogic state, it’s called. On the second page of Ganges #3 Glenn walks out to his front yard. It’s a clear moonlit night, and, without even the benefit of full color, an excellent impression of the way light falls on a clear moonlit night. As his thoughts wander, Glenn absent-mindedly walks up a tree. He’s dreaming. And the feeling of reading this page reminds me of how actual dreams feel: the disjointedness, the way one element of the narrative (Glenn’s thoughts) refuses to acknowledge another (the suspension of gravity), the acceptance of surreal events as literally unremarkable (Glenn walks back into the house, observes himself sleeping, and climbs into his own head as though it’s just what you do on a restless night). Dream sequences in comics aren’t usually like this, partly because they usually serve the kind of narrative function they do in movies–i.e, to develop characters or themes through allegory–and partly because drawing a dream that feels like a dream is hard.
Huizenga pulls off the same trick at the beginning of the book I’m actually attempting, however circuitously, to review: The Wild Kingdom. Huizenga has given real thought to how the defining features of dreams could be translated to the page. For instance, how do you depict the sudden time-skips that are typical of dreams? Because here’s the thing: skipping over time is how comics normally work. Moment-to-moment panel transitions, to use Scott McCloud’s categorization, are less common than action-to-action or scene-to-scene. So comics have to work to depict actual narrative discontinuity. Huizenga solves the problem by showing Glenn see himself at different moments in a single panel as he approaches a house. Then there’s the way that dreams tend to jumble together things that seem to belong to different levels of reality, which Huizenga represents by collaging photographs into his cartoony drawings.
I shouldn’t spend too much time on this dream sequence, though. It’s just a prologue. What The Wild Kingdom is really about… well, that doesn’t become clear for some time. In a good way–this is one of Huizenga’s more challenging works. The cover design and the binding resemble a mid-20th-century children’s science book. There’s a mock-serious introduction and fake table of contents. There are paintings of songbirds on the endpapers. So when Glenn wakes up and proceeds to spend Saturday puttering around his suburban home readers might assume The Wild Kingdom has already wandered off premise. But that’s the point of the book’s first chunk: Suburbia is a wild kingdom, a point reinforced when you flip to the back of the book to discover the songbirds on the endpapers are taken from an ad for Ethyl gasoline.
We usually define “nature,” or “the wild,” as what exists where people don’t. Here we have a city, and here we have a farm, and over here, in this stand of trees along the creek, where no one mows the grass, that’s Nature. We tend to assume, when we’re not particularly thinking about it, that “nature” has clear borders, like a square on a chessboard. It’s more complicated than that, of course, as anyone who’s confronted a suburban lawn after a month’s neglect knows. Cities are also ecosystems. There’s a lot going on in cities that’s not under our control–that is, in other words, wild. To say wildlife survives in the cities is understating the case–those pigeons, raccoons, squirrels and feral cats are thriving. Right under our noses are enough predator-prey dramas to keep Marlin Perkins busy for years.
Glenn is woken by a mosquito, and finds a stag beetle in the basement which is subsequently hassled by a cat. There’s a worm in his apple; he tosses it to a squirrel. On a drive, he sees another car run over a pigeon. A hawk stops to pick up its remains. Again, everything here is closely observed and efficiently communicated. On one page a pigeon pecks at a couple of chili fries. There are seventeen closely packed drawings of just the bird’s head and the fries, without panel borders. The pared-down drawings and the page structure read with a staccato rhythm a lot like the jerky head-bobbing of an actual pigeon. Also interesting: the panels showing Glenn’s car as he drives often enter Glenn’s point of view. Nearby cars are well-defined; so are objects in Glenn’s view as he watches the road, like stoplights and telephone wires. The buildings and trees to the side of the road are built mostly from motion lines with a few sharp details jumping out from the background–the flashbulb images Glenn picks up out of the corner of his eye. These panels are at once pictures of Glenn out for a drive and maps of where his attention is.
The common factor is that these panels are both representational and… diagrammatic, let’s say. In fact, at times Huizenga’s comics include actual diagrams, some accurate and some parodies (as are the diagrams in The Wild Kingdom).
Just when you think you might be getting a handle on The Wild Kingdom, there’s a commercial break. It’s in color. And much more oblique. And it seems to jump around a lot, like the book has lost its attention span. It starts with a Glenn-substitute attempting to ponder some deep questions, but within a couple of pages the book moves on to Hot New Things, and repeated promises that “you’ll be saved from your own life,” and naked dancing Technicolor people shouting “Yeah!”, and Walt Whitman with an exciting new way to make money. This is a different kind of wild: the mental noise that distracts us from the deep attention to the world demonstrated by the black and white pages. This is the wildness of Glenn’s mind when it’s out of control and bereft of attention span. This section is about wanting, and desire, and how the ubiquitous mass media and relentless advertising that surrounds us like air sublimates our more nebulous desires into a need for the Hot New Thing. Because, honestly, isn’t the Hot New Thing easier and more fun to think about than the deep questions? It saves us from our own lives!
After a few pages of this, The Wild Kingdom calms down, gradually going from bright colors to muted colors back to black and white. It returns to the nature theme of the first section in a series of short pieces which include pictures of “fancy pigeons” and clip-and-save trading cards covered in bizarre “facts” about the animals we’ve seen. Then the book introduces Maurice Maenterlinck, and its theme comes together. Maenterlinck was a surrealist playwright who also wrote three books of natural history. The closest thing to a statement of purpose in The Wild Kingdom is a long quotation from The Life of the Bee (available on Project Gutenberg), from which I’ll quote part of a paragraph:
Let our heart, if it will, in the meanwhile repeat, “It is sad;” but let our reason be content to add, “Thus it is.” At the present hour the duty before us is to seek out that which perhaps may be hiding behind these sorrows; and, urged on by this endeavour, we must not turn our eyes away, but steadily, fixedly, watch these sorrows and study them, with a courage and interest as keen as though they were joys. It is right that before we judge nature, before we complain, we should at least ask every question that we can possibly ask.
The first-glance take on The Wild Kingdom might be that it’s about a conflict between nature and the suburbs–but, again, these are “sides” that don’t really exist; even in the city, nature is there. The natural world is the example The Wild Kingdom uses to make its real point. What this book is really about, I think, is attention.
Recently there was a psychological experiment that had a lot of publicity. You might have heard about it. People are asked to watch a video of basketball players, and count how many times the players passed the ball. About half the people who try this become so intent on the task that they do not notice when a guy wanders through the game wearing a gorilla suit. The human brain is not an outstanding multitasker; we can do it, but if we juggle too many tasks at once we’re just a little bit worse at all of them. There are limits to how much we can focus on, how much input we can take in, at once. I know the brain-as-computer metaphor is massively overused, but at this time of night I can’t think of a more succinct way to put it: the human mind has only so much bandwidth and can run only so many processing cycles at once.
So it’s not such a great thing when too many of our processing cycles are taken up with toothpaste, chili fries, and endless anticipation of Hot New Things. I don’t want to sound too disapproving. I like Hot New Things; one thing dour anti-consumerists don’t always get is that sometimes everyday life is a grind, and a certain amount of daydreaming about Hot New Things can be one way of coping. Every once in a while we need to be saved from our own lives.
Moderation, though, is key. Daydreams are good; it’s not so healthy to let manufactured anxieties (Are our teeth white enough? How clean is the carpet, really?), catchy slogans, and secondhand narratives colonize our attention entirely. To return to the computer analogy, it’s the difference between playing a game on your computer and letting a virus dominate its processing cycles. The Wild Kingdom’s focus on the natural world hidden in the urban landscape is a reminder that it’s important to pay attention to the world that’s actually there, around us. It’s important not to be so focused on our destination that we don’t see the bird about to be crushed by the wheel. It’s almost Buddhist: Huizenga is asking us to be here now.
The Wild Kingdom ends by returning to the hawk that, in the first third of the book, took off with the pigeon. The hawk lands on an electric transformer and electrocutes itself. This, through a series of Rube Goldberg disasters, leads to an apocalypse. The camera pulls away from Earth–peaceful, from so far away–only to see it collide with another planet. This is, I think, a memento mori; a reminder that some things may not always be around, and we won’t always be around, either, and we should pay attention now, and ask every question that we can possibly ask.
Which brings us back to the beginning of this essay, and the question of how Huizenga invested a simply drawn, cartoony book like The Wild Kingdom with so much more conviction than the pseudo-photorealistic comics a few shelves over.
It helps to look.