Ganges #2: Unexpected and Good

January 13th, 2010 by | Tags: , ,

I picked up Ganges #2, my introduction to Kevin Huizenga, on Tucker Stone‘s recommendation, so it’s only fitting that I bite Nina’s Virgin Read gimmick, right?

I’d heard of Huizenga before, of course. He made several Best Of 2008 lists, but I’d never really bothered to check him out. I dunno what it was–maybe being a little wary of trying new things, hopping onto a book I knew next to nothing about, maybe just being a little dumb–but I didn’t get around to it until I ended up at APE ’09 with a list of books from Tucker to keep an eye out for. I was short on money, long on time, so all I got was Ganges #2. I mean, I didn’t even know that it was about a guy who can’t sleep. I found that out weeks later. I came into this colder than cold.

My first reaction when I started reading Ganges was a mixture of confusion and surprise. The first panel is clearly a menu from a video game, and the next few panels hit all of the video game staples. I saw a select screen, some platforming, some exciting zooms, and a little fighting before it all went weird. The next ten pages are a blur of bizarre shapes and experiments in symmetry, all filtered through the language of fighting games. There are health bars and charge meters, and there’s even a bit where the black figure (player one) checks his upgrades and moves in a pause menu.

Huizenga uses the large-sized page to great effect here, as he moves from relatively normal-sized panels to one- and two-page spreads. The level of detail and complexity of the figures in the image expands drastically as they warp from form to form. There are no words, save a few text boxes in Japanese, so the art stands on its own.

It’s weird and it’s different and it immediately showed me that Ganges #2 is not what I thought it was. I was expecting mopey autobio, a distant cousin of Blankets with better artwork, and instead got something that was well worth the hype.

The game is something that Glenn Ganges is playing while his wife sleeps in bed. After a sequence where he restarts the game and gets back to it, a caption informs us that Glenn used to play a game called Pulverize when he worked for an internet startup. From that point on, I was instantly hooked. I got my first job when I was 14, doing web design (I think in Front Page and Notepad.exe) for a local non-profit. We left work at around 630. The boss left an hour earlier. Someone on staff had a copy of Quake II, and soon that last 45 minutes of work (just in case the boss came back) was game time. We had custom skins and everything.

Ganges #2 is about how people come together. While everyone in the book has their own problems and worries, Pulverize becomes an equalizer. In the game, they’re their avatars. Nothing more, nothing less. Playing together gives them a common ground to stand on, strengthening bonds and turning people from coworkers into something akin to friends. But not exactly- at the end of the day, the camaraderie is fleeting. Pulverize brought them together, but in a very specific way. The friendship was like watching a movie through a piece of glass, a little foggy, a little distant, and not quite real.

But even still, Huizenga shows how these kinds of relationships can be important. When layoffs begin at Ganges’s company, they send off one employee in grand fashion. Their bond may not be the thickest there is, but it is a bond, nonetheless, and valuable simply because it brings people together. The connection existing in that moment is what counts, not how long-lasting it is.

By the end of the book, the story is nothing more than an anecdote, something you could tell in ten minutes over drinks. In the book, it’s framed as just that. We see Ganges playing the game, the caption tells us about the time he was really into another game, and then the story ends.

Despite that, Ganges #2 is never boring. The video game that serves as the glue for the story is interesting, basically GeneriQuake, but what’s important is that the game puts the people on a level playing ground, allowing Huizenga to illustrate differences of personality by how they approach the game. It’s an obsession for Glenn, and something he hides from his wife, behaving a lot like a cheating husband when he works late and lies about it. His boss plays it because he thinks it’d be good to bond with the team, but soon quits. It’s a calculated decision, not one he did for fun, and as authentic as his relaxed posture when asking his employees about whatever small detail he’s latched onto as being the best way to relate to them. He’s fake.

Ganges isn’t at all what i expected. Taken on its own, #2 is a comic about nothing. A guy plays a game, we read a brief story about his past, then he gets some water from the sink and plays again. That’s it. But, the story is deeper and more entertaining than that summary suggests. It’s a comic about people and how they interact, held high by shockingly good art. The first ten pages show that Huizenga can do some amazing things with storytelling and the rest of the book shows his strong grasp of body language and how to make talking heads interesting.

I’m going to try to pick up the rest of Ganges (numbers one and two, which are in stock at Fantagraphics.com) and do another review, this time knowing exactly what it’s about going in. I think it’ll be interesting to see how my assessment of the series and Huizenga’s work changes. Based off Ganges #2, though, I expect to enjoy both.

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