"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In “Lost and Found,” one of the central stories of Kevin Huizenga’s marvelous debut book “Curses” (Drawn & Quarterly), his character Glenn Ganges flips through the mail, imagining the missing-child and last-seen-with images on “have you seen me?” postcards as panels in “an accidental graphic novel whose story is mostly hidden, though sprawling landscapes are implied and tragic scenes are hinted at.” 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.
Huizenga’s been a cult hero in the art-comics world since the late ’90s, initially for his self-published “Supermonster” minicomics, and more recently for a series called “Or Else” and a separate “Ganges” project. (He also wrote and drew the Center for Cartoon Studies’ promotional booklet, a splendidly bizarre little comic book in its own right.) The nine stories in “Curses” mostly appeared separately in various anthologies over the past few years; all but one of them feature Glenn Ganges, Huizenga’s default protagonist, a quiet, literate sort living in the Midwest, usually with a woman named Wendy who’s his girlfriend in some stories, his wife in others.
Glenn’s not really an autobiographical stand-in, although his perceptiveness and loopy imagination are obviously a lot like his creator’s. Sometimes he seems more like Carl Barks’ version of Donald Duck: an infinitely durable Everyman in a long-sleeved T-shirt whose life circumstances are whatever they have to be for any given story. Still, one major aim of Huizenga’s comics is to explain the complicated systems that shape people’s lives and emotions — at least as far as it’s possible to understand them. The individual stories here vary enormously in tone and technique and aren’t directly connected by plot threads, but they can be read as the components of a single, elliptical narrative about children longed for, found and lost again, and how people in the world of the living can understand the torments of hell.
Huizenga cares a lot about titles — he’s published a minicomic, “Untitled,” which consists of the various titles and logo designs he considered for “Or Else.” (He’s also very interested in creative processes; his other minicomics detail the way he designed a character who appears on three pages of “Curses,” and excerpt the doodles and notes he makes during sermons in church.) The word “curses” is the sort of thing a villain might say in the kinds of simple cartoons that inform Huizenga’s drawing style (Hergi’s “Tintin,” E.C. Segar’s “Popeye”), but living under a curse is also the closest a person can come to damnation: a punishment that needs supernatural intervention before it can end.
The title of “Curses” also refers, more directly, to its best story, “28th St.,” a tour de force of cartooning adapted very loosely from Italo Calvino’s own adaptation of an Italian folk tale, “The Feathered Ogre.” The setup is that Glenn and Wendy are trying to have a baby, and it’s not working (“You have the most halfass sperms I have ever seen,” a doctor informs Glenn). Eventually, he discovers that he’s under a curse, and the only way to lift it is to pluck a feather from an ogre who lives under 28th Street — a hellish stretch of stop lights and strip malls in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Huizenga once lived.
Like most of “Curses,” “28th St.” is drawn in a spare, whimsical, almost old-fashioned cartooning style, built around symbolic abstractions. Glenn has dots for eyes and a line for a mouth; all the cars in the story are the simplest possible “sedan” or “SUV” glyph; a character’s surprise is shown by his feet flying through the air with a puff of speed lines coming out of them. The future baby Glenn imagines is drawn to look a bit like Swee’Pea from “Popeye.”
What Huizenga’s really up to, though, is so conceptually tricky that a “realistic” style would make it impossible to render; his artwork’s surface simplicity makes the reader fill in the blanks of the transformations Huizenga suggests with a handful of nonchalantly confident lines. On the first page of “28th St.,” a tangle of roads with houses alongside them prefigures the next panel’s tree branches with birds perched on them. The rest of the story is one long, gliding fluctuation between suffocating reality and hallucinatory fantasy. Glenn, trying to find the feathered ogre, meets a gas station attendant who informs him that he’s come to the right place: “This is an enchanted gas station. We have enchanted gasoline … How it works is you got to squirt some in your eyes. Then you have visions.” Over the next few pages, the deadened landscape of Home Depots and Jo-Ann Fabrics mutates into abstracted shapes and animal forms; then a rainstorm washes all the scene’s new geometries and clots of language away until 28th Street regains its old form. Glenn is directed toward the ogre by one of the “lost boys,” the Sudanese refugees in Michigan mentioned in “Lost and Found,” who’s cursed with insomnia. At the end, the defeated ogre becomes a flock of cursing birds.
But it’s the next story in the book that’s actually called “The Curse” — its premise is that Glenn, Wendy and their newborn daughter can’t sleep because they’re being tormented by the screeching of starlings. That becomes a springboard for Huizenga to go off on a fascinating tangent about how the birds were introduced into North America and the reference to them in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV.” One page of the story is nothing but starlings flying in formation, and it evokes their motion with the faintest suggestion: Huizenga draws them as a flurry of dashes, crosses and V’s. The image on the book’s front cover is a flock of single-pen-stroke birds, high above the street lamps and pylons of a suburban highway.
The rest of “Curses” flows out of or into those stories’ concerns. Their “lost boys” and lost children and desperately longed-for babies are echoed by “Case 0003128-24,” the one Ganges-less story here, a heartbreaking piece of found text from adoption papers accompanied by Huizenga’s pastiche of classical Asian landscape drawing — no people, no straight lines or man-made structures, just floating organic shapes. The insomnia of the Sudanese immigrant and the starling-besieged family reappears in “Not Sleeping Together,” evidently set before Glenn and Wendy lived together: a meditation on Indian-summer nights whose “holy, warm and humid air mass” makes it impossible for even the dead to rest in their graves. Visions and sleeplessness underscore “Green Tea (Glenn Ganges Remix),” an adaptation of a Victorian ghost story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu about a man driven to insanity and suicide by images of a demonic monkey dragging him into “the enormous machinery of hell.” In Huizenga’s version, Glenn relates a supernatural vision he had in college, then relates Le Fanu’s narrative as something he’d come across in a pile of old papers.
The underworld/torment motif is fleshed out in “Jeepers Jacobs,” the bulk of which concerns a conservative theologian, at his desk, writing a tract about the doctrine of hell being “eternal conscious torment.” That’s a lot more interesting than it sounds, partly because Huizenga depicts Jacobs’ ideology and thought process as sympathetically as he can, and also because he uses the natural dryness of its premise (golf! theology! driving!) as leverage for the dramatic impact of the only full-page image in “Curses”: a drawing of the smoke billowing up from the fires of hell, filling the page all the way out to its borders.
Most of the book’s themes come together in its final, perfect five-page story. In 32 images and fewer than 200 words, “Jeezoh” plays with the way religious ideas evolve into more informal folk mythology, and calls into question how much of what’s come before it has “really happened” to Glenn and Wendy, and how much our desires as readers (or as people living in the world) lead us to try to put together contradictory images into “an accidental graphic novel.” It’s emotionally crushing; what’s surprising about it is that it’s also cathartic and even funny, a suggestion of a kind of redemption improvised out of desperation.
“Curses” is full of peculiar, oblique approaches to storytelling — Huizenga favors depth of reflection over narrative drive — but calling the Ganges stories experimental cartooning doesn’t do justice to how effortlessly droll and charming they can be. In one brief piece, “The Hot New Thing,” Glenn and Wendy hear about … something … from their friends (“We were talking about the HNT at work! It sounds incredible! Let’s go check it out this weekend!”), then go stand in line for it, as Huizenga occasionally cuts away to newsmagazine covers (“The Hot New Thing: Is It Safe?”; “HNT2: A Behind the Scenes Look”). Finally, we see Glenn and Wendy going to bed after experiencing the Thing: It blew his mind, she didn’t think it was all that special, and he lies awake after she’s fallen asleep, silently fuming a little.
That’s probably the best joke in the story: the dead-on evocation of the disappointment of a loved one’s seeing only mediocrity where you’ve seen profound brilliance. The deeper comedy of the scene, though, is that Huizenga is both Wendy and Glenn, crediting and debunking the hype at the same time. He cares about the sensations and meanings of grindingly mundane things as much as he cares about the mystical glories his Ganges stories always seem to evoke around their edges. When Huizenga distills the sacred and the everyday into the symbolic clarity of his line work, they come out looking like the same thing viewed from different angles.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)