Conditions on the Ground is a hardcover collection of 10 individual issues of Hooyman’s Conditions on the Ground comic originally published between 2013 and 2015. Each issue contains 8-10 stories, which range from a few pages long to a single full-page panel. The stories are postmodern, existentialist, and address many different themes. The stories are linked by some consistent threads: karmic balance, fear of the future, fear of the unknown, seeking purpose, seeking direction, serendipitous successes. Though these are weighty themes, the reading experience is not negative, but rather thoughtful and exploratory: worried but not doomed, concerned but not afraid.
Both the writing and the art are insightful and captivating; Hooyman’s work is introspective and detail-oriented. The attention to detail, particularly in the sketch pages of different types of things—clouds, outlets, whales—is soothing in its perception. The art is in black and white and thus is very clean and easy to read; shading is accomplished through different textures rather than shades of gray. Pointillism and tightly placed lines and waves bring life and depth to the pages. The great amount of detail within each page makes negative space have a greater impact. You get the sense that blank spaces are being used rather than being left alone. The art is thoughtfully spaced and executed across panels, creating easy-to-follow storylines, however long or short they may be.
Some characters recur across issues, such as the Spirit Squad, a cheerleading squad with two cheerleaders who frequently have side conversations during practice about deep life anxieties. Another recurring character is a mustachioed father who has conversations with his infant son while trying with great effort to protect him from the world around him.
Many of the stories deal with pathways, traveling, feeling lost, not being able to see where you’re going. Some of the stories are surreal in a way that doesn’t feel all that far from realism—more like a waking dream. Though many of the stories have characters who address deep and difficult questions, lighthearted stories and jokes are interspersed; the humor weaves itself between stories.
One of the notable characteristics of Hooyman’s art style are wavy, irregular speech bubbles with long, thin stems. They look almost like smoke creeping from a character’s mouth, and draw parallels to other twisting, wavy visual motifs in the stories such as tornadoes, cigarette smoke, strong odors, and fog. It’s as if to suggest that these horrified and anxious thoughts are as fleeting as these other vapors which fade easily into the background. While fear itself is a running theme, it’s not horror or fear of immediate pain, but a low, pulsating fear that stretches as far as your thoughts reach. This means that even tornadoes are not truly terrifying; they merely exist in the same space as the characters. They only exist in the imagination of the characters, particularly in the context of their unanswered question: “what if the apocalypse is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” Because these thoughts and fears are expressed in these waving, fading ways, there’s a sense that if you allow them to, these thoughts and fears will wash over you and leave you unaffected. There will be no more deep revelations, only a dangerously blissful complacency.
By creating these narratives, Hooyman is not trying to replicate the characters’ experiences of fear for the reader. The atmosphere does not try to suture you into scenes of wandering alone through thick fog or traversing the ocean without direction. The purpose of these narratives are to think about thinking, to wonder about wondering, to seek a deeper and more permanent sense of meaning than frantic, fleeting thoughts that may dissipate as soon as your mind changes course.
Hooyman’s work would be of interest to readers who enjoy Love and Rockets, zines, and the works of artists such as Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns. If librarians have been looking for ways to incorporate zines or zine-like publications into their libraries, this 350-page bound volume would be a worthy addition with a long shelf life. The book’s binding deserves kudos for its sturdiness—a cloth-covered spine, beautiful watercolor endpapers, hefty in the hands though not uncomfortably so. Librarians should be aware of the following content warnings: brief nudity and implied [non-sexual] nudity, some brief instances of swearing, blood but not violence, and animal death.
Conditions on the Ground
by Kevin Hooyman
Floating World Comics, 2015