Outline of a generation

By Richard Dale

NZ Comic artist Dylan Horrocks. Photo / Grant Maiden Photography
NZ Comic artist Dylan Horrocks. Photo / Grant Maiden Photography

The comic and illustration scene in New Zealand is in a healthy state. Last Christmas I bought three Ant Sang illustrations taken from his comic novel Shaolin Burning; Karl Wills has just launched a new series about a wandering knight, called Holocaust Rex; and last year witnessed the publication of the excellent anthology of New Zealand comic artists, Adrian Kinnaird's From Earth's End, a serious and long overdue study. Now Victoria University Press has released Incomplete Works, a survey of Dylan Horrocks' art.

Horrocks, one of the stars of Kinnaird's anthology, has carved out a career for himself as a comic artist and illustrator. This latest book is a compendium of his work, an autobiography of sorts of his struggles as an illustrator in the mid-1980s, from early drawings with the Strips group in Auckland, to his first forays as an independent illustrator, to global travels - his landscape drawings are one of many visual pleasures in the book - and to participation in comic anthologies across the globe, though time spent as a writer for the American conglomerate DC Comics is not included.

He also devotes chapters to passions: his family, of course, the music of New Spiritualist composer Arvo Part, role-playing games, complex and somewhat arcane dice and table games often based on fantasy scenarios.

His stories can have a melancholy air to them. He portrays in interior monologue the dilemmas of bringing a cartoon to light, the problems of making a living from it, of getting the girl and of sex. This is a Life of the Artist, in tune with a post-postmodern generation. Radicalism has been naturalised, exploring his subjectivity in the world with a keen political eye. He finds a more diffused expression than, say, someone like comic war journalist Joe Sacco, in favour of a more confessional autobiographical approach that is the hallmark of some alternative strip artists.

Other sections respond to the Iraqi War and September 11, in ways that express the fragility of life and are a salutary alternative to the sentimentality and patriotism expressed by more than a few artists.

At the same time, Horrocks provides us with a meta-dialogue on cartooning itself, peppering the book with visual references to antecedents - there are homages to George Herriman of early 20th century Crazy Kat fame and to mid-20th century New Zealand cartoonists. A chapter works on the idea that Captain Cook had a promising career as a comic artist before embarking on his "Let's Discover the World" career and serves as a vehicle for Horrocks to parody 18th century sensibility in text and image. Here we are introduced to the amusing love-hate avatars of Rabbit and Rat.

A section is devoted to the work of Strips artist Barry Linton, a hero to Horrocks, who gives over several pages to a mini-visual biography of Linton and persuasively argues for his importance in New Zealand illustration.

Horrocks has been deeply committed to comics as a form his whole life, developing early in his career a masterful style that seems infinitely flexible. When one of his works appears at my local comic shop, Heroes For Sale, on K Rd, it is an event. Most of the strips and illustrations in this volume are new to me, while I remember some from my oblique forays into alternative comics, acquiring the odd issue of his series Atlas or Pickle.

Each strip (in the book they serve as chapters) is a concise marriage of image to text and idea, rendered in black ink and reductive, clean line. As illustration, this book will be essential for my shelf, for its visual richness and for the range of clever solutions he comes up with for telling a story. One later chapter is a study in clouds that is a tour-de-force of line and the use of white space, a rumination on loss in response to post-earthquake Christchurch.

Equally, as a record of what it has been like for many of us to have lived through the last few decades, a generation that has seen much of our idealism supplanted by the substance of a maturing life, Incomplete Works is a mapping, if you will, of that political and emotional climate.

Incomplete Works by Dylan Horrocks (Victoria University Press $35).

- NZ Herald

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