On the edge of the world

By Graham Reid

Dylan Horrocks says he had to keep exploring the idea of an isolated New Zealand adrift in the world. Photos / The Aucklander, Supplied
Dylan Horrocks says he had to keep exploring the idea of an isolated New Zealand adrift in the world. Photos / The Aucklander, Supplied

At the launch of the long overdue local publication of his graphic novel Hicksville in Auckland, Dylan Horrocks said he grew up in two places: In New Zealand and in comics, and both were on the edge of the "real world".

"This was stuff I thought after I finished Hicksville," he says later. "It wasn't like I went in trying to explain this. But when people started getting me to talk about the book I realised there was this idea of New Zealand being at the edge of the world. We're used to thinking about ourselves that way, at the bottom, no one pays much attention to us.

"Comics are similar. In my lifetime they've been at the margins of the literary and art world - and there is a similar cultural cringe.

"For a lot of cartoonists and comics fans there was that same sense of getting very excited when people from the 'real world' take us seriously - like when graphic novels started getting reviewed in the New York Review of Books, the same kind of cultural cringe.

"So in Hicksville I was trying to get my head around how you deal with being at that world of the edge, whether it is New Zealand or comics, which seem like such wonderful, rich, magical places.

"What I was doing with Hicksville was positioning myself there. I wasn't leaving the edge but staying at the most marginal place I could find in those marginal worlds. That's why Hicksville is at the very tip of the East Cape and not on the maps.

"But from there I say, 'This is the centre of the world'. The planet is not a circle which has a geographical centre, it's a globe and on its surface there is no centre. Wherever you are on the globe is the centre of the world. I wanted to see what the world looked like when I stood exactly at where I felt most comfortable and see how the rest looks."

Horrocks admits Hicksville - originally serialised in his Pickle comic between 1992 and '98, and published as a collection by Black Eye Books in Canada in'98 - has developed a reputation over the past 10 or so years almost out of proportion to the number of people who had seen it. "Until now it was very hard to get hold of. People knew about it but couldn't find it. The most common reaction to it now being published here is, 'Finally'.

"So there is already an audience for it."

The complex, multi-layered novel has storylines about comics, Kiwi culture, the crassness of American capitalism when it sweeps up young, idealistic comic writers, and of the small town Hicksville where comics are cherished. Its origins date to when Horrocks was living in London and feeling homesick.

His serialisation happened when the first wave of interest in graphic novels - spurred on by Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer winning Maus ('86) and Alan Moore's dystopic Watchmen ('87) - had passed. Another, less appealing, wave had arrived.

Much of that comes through in the 250-page book now published - with an introduction by Horrocks - through Victoria University Press. The storyline of Todd Burger - a crass, profiteering comic artist based in Hollywood - weaves through the book.

"When I started I didn't have a clear sense of where it was going to go or be about, except it was to do with comics and small towns and beaches. During that time there was, within mainstream American commercial comics, a boom driven by speculation, events like 'the death of Superman' and so on to try and convince everyone, 'This is collectable'."

Horrocks admits he was "intrigued by seeing geek cartoonists become really rich and powerful ... it was the age of megastars like Todd McFarlane who left Marvel to start Image comics [in'92] and they were making huge amounts of money.

"I thought it was revolting - mainly because I wasn't interested in the comics they were doing. For others they were great. The artists took what the fanboys were interested in, boiled it down to essentials and beefed those up - so the muscles were three times as big. Not my thing at all."

In his new introduction to Hicksville, Horrocks - whose first words were apparently "Donald Duck" - makes reference to local antecedents and contemporaries such as Bob Kerr and Stephen Ballantyne's Terry and the Gunrunners and Strips magazine, and concedes his time as an artist for the DC imprint Vertigo was soul destroying. Drawing Batgirl wasn't his thing.

Hicksville - in its spare art and complex storyline - is subtle and often understated, although it resonates on many levels.

It is considered a work of post-colonial literature and is on the reading list for such a course for at least one American university.

Overseas readers find the South Pacific setting exotic, but only a local audience will pick up some of the visual references.

And as Leonard Batts, described as a journalist and critic for Comics World magazine, makes his way to mythical Hicksville, he keeps finding pages of a mysterious comic.

"It is this story of the islands of New Zealand coming adrift and Captain Cook, Hone Heke and Charles Heaphy trying to work out 'Where the hell are we?' I had no idea where I was going with that image but it haunted me so much I had to keep exploring it.

"New Zealand has been going through a dislocated journey of exploration for quite some time and we almost need a new way of mapping where we are in the world, but in a way that can take into account constant change and have a less fixed location.

"We are no longer in any one place. We're in the South Pacific but are part of Asia, Europe, Britain ... and we have a complex and interwoven relationship with American culture and society. And Australia."

Now 43, Horrocks has been making comics since school, using a Gestetner machine through to photocopying ("they were a godsend") and now to the age of the internet (he posts work in progress and blogs at www.hicksvillecomics.com). Horrocks says although he majored in English at Auckland University, "I really majored in comics by drawing for Craccum."

He has seen waves of interest in graphic novels and comics come and go but feels there has been a resurgence.

Bookshops and libraries stock graphic novels, again people beyond the fanboy base take them seriously, and "a turning point was Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan in 2000 which won serious literary prizes".

Horrocks notes that as with the Maus and Watchmen wave, Ware's book did not arrive in isolation for those in the know. "This is a much better time to be bringing a graphic novel out." And he is. Again. At last.

DYLAN HORROCKS

* Born in Auckland, 1966.
* Comics published in Craccum, Fox comics, Fantagraphics books, Black Eye comics, Vertigo. Hicksville first appeared in Pickle, published by Black Eye Comics, then in book form in 1998, with French, Spanish and Italian editions later produced; however, it has been hard to obtain in New Zealand.
* In 2002, Hicksville won an Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition. Horrocks is a contributing editor of the International Journal of Comic Art. The newly-available Hicksville (Victoria University Press, $38) is the New Zealand edition.

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