"I heard this smashing of glass." Ant Sang is very soft-spoken. He doesn't emphasise what he's telling me by stressing words or raising his voice; he could almost be embarrassed. The answer to my question happens to involve a violent death, but he doesn't want to be a drama queen.
"A lot of us students were out drinking in town, and I thought someone had thrown a bottle or something. Then one of our friends came round and said that another one of our classmates had just been hit by a car. So we all went round the corner and I saw my friend just lying face-down in the middle of the street. His body was convulsing. Ambulance workers came, and they cut off his clothes, the way they do."
I know exactly what Sang is describing, because I've seen it happen: not, thank God, in real life, but in the pages of The Dharma Punks, his eight-issue comic series from the early 2000s. A questing black and white religious/political/sociological/philosophical epic set around Karangahape Rd and Grafton Cemetery, the series is one of the landmarks of contemporary New Zealand comics. Its success led to Sang being hired to design the characters and backgrounds for bro'Town, and it has just been republished as a single-volume graphic novel, after a Kickstarter campaign which reached its target in five days.
"Seeing this guy - he'd been so full of life, a lot more outgoing than me, he had that zest for life that I didn't have - seeing his life just go, that was a big moment for me. It shook me. Before then I guess I was kind of drifting. I started looking into Buddhism - it set me off exploring things. Dharma Punks was 10 years later."
Sang had always been a drawing sort of kid. As far back as he can remember, he was sketching, drawing, making cartoons. "Fastidiously copying Asterix comics." Drawing remained a pastime through secondary school, and at AUT - AIT as it was in the 90s - he studied graphic design. "I didn't really know what to do after that. I looked for illustration work, like children's books, dragging my portfolio around. But what I wanted to do was comics."
He had become aware of the alternative comics scene, which in the early 90s was a burgeoning phenomenon both in New Zealand and internationally. "A large thing I got out of those alternative comics was they were really rough. They didn't need to be highly polished. That was part of what made them more real to me, more authentic. I was seeing comics that were being properly published - probably by very makeshift publishers, but I'd look at them and think, I can actually draw as well as that. Before that I was looking at Tintin and Asterix, and I couldn't draw like that. So slick and professional. But these ones were very DIY."
Not only that, many of these comics were engaging with the sorts of questions that had been on Sang's mind since his classmate was killed. "I thought, well I can draw, and I've got things I want to write about and tell stories about and explore. So that's when I started working on what would become Filth."
Filth, Sang's first comic, ran for seven issues over the course of three years in the mid-90s. It was where the young rockers of The Dharma Punks first appeared. Sang did everything himself: not just the writing and the art, but the production and distribution. He laughs when I ask him what his printing process was.
"The key technology was photocopying. That's how a lot of mini-comics were being done then. There were constant conversations between people in the local comics scene - you know, where is the best photocopy shop in Auckland? Which shop has the photocopier that's going to have those pure blacks without lots of streaks in them? Because New Zealand comics back then seemed to use a lot of black. It was very much the look of that time period."
He ran off Filth in batches of 10 or 20, collated the pages himself, and stapled them. His first sale was to Mark One comics, one of the best known specialist comics shops at the time. "I'm very introverted, so I sort of shuffled in there and asked, 'Do you want to buy some of my mini-comics?' And this guy kind of looked at me, like, oh God, another mini-comic freak. But he flicked through and said, 'Yeah, this looks pretty good actually', so I left, and I came back a week later, and I couldn't see my comics on the shelves, and he said, 'Oh, they're all sold, can we get some more?' That was a big thrill."
Filth was small-scale, but it gained a name for itself in the tiny New Zealand comics scene. Sang abandoned it after three years, because he could feel the angsty energy that had been driving his work beginning to ebb - "I was wondering if I still had anything to say, now I wasn't feeling so unsure of everything all the time" - but the characters stayed with him. After a number of years, he decided to put them to rest with one last story: a bigger, more cohesive, better produced story than he'd yet attempted.
"I wanted to up the ante a little. I'd been in the comics scene a number of years by then and I'd kind of seen that New Zealand comics have always struggled with visibility and getting people to pick them up and buy them. I had a number of ideas I wanted to try. I wanted to promote it, in a way New Zealand comics hadn't really been promoted before, and I wanted to improve the production, and get it professionally distributed. It was the biggest thing I'd ever tried, and I wanted people outside the comics world to hear about it. Consciously looking back on that time of asking questions and creating a story out of it, summing it up and trying to figure out what happened. A transformational journey from being quite angsty and confused to finding a space where you're more comfortable with yourself and with the world."
The Dharma Punks (Earth's End Publishing $39.99) is out now.