Kiwi comic creator Dylan Horrocks has just published his first major graphic novel in 16 years, and found that digging into the morality of fantasy rekindled his own love of comics.
Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen, published by Victoria University Press, is a very funny and thoughtful 220-page comic about fantasies, ennui, adventuring and a particular slice of NZ comic history.
Horrocks spoke to the Herald about serialising the book online, Kiwi comics history and the morality of fantasy.
You actually serialised the story online before collecting it in a book. What was the idea behind that?
The initial impulse to serialise it online was very simple - I was struggling to draw a long story. I was working on a very long story called Atlas, but that had stalled. And I had started the Magic Pen and another story called The American Dream, but they had also stalled.
So I was really struggling to do these long stories, and I decided if I serialised them online, then every time I finish a page, I can post it to the website and it feels like I've really achieved something. Like I've actually published something new, and people can see it.
Were there any unexpected side effects of going online that you didn't see coming?
I have been pleasantly surprised by people engaging with the story as a serial. I wasn't really expecting that. So the joy of serialising a story for an audience that is reading it page by page and responding to it like that has been a real pleasure.
Did it make you try and make every single page worthwhile in some way?
A little bit. But to be honest, I haven't really catered it to online readers at all. On one level, I'm like the world's worst web cartoonist because I never planned it as a web comic or designed it as a web comic. There were long gaps where I didn't post a page for six months, and I was erratic. All the things that people say you must do, I did none of it. I broke every rule, and it's because I didn't go into it to build an audience online, I just went into it to give myself some small incentive to keep working on it day by day.
KIWI COMIC CAVALCADE
The Magic Pen does have a very European feeling to it, but it's also very much a New Zealand comic, and also a comic about New Zealand comics, with a large section of faux-1950s science fiction based on the real comics of cartoonist Eric Resetar. Are you worried about losing an audience who have never heard of somebody like him?
The King Of Mars by Evan Rice is a comic in there that is directly inspired by Eric Resetar's comics, especially Crash O'Kane: An All Black On Mars, which is just the best title for a New Zealand comic.
There is a lot of things I love about Eric Reserter's comics, and I had just so much fun when I show Evan Rice's comics in there. They were just so much fun to both write and draw. I just completely indulged myself.
Actually, one of the inspirations for that section, apart from Eric Resetar, was a comic that my father drew for me when I was nine or ten, and I spent a few months living in Boganville with my mother, because she was a social anthropologist doing field work there, and we lived in a village in the bush for a while. It was quite an experience.
But my Dad would send me comics, so there was always a British comic I would get every week, which was Battle Picture Weekly or 2000ad, and my Dad would send me a bundle of four issues of Battle or whatever. But one time he sent me a comic he had actually drawn, and it was about a New Zealand farmer - a Fred Dagg type of character - finding himself in Berlin in 1944 and gatecrashing Hitler's bunker and beating up the Nazis - the whole time wise-cracking in New Zealand slang. And it was the most amazing comic. I've lost it over the years with all my house shifts, somehow it got lost and I bitterly regret that.
THE MORALITY OF FANTASY
One of the central themes of the story is the question of whether somebody should be morally responsible for their fantasies, and you even have Sam stop the story cold and wonder if there really is any need for it. Did you ever have a clear answer to that question?
There is a moment when it stops and turns on the question of whether you should be morally responsible for your fantasies, and there isn't a clear answer.
I wanted Sam to ask that question. I was asking that question. About a third of the way through the book I realised that one of the reasons I was writing it was to try and answer that question for myself. I guess the story is about our relationship with fantasy and part of that is the ethical dimension of fantasy.
And do you think you came close to that answer?
The key thing is, I never go into a story with a specific point of view that I want to communicate.
A lot of the fiction writers I talk to write fiction for the same reason. We're trying to make sense of the world, and trying to understand things. I guess there are polemic fiction writers, but they tend to be pretty boring, really.
Part of the strength of fiction is that it allows you to really pick away at the limits of complexity, because it's kind of what life is like, and with the Magic Pen, I wanted to ask that question, and so I put characters into situations that forced the issue. And then, I could see what it is in that situation, and see how it felt.
Were you concerned with the reaction to some parts of the book? There is a large section that could be written off as a male power fantasy, but then you have the characters sit down and talk about how it's such a male power fantasy.
I have honestly felt nervous at times about it. Very, very early on, before I had actually written any of it, I was visiting some friends in New York - a very good artist named Megan Kelso and her husband - and I was talking about this book, and how I was nervous about its reception. And she said, well, you've been talking about it for the last few hours. She said that fear was clearly a sign that this was very important to me, and I should totally write about it.
I immediately knew she was absolutely right, so I took her advice. The reason I was thinking about writing this story was that they went to a very important place for me - a place that was scary, but it was scary because it was so important.
But The Magic Pen opens with two epigrams, there's one from Yeats and one from Nina Hartley, so it's the poet and the porn star. And the quotes say very contradictory things about fantasy and desire, and I really wanted to start the book with those two quotes presented with equal weight. I really think they have equal validity.
I wanted those quotes to start a debate, and start a conversation on the very first page of the book and then the book continues that conversation, and tries to do it with a variety of voices and a variety of perspectives, and also to test those two assertions in different directions, and just see how that process can enrich my own way of thinking about the issues that were raised.
FOR THE LOVE OF COMICS
Sam does rediscover his love of his comics by the end of the book. Is that similar to how you feel now?
It really is. I feel as though the questions I was asking with the books were questions that had given me a hard time at various points in telling this story. There were moments where I really agonised over the issues I was exploring, but with those questions, I feel as though I have a much clearer set of feelings about that issue. I say a set of feelings because I still don't have a single, simple answer, I just feel I have a much better understanding of my response to those questions.
So in terms of writing and drawing comics, the last couple of years of working on The Magic Pen were the most fun I've had making comics ever. The physical process of drawing is so much more pleasurable for me now. Every part of it.
Do you feel more confident with what you're doing?
It's more that I've made my peace with drawing. I have had many periods in my life when I felt like I was at war with my own drawing. It was so hard to make it do what I wanted it to do. And I was so aware of the limitations of my drawing, and I was trying so hard to draw differently.
Your style has definitely changed a lot over the years. While the work in the Magic Pen is obviously your style, you've come a long way from Hicksville. Not least because it looks fantastic in colour.
That's great to hear because I didn't really know what I was doing. There is one page that I'm just waiting for somebody to say 'what were you thinking' because the colours are so garish and kind of digital. But I just wanted it that way, so I just gleefully embraced it.
But when I put together Incomplete Works [a collection of Horrocks' various unreprinted comics] earlier this year, that was really interesting because I was looking back over 30 years of my work, and it was very clear that my drawing style and my approach to drawing had gone through so many different stages and reinventions.
I was more experimental with my art when I was younger, and it was partly because of my lack of confidence in my own drawing. I'm just not a natural draftsman, I find it very difficult to draw accurately or competently, and I still do.
And now you're more comfortable with that?
I am. That will probably change again down the line.
The turning point for me was when I stopped trying to draw like other people and decided that I could only draw like me. That I couldn't actually replace my drawing hand with somebody else's, or replace my brain with somebody else's, and force my body to draw differently. Obviously, I tried lots of different styles, but all those drawings had the same flaws and limitations, because that's just the reality of how my body draws, and I can't change it.
So, in a way, the turning point was just accepting it, and embracing that fact. So now I feel increasingly less tormented by own inadequacies, and I'm very conscious of my own inadequacies, I'm just less upset by them. They're just things that I have to live with, so I might as well learn to enjoy them.
ALICE BROWN AIN'T NO CLOWN
One of the other themes of the Magic Pen is that the whole culture of fantasy isn't just specific to a particular society or gender or age, and you have somebody like the Alice Brown character, who represents a new generation of younger girls who really get into fantasy.
Alice Brown is actually my favourite characters in the book. To me, she's kind of the hero of the book. I did do a one-page cartoon called 'Alice Brown, What A Clown' while I was still in the early stages of The Magic Pen, but to me, that was a celebration. She's getting picked on, she's a nerd and she doesn't fit in and she's so desperate to, but at a certain point, she's like 'f**k it, I'm gonna be me', and she starts embracing it.
Alice is partly inspired by a number of cartoonists that I have met or followed online, and also some students I've had, and all sorts of people have fed into Alice Brown. In a lot of ways, she represents to me the future of comics, and the hope for comics. Certainly for fun comics.
Is that something that you're trying to say with this book? That the future of comics and fandom and fantasy in general is in good hands?
I really do. I feel like this is a really good time to be involved in comics. I don't think there has ever been a better time to make comics. Parts of the industry are in terrible financial state, but there are so many new ways to get your comics out there. It's an amazing time to be making comics and there are so many amazing comics getting made. There has never been a better time to be a reader of comics.
To read the full interview, click here