Born in Auckland in 1966, Dylan Horrocks is certainly the best known comic book author New Zealand. Active since the
mid-80s, during which time he founded the magazine “Razor” with Cornelius Stone, he has worked for Fox Comics in Australia, Fantagraphics Books in the US and co-founded Le Roquet in England. On “Pickle” , self-produced magazine, he published “Hicksville” as a serial, which was in volume in 1998 and marked his international success. After writing “Batgirl”, “Hunter: The Age of The Magic” and “Atlas” for Drawn and Quarterly, he devoted himself to webcomics on its website hicksville.com. On this portal was published in serial form his new graphic novel, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, (published in Italy by Bao Publishing). The White Space reached him during his meeting with readers in Milan to talk about his latest work and his conception of art and comics.
Hello, Dylan. After 18 years from “Hicksville”, you came back with a new graphic novel, “Sam Zabel and the magic pen”. What happened over such a long period of time?
Well, I drew a lot of short comics and I started a lot of graphic novels that I didn’t finish. I worked for DC Comics, writing superheroes for a while. Along the way, I kind of dried up, I lost the ability to write and draw my own stories and so, for some years, I was really struggling to get anything new finished. I would start things, but I couldn’t finish them. “Magic Pen” was the story I started as a relaxation from the other stories and also as a way of trying to understand what was going wrong, why it was so hard to do any story properly.
Sam Zabel was featured in Hicksville as well and he serves as a sort of mask that allows you to enter the story, to add autobiographical elements, to speak with your own voice. How much has the character changed since his first appearance? Has he followed your same evolution as an author?
I have used Sam Zabel as a character for about 20 years, so, even before “Hicksville”, I was doing short comics with Sam Zabel in them. I’ve always used him not like a mask, but more like an epitome. If you’re playing a videogame and you create a character for yourself and you use that character to explore the world of the videogame… Sam is a little more like that. He’s not quite the same as me, but I use him when I’m trying to understand something about my own life, my own relationship with comics. In “Magic Pen” he’s older than he was in “Hicksville” and his relationship with comics has become more difficult and more complicated. I guess that was also true of me, but I wanted to put him in a similar situation to mine, partly to see what he would do in response. Sometimes I use him like an experimental rat in a laboratory: I put him in a maze and see where he goes and at the end of that I’ve learnt something about the situation and about myself. Sometimes I will make him respond in a very different way than I would, and it’s a way of seeing what might happen if I made that choice. Other times he does exactly what I would do, but the situation changes. So I don’t use him just to describe my own life and personality, I use him experimentally, I use him to try and understand things better.
In your new work you once again analyze the history of comics. In Hicksville, the reflection was focused on a very precise period, that is, US comics in the ’90s, which appeared to be in stark contrast with the American Golden Age. Here, the reflection expands on US comics in the ’50s, sci-fi, manga and European comics. What drove you to tackle a wider array of themes?
When I started “Hicksville” – it was more than 20 years ago, now. Over that time the world of comics has changed enormously and part of what I wanted to explore in “Magic Pen” was that emerging landscape of comics, which is much more diverse than it was 20 years ago. Alice Brown is one of the characters that I introduced, because she represents a world of comics that didn’t really exist when I was first involved in comics. She does webcomics and she’s someone who might not have been interested in comics when I was a teenager. She founds a whole community of cartoonists and readers and fans and creators online, which is much more diverse than it was. There is all kinds of people, all kinds of genders. It was a very male-dominated field when I was a teenager. There were always women making comics and always women reading comics, but they were outnumbered and often almost invisible to most of the comics industry and to much of the fandom. That’s changed. Now there are many good transgender cartoonists and cartoonists from all over the world. There’s a very interesting scene emerging in China, India is producing some great graphic novels, there are some cartoonists in Africa that have very interesting work. It’s no longer just America, Europe, Britain, Japan.
Manga is something I didn’t really address in “Hicksville”. I mentioned it, but I wanted to explore that a bit more in “Magic Pen”, because it’s the biggest comics industry in the world. Also, manga has opened up new narrative possibilities. I’m very interested in things like yaoi comics and josei comics, comics by women for women. They’re enormously popular and they’re becoming very popular in New Zealand. They explore fantasies, daydreams and desires. All of that did find its way into “Magic Pen”, but the main thing I was trying to understand really was Sam’s relationship with fantasy and with other people’s fantasies and desires. I guess the story mostly focuses on him, the kind of fantasy comics that he’s really engaged in. And I’m rambling, so… [laughs]
You provide interesting considerations on the moral responsibility of the artist towards what they create and who makes use of their creations. A complex theme, which causes distress for the protagonist himself and leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Was having each one of us face this question your goal, providing food for thought without expressing a clear stance? Have you, just like Zabel, still not found an answer?
The book asks the question: “How much do artists have a moral responsibility for their work and, specifically, for fantasies in their work?”. I drew the book because I didn’t have the answer and the book opens with two quotations, one from the poet Yeats, who says “In dreams begins responsibility”, and the other is from a porn performer and producer, something of an academic writer about porn, Nina Hartley. She says “desire is no morality”. I wanted to use both of those quotations, because, to me, it seems that they’re both true, but they’re completely contradictory and so I wanted to explore the space between those two positions. I constructed the story as a way of exploring that space, testing out those positions. At one point Sam seems to say: “Yes, we do have a responsibility, we do have to think about the consequences of the fantasies we explore”, but a moment later he questions that and he starts to pull it apart. There are other times when the opposite position is taken. Like I said, I was creating an experimental maze and putting the rat into it and seeing if it gave me the answer. I think I can’t say that I have a good answer at the end of doing this book, I feel as though I will continue to wrestle with the question. The biggest moral responsibility we have, as artists, is honesty. Honesty about our fantasies, our fears and our desires. Honesty about the things that frighten us, about those fantasies that disturb us. I feel if we’re honest and truthful to ourselves about it, instead of trying to shape all of it to fit what we think people want, what we think will sell or what will not get us in trouble, I think we’ll really learn things. I feel that’s one of the most important roles art has, to allow allow us to discover things – about ourselves, each other and the world – which sometimes we don’t wanna hear. I feel that the more we understand them, the more we can live with each other.
“Sam Zabel and the magic pen” brings back the criticism on American comics, the superhero genre in
particular. The fact that you worked for that industry surely had an influence on your experience. Since the ’90s, some things have changed, even though maybe we are reverting back to the atmosphere of those years. Have you been following the evolution of the world of superheroes, or did you completely detach yourself from it after your experience? If so, what do you think about it?
I’m terrible, I really don’t read them! [laughs] When I was writing superhero comics, I was hired to write Batgirl and I had no idea what was happening in those books. I didn’t grow up reading superheroes, I grew up reading Tin Tin, Asterix and Lucky Luke, but also underground comics: I was reading Robert Crumb when I was 15 years old. That’s the stuff I was reading and I was really interested in. Superheroes just never really grabbed me, for some reason that particular fantasy – I just don’t connect to it. So when I was writing them I was a bit lost, I really didn’t have a clear idea of how I would write a superhero – well, I did, I did have an idea of how I’d write them, but I didn’t think it would fit. They would just sit around talking about their lives. But there are superhero comics I’ve read over the years, usually because the people writing or drawing them were of interest to me. I’ve always read Alan Moore’s comics, I’ve read some of Grant Morrison’s, Ed Brubaker… Kelly Sue DeConnick sounds very good, so I haven’t been reading but I have some on my list. But what I do follow is the conversation about them, the conversation online, critically. I do follow that and I find it more interesting than the comics [laughs]. That and the political discussion around superhero comics right now. I feel like it’s a really interesting moment in the industry of American comics. I try to not have strong opinions, because I don’t read the comics. I did have strong opinions about certain things because, when I was writing Batgirl, I did come to care a lot about the character and I felt unhappy with some of the ways DC has treated the character. I don’t like the corporate structure around those comics and I feel like that corporate structure causes a lot of harm to the stories, the characters and the creators. So that stuff, I do have an opinion about.
How did you choose the specific genres you use in the book, like manga and comics from the 50s? What process led you to the final result?
I made a long list in my notebook [laughs] and then I looked at how many pages I had. They were all sequences that I cut out from the script, just because it was a big distraction, but I could have done 500 different pages! [laughs] I even have a whole sequence involving someone who ends up working in a studio and I kinda wanna do that story. I think another one is set in Argentina around the time Héctor [Germán] Oesterheld was killed. Ultimately I think there were certain key points that I considered moments in the history of comics I wanted to reference, but there were also certain kinds of fantasies I wanted to mention and explore. That is why there’s a scene about comics during WWI. There is the father of a German soldier and he’s drawing a comic to send to his son in the hope that his son will be transported into the comic and saved from the war. The genre I chose grew out of that situation and that was me wanting to talk about one of the ways we use fantasies in stories, sometimes to find a retreat, a haven from an insane world. Sometimes we draw them as a gesture of love for someone that we care about. Some of them were chosen for those reasons rather than for the industry of comics.
Among the many characters that populate your comic, the most fascinating is the superheroine Lady Night, who appears in crucial moments, with her mysterious presence which seems to foretell dark truths for both the protagonist and the reader. Who is Lady Night for Dylan Horrocks?
Well, in “Magic Pen” Lady Night is partly me working out how I felt about writing Batgirl, the way Batgirl had changed and become a much darker character. The other was Mary Marvel from Captain Marvel/Shazam. I always loved that character. There’s various things: there’s a bit of Doctor Strange, there’s the tradition of superheroes who aren’t’ really superheroes, they’re more like philosophers. I guess the answer is: “Batgirl” [laughs].
Speaking of the art, there has been a clear evolution from Hicksville. The lines are softer and rounder, you introduced new ideas in terms of design and perspective and most importantly you switched from black and white to full colour. What brought you toward this direction and what can you convey through colour?
Before I drew “Magic Pen” I was trying to do lots of other stories and part of that was to experiment a different style. I really wanted to draw a different way. I didn’t like the way I drew and I wanted to learn how to draw like Christophe Blanc or Edmund Baudoin, people that I loved the way they drew. I just couldn’t draw! What happened is that it got to the point where I couldn’t draw at all. I felt like “Ah, it’s hopeless! I have no ability to draw”. But I realized I do need to draw, so I began to draw the way I always wanted to draw when I was younger, which was influenced by Hergé and la ligne claire. I just went back to drawing clear lines. What happened is I realized – you know, there are some artists who just sit down and they move their hand and beautiful drawings appear, which are elegant and everything’s right – I’m not like that. I’m one of those cartoonists who struggle to make a drawing even adequate, it’s really difficult. I don’t have much control over what my hand is drawing. But I realized that drawing is very difficult and it’s like singing: when you’re singing, you’re limited by what your voice is like and your voice is shaped by your body. You can train it and make it stronger, but you can’t change the voice you’ve got. I can’t magically give myself the voice of Tom Waits or Kiri Te Kanawa, the opera singer. I can’t do that. So I’m stuck with what I’ve got and I need to make peace with that. When I went back to drawing just for my own pleasure – because I needed to do it – I stopped worrying so much about the fact that my drawings were awkward, that I couldn’t draw in a particular way… I just drew the way I draw and that’s how my style is. It comes out of the things I can’t do and that I find difficult. If I wanna tell a story, or if I’m going to sing a song, I need to be honest and use my voice. It’s like that story about a poet who’s trying to seduce the woman he loves through another man’s voice, because he feels like his own poetry is stupid and he can’t write a great poem. It kinda works for a while, but ultimately the woman has fallen in love with the guy who writes the poems, not the guy who pretends to write them. To me that’s like drawing in someone else’s voice and it’s a very long way to say that I gave up [laughs]. But by accepting it it became a much stronger voice, that’s what I learnt. The other thing is I chose colour because I was putting it online and I didn’t have to pay for printing, I could use colour. In the past I’d always use black and white because of the economics of printing in colour. So I tried it and I loved it, I really, really enjoyed using colour. But there will be comics I still do in black and white because I feel they will be stronger books in black and white, it’s just whatever is gonna work for the story. It does feel like I’ve added another tool by using colour.
Over the years, you created a lot of comics for your website, hicksville.com, and you have taken an interest in this new way of making comics. The debate on webcomics is still open: some believe it is a way to bring new life to the industry, others consider it something different entirely, since it introduces new elements that do not belong to the language of comics (videos, animated gifs, sound). What do you think of the development of this new way of making comics? Could it open up new spaces in the comics market for authors who come from less known countries such as New Zealand?
In the 1980s, when I was first drawing comics, photocopying machines became common and cheap and it completely changed comics. Suddenly anyone could photocopy their comic and put it out there. So we had this eruption of new voices and out of that came a whole generation of really interesting cartoonists, people like Chester Brown, Julie Doucet and so on. That revolution shaped my first years in comics and webcomics are the same kind of revolution but times a thousand. It’s such a dramatic opening up of possibilities for cartoonists and it’s provided an opportunity for cartoonists all over the world and of all kinds of politics and philosophies and aesthetics. All of those now have a way of getting their work out there and have it seen by people all over the world. It has also created communities around particular kinds of comics, which are really interesting as well. I think it’s incredibly exciting, what’s happening with webcomics. I’m probably less interested in the full possibilities of people using different technologies like animation, I don’t really care [laughs], I don’t care whether they’re still comics like people argue about – if you include animation, if you include sound is it still a comic? I don’t care, because when we define something as a comic or not a comic it’s just an arbitrary distinction we’re making, it’s not a real thing. It’s all interesting to me and I have seen webcomics that use very complex animation that I love, I’ve seen others that are really boring… but I think the web has replaced newspaper strips and that’s a form that has become very boring, newspaper comics. They were really dying out, but the web has just blown it open and all kinds of people are doing great strips. Also, it’s such an easy way to serialize a graphic novel or to do an ongoing story. I don’t see a downside to webcomics, I don’t see anything about it which is a bad thing, I just think it’s very exciting. And it is great for New Zealanders [laughs]! I know at least two New Zealanders, very young cartoonists, who have done webcomics that have enough regular readers around the world to make it a full-time job. I couldn’t imagine that happening 20 years ago. That’s mind blowing to me!
Question translation and interview transcription by Alessandra Cognetta
Interview conducted in Milan on May, the 20th.