May 2010

Martyn Pedler

comicbookslut

The Margins of the World: Going Back to Hicksville

In Dylan Horrocks’s Hicksville, a journalist investigates a remote New Zealand town -- a mysterious place where every man, woman, and child seem to read comic books. It was a critical darling when originally released in 1998, widely seen as a love letter to comics. More recently, though, it’s been described as “hate mail to the industry that betrayed its original vision.”  

I’d say Hicksville is both. The book’s been unavailable for so long that when I had the chance to sit down with Dylan, he told me it’d been passed around like “samizdat literature” back home in New Zealand. Now Hicksville is finally back in print, and it comes with a new, brutally honest introduction from Dylan. I’ll let him explain why: 

Hicksville came out 12 years ago, and I started drawing it 18 years ago. To me, it’s very old work. But the difficult thing is that I haven’t finished another book since then, apart from DC Comics stuff which I don’t really consider my work and a few issues of Atlas, serialized stories that haven’t been finished. I was very conscious that I was doing a new edition of Hicksville without having done another book since. That made me really uncomfortable about doing the new introduction.  

“But going back to Hicksville -- scanning the whole thing in again, repositioning all the artwork on the page, deciding that the design of the book would be entirely hand-lettered -- it was almost like I subconsciously forced myself to make it a labor of love. In the process, I had to reconnect with the love that first motivated the book. My love of comics, and what had happened to it.” 

So what had happened to it? In his comic The Last Fox Story  -- drawn years before Hicksville, and drawn with a ballpoint pen on whatever paper was at hand -- he describes the first time he felt allergic to comic books. He enters a comic shop and “halfway in, I’m sweating. By the time I reach Love & Rockets, I’m dizzy and have a pain in my gut.” 

“My relationship with comics was very simple before I took the step of trying to make it a career. That’s when I had the first real experience of my fear of comics. I extricated myself from much of it by explaining it in The Last Fox Story. In a way, doing the new introduction to Hicksville was like doing that story again -- bringing it up to date. My fear of comics would come and go. When I was drawing Pickle in the 1990s -- where I was serializing Hicksville -- I still felt really uncomfortable going into comic shops.  

“I remember my friend Roger Langridge persuading me to try Bone by Jeff Smith, and I remember reading those obsessively, like a drowning man clinging to a raft. Reading Bone felt pure. It was sheer pleasure. It felt simple -- not tangled up with all my anxieties about comics. I don’t know why. I’ve always been enormously fond of Bone for that reason.” 

In Hicksville, cartoonist Sam Zabel faces the temptation of moving from New Zealand to Los Angeles, trading his zines for soulless superhero comics. In reality, Dylan Horrocks’s success led him writing for DC Comics in 2003. (It’s the sort of raised-eyebrow irony beloved by Rod Serling.) Dylan admits in the new introduction that he “should have listened to Sam.” 

“It’s a very difficult living being an alternative cartoonist, so the notion that I could make a living writing comics? I figured, well, that can’t take up too much time. I’ll work on my own stuff, my real stuff, the rest of the time. What I hadn’t factored in was that I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I didn’t grow up reading those comics. I think if I had, I would’ve had a kind of fantasy about how I’d write them. ‘How would I write Batman?’ 

“But when DC asked me if I’d write Batgirl, I imagined her from the ‘60s TV show. That’s what I had in mind: the yellow boots, and the purple motorbike. She’s a librarian, man! She’s got the coolest job in the world! She goes out at night and go-go dances and occasionally fights a bad guy. I thought it’d be so much fun. I underestimated how dark Gotham City had become. I was very much at sea. The funny thing is that now I have some distance, I know exactly how I’d write Batgirl -- but I don’t know whether it’s something they’d want to publish.”

Peppered with painful quotes -- like Jack Kirby’s “Comics will break your heart” -- Hicksville often seems strangely like the work of an artist who’s reflecting back after a long career. I never doubted, however, that it remained at least in love with the idea of stories. I was surprised to hear Dylan didn’t necessarily agree: 

“I was at my lowest point when I was writing for DC, and it took quite a long time to recover. I hadn’t just fallen out of love with comics -- and I don’t know if I had, or if I just felt estranged from them -- but I’d fallen out of love with stories. Picasso said, 'Art is the lie that tells the truth,' but I felt like maybe art is actually just a lie. Stories have a tendency to construct a fake model of the universe, a kind of artificial reality, in which things are simpler and questions have answers. 

“It’s the same with supposedly serious literary fiction. There’s a tendency to present the world as saturated with meaning and significance, and to then construct these elegant architectural structures which have recurring metaphors and everything else. Life’s just not like that. When I was at my most depressed, I remember a friend saying to me: ‘What you’re going through is a crisis of faith.’ I think he was right.”

Hicksville contains stories within stories. It not only incorporates snippets from old myths and old comics, but its characters dress up as other famous creations: Charlie Brown, old-school Batgirl, Winsor McCay’s Mr. Bunion carrying his suitcase marked "DULL CARE." It’s easy to feel lost in Hicksville. Maybe that’s why it’s also full of maps. As Dylan has one enigmatic cartographer say: “The true drama is in these relationships of space.” 

“The strange thing is that I really only read nonfiction these days. I find a very difficult to read novels for all these reasons -- with a few exceptions. Every so often I go on a little binge and find a few novels that can cut through my allergic reactions. But I only feel compelled to write fiction! I feel this need to write stories, but I don’t believe in them anymore. It took me a few years to work out different ways of seeing stories. Ways that were, for me, meaningful and healthy.  

“I started to think of stories more as a kind of ‘waking dreaming’ -- I’m really interested in the daydream as a way of exploring things. I wrote a long essay a few years ago about the way stories and art construct imaginary universes, imaginary landscapes, and I did that as a way to solve this conundrum too. Instead of making up a sequence of events or telling a story that’s supposedly to do with the real world, I’m constructing an environment and exploring it. It’s treating story purely as a process of exploration.” 

What if, somewhere, there was a secret library of all the stories you want most to read? Hicksville perfectly captures this adolescent fantasy. (I know it was one of mine.) And, better still, what if all these comic books -- stories that inevitably come from America and Europe and Japan -- are tucked away deep in the southern hemisphere? 

“In Hicksville, I was trying to work out how I felt about comics, and how the rest of the world felt about comics, too. But I was also trying to work out my relationship with New Zealand -- I’d been overseas, and I’d initially had very mixed feelings about coming back. I was in love with my girlfriend, and she wanted to live in there. In the end, I decided I’d live in Antarctica if that’s what it took to be with her. So I came back, and I found myself reconnecting with things about New Zealand -- things I loved very deeply.  

“Comics are at the margins of the worlds of literature and art. And the thing about New Zealand, of course, is that it’s in the margins of the world, too. Hicksville was set on the easternmost cape of New Zealand. I think what I was partly trying to do was to say, okay, yes, I live at the edge of the fucking world, and I’m obsessed with this marginal art form -- but to me, they’re the most important places. I was looking out at the rest of the world and saying: ‘This is the centre of the world as far as I’m concerned. Now how does the rest of it look to me?’ In a way, I ended up reshaping the whole world around that centre.” 

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia -- so he knows what it’s like to be a comic book fan in the wrong hemisphere. Find him at www.martynpedler.com. And Dylan Horrocks is serializing new work at his website, too.