As the second millenium was coming to an end, New Zealand brought us Hicksville, a touching declaration of love for comics. But after three promising issues of Atlas, nothing -- Dylan Horrocks had vanished, facing what turned out to be a long crisis of faith... until the (almost) surprise release of Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. Or how he stopped worrying and learned to love comics -- again.
Xavier Guilbert : So – how difficult is it to leave Hicksville ?
Dylan Horrocks : To leave Hicksville ?
Xavier Guilbert : Because I get the impression that you are still there.
Dylan Horrocks : Well… it’s funny, it’s a long time since I’ve been to Hicksville. It was seventeen years now, since it was published. And after Hicksville, I guess I lived in Hicksville for a long time, but I don’t think I’m there now. I think the strange experience I had of working for DC and losing my intimacy with comics for a while means that now, I feel like… like Hicksville was a beautiful dream, and I don’t know if I can still go there. It’s funny. Magic Pen is partly about finding my way back to comics. But… it’s a good question. I don’t know.
Xavier Guilbert : There is some kind of metatextual approach in your work. You have Emil Kópen saying : “comics are similar to a map”, and I’ve got the impression that in Pickle, there was this attempt at mapping something. You’ve got characters appearing in different stories, sometimes they include some of your works, like the story of the last fox in Hicksville….
Dylan Horrocks : I think I have always been building an imaginary landscape for myself, and by mapping the landscape, I create the landscape and bring it to life. And the comics is how I do that. But for me, it’s the landscape of my… my dream world. For a long time, Hicksville was the center of that. But Hicksville emerged, it wasn’t there at the beginning. I was already using those characters, and connecting them up in all sorts of ways, before I started Hicksville. In Pickle, I was doing lots of short stories, and some of them had the same characters, but they were independent stories. And in issue #2, I started serializing Hicksville, and it was meant to be just a minor back-up story that I was doing for fun, and I didn’t know where I was going. I just knew I wanted to hang out on the beach, and I wanted to explore this imaginary town. And it was going to be about comics. But I didn’t really know much more than that. I never thought it would be the major story that I would do. The big story I was doing was Café Underground, and that’s what I thought would be my first graphic novel. But as I was doing Pickle, slowly Hicksville began to take over everything, and all the other stories started to be drawn into its orbit. It’s like it started to exert a powerful gravitational pull on all the other stories. And then it took over completely. The last five or so issues of Pickle were just Hicksville. And I knew then that was the book I was drawing. But its gravitational pull also drew in stories that weren’t in Pickle, in stories that I hadn’t written yet, but that I had been thinking about. I’ve always enjoyed having my stories in conversation with each other. (pause) It’s complicated, because I don’t — I don’t stick to a rigid continuity. Although the stories are connected, they don’t always stick to the reality established by each other. By the time I drew Magic Pen, I still wanted to continue with Sam Zabel and other aspects of Hicksville too. In Magic Pen he is married, with the girl that he met in Hicksville. And he works on the comic that we encountered in Hicksville, and so on. But there’s no mention of Hicksville in Magic Pen. Hicksville has disappeared from the story. I didn’t want it to take place in the same reality as Hicksville.
Xavier Guilbert : But still, it’s connected.
Dylan Horrocks : It’s connected, but it’s not… I never fully established how they are connected. And I didn’t want to make it clear that Hicksville didn’t exist in Magic Pen. But I also didn’t want to bring Hicksville into it. So I just left it, left it out of the story. Because I’ve been using Sam Zabel long before Hicksville existed, as a character.
Xavier Guilbert : The way I see it, Sam Zabel now is a finished book, it’s out on its own. But reading it at the beginning, when it was published in Atlas, next to the Cornucopia story which is completely linked to Hicksville… the same way reading Hicksville within Pickle also makes it very different. You can see how Sam Zabel and Grace are characters that you can follow, the same goes for some of Emil Kópen’s stories.
Dylan Horrocks : I think it’s my internal universe. It’s — it’s the landscape that I explore and spend time in when I’m just on my own. But it’s not always a consistent universe, and it’s multi-dimensional, but they’re all interwoven. Probably, everything I’ll ever do will be part of that interwoven universe. I have lots of other stories that I haven’t drawn yet, and they’re all — in some way, there are connections. But I sort of want each one to be able to stand alone.
What I was saying before, the thing about Hicksville — I think Hicksville is such a powerful idea, its gravitational pull is so strong, that if I acknowledge it in the story, it changes the whole story. In Magic Pen, if Sam has Hicksville to go back to, if he can talk to Kupe and Mrs Hicks and so on, he’ll do that. It changes the dynamic. In fact, I don’t even mention Dick Burger in Magic Pen, but — but based on Hicksville, you would assume that Dick Burger is now Sam’s boss in Magic Pen. But I didn’t want the effect that those things would have on the story, so I just pushed them back.
It’s very difficult to kind of map out — in a way, I need lots of maps. And that’s — I wrote an essay about Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics years ago, and I talked about the way he is mapping the borders of comics by defining them. And all through that book — in fact, all through that and his two subsequent books, he uses mapping metaphors all the time, visually and sometimes textually. And he talks about territories and landscapes and borders. My conclusion in the essay is that I don’t trust any single map, because every map is a fiction about a landscape. It can be a very useful fiction that reveals things, but it’s not the landscape. What I think we need, is an infinite atlas of maps, to understand anything. To understand any landscape, you need lots and lots of different ways of mapping it. Overlaying each other.
I guess in a way all my stories work like that. They are lots of different ways of mapping related things, but it’s all one universe that they are mapping. And sometimes the maps contradict each other, and that’s okay because they have different things to reveal.
I don’t know if I make any sense at all.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s also a part of autofiction in your works. Sam Zabel is a kind of stand-in for yourself, but it’s a moving thing. In Magic Pen Sam mentions having done Pickle, which you obviously did, but at other times he meets a Dylan Horrocks character.
Dylan Horrocks : Yes, and the narrator. The narrator sometimes talks about trying to make Sam do something, and… I didn’t plan all that. I didn’t have — I hadn’t worked out what that would mean. But I was partly operating on instinct with those things. It felt like the right way to go, and I wanted to complicate things, and — and mess up the relation between fiction, the fictional reality, and the reality of writing the fiction. Because Magic Pen is about — it’s about having a crisis of faith about fiction. My faith in fiction and storytelling was broken, and I drew Magic Pen as a way of finding my way back to that faith. I don’t think I’ve regained the faith, but I’ve regained what feels like a positive relationship with fiction. But I no longer have a faith in it, I no longer trust it in the same way.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s this quote in Magic Pen : “When I was doing Pickle, I was great ! I mean — those were good stories. They were honest and real and playful and… well, they were me, y’know ? I was able to write in my own voice back then — distinctive and strong ! But these days.. it’s like I don’t even have a voice. It’s just… gone. I — I don’t know what it would sound like any more…”
Dylan Horrocks : That’s — that’s really Sam talking as me, because that’s what it was like, when I was doing Pickle. But it was really after Hicksville was published and I went to work for DC Comics for a while, it — it broke that relationship in a way that… that was hard to rebuild.
Xavier Guilbert : Do you realize how prophetic Hicksville was ?
Dylan Horrocks : Do I ? (laugh) The thing is, in a way, Hicksville was a warning. A warning against making the choice that I made when I accepted work at DC. Sam Zabel in Hicksville is offered what I was offered, and he makes the right choice. I didn’t. It’s extraordinary — I have met people who assumed I drew Hicksville after I wrote Batgirl. And that I was writing about what happened. And actually no — I did it before, but my comic was more wise than I was, it had more wisdom than me. And I didn’t listen to it. But also, you know — it’s funny, when I talk about writing for DC, I can be very negative about it. Sometimes that feels dishonest, because some of it was a lot of fun, and I worked with some really good people. When I did Hunter for Vertigo, which was the first thing I did for DC, most of that was very positive, and also it was the first time I’d earned a proper living doing comics, which is not easy. So that was — that was great. But I think by the time I was doing Batgirl, it really had — it had curdled. It had become much more complicated and difficult, and eventually my own ability to write and draw dried out. It was like — it felt like losing my voice.
Xavier Guilbert : You were only acting as writer on it.
Dylan Horrocks : I was only the writer.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s a lot of the language of comics that goes into stuff that is not in words.
Dylan Horrocks : I think that part of what made it difficult though, is that I would write a scene, and I knew how I would draw that. And then, someone else would draw it, and they’d do a very good job, but it was a completely different scene. Because if I were writing two characters having an argument, it would be very tense, but they would sit at a table, talking quietly but angrily, and there would be a pause, and no one would say anything, and no one would do anything, and then it would continue. When I would get the artwork back, they’d be at the table but they’d be half-standing up, and they’d be in each other’s face, and they’d be shouting and then… during the pause, one of them would be almost threatening the other one. And it was a completely different dynamic, the whole tone of it changed. My whole sense of storytelling in comics form was being turned upside-down and distorted. When I drew the first Atlas, that was a reaction to that. I deliberately tried to make that first chapter as slow, repetitive and boring as I could. I wanted it to be the opposite of dynamic and energetic. And it was partly me trying to purge myself of the influence of the comics I was writing for DC. It was a strange process though, and it didn’t — it didn’t work. I felt like that first issue was therapeutic, but I didn’t feel that it was good comics (laugh).
Xavier Guilbert : Magic Pen started in the second issue, right ?
Dylan Horrocks : Yes, and that’s the funny thing… I started Magic Pen as a way of trying to process the experience I had after working for DC.
Xavier Guilbert : Were you still working for DC or had you already quit ?
Dylan Horrocks : I think — I think at that time I had stopped. Hm, it’s a little vague in my head now. I think I started — I might have started thinking about it when I was still writing there ? But the first chapter I drew, I’m pretty sure that was after I had finished at DC. They came out in 2006, those issues, so it was definitely — it was two years after I had finished at DC. It took me a while to draw them. The funny thing is that Magic Pen was going to be a small back-up story. Atlas was going to be the main story I’d do in that comic. But again, it took over, it became the story I had to tell. It was — because I needed to tell that story before I could go find my way back to drawing comics again. Telling that story was how I found my way back. It was about losing your voice and then getting it back. And it was about the crisis of faith — which I found very hard. It was a very difficult time in my life. I found it very depressing. Because stories were — the closest thing I had to a faith, for most of my life. I was passionate about them, they meant something to me, they taught me things, and they were a comfort. So finding myself losing that — I went for several years, I couldn’t read novels. I found it difficult to watch fictional films, and I really couldn’t read comics. It really felt like losing something very central to me. I wanted it back, but I wasn’t sure how to find my way back.
Xavier Guilbert : Is that the reason why there were only three issues of Atlas ?
Dylan Horrocks : That’s one of the reasons. It’s partly that, and partly… the economics of publishing comic books is very difficult now. People expect graphic novels. But actually, I think that one of the main things is that I kept changing my mind about how to structure Atlas. Between issue one and two — well, between issue one and three, as issue two is like a little detour. By issue three, I had decided the central character was a different character, and I changed it thinking : well, I’ll just tidy it all up at the end. But it’s then that I felt that serializing it was a mistake. Because I hadn’t got the story clear enough, and if I kept on serializing it, I was going to constantly be trying to revise what I had already done. So I thought that maybe I should just finish this and then bring it out as a book.
Xavier Guilbert : So how long did it take you to finish the book ?
Dylan Horrocks : Magic Pen took ten years. From when I first started doing it. But most of that time was me… struggling with it. Struggling with drawing, struggling with writing. So probably half of the book was drawn in the last year or so ? It’s… yeah, took a long time to get back into the flow. But now that I’m back in the flow, I’m loving it so much. I’m enjoying drawing comics now more than I ever have, which is so good because for years, I was in a deep drought. It was very hard to draw. So being back in this state of feeling like drawing is freedom, it’s pleasure — such a relief, you know ? I’m really enjoying it.
Xavier Guilbert : In Magic Pen, at one moment they are looking for the Cartoonist God King — and that’s about the same moment that Sam Zabel is talking about “boring comics about my stupid miserable life that nobody wants to read” (p93). This is somewhat ambiguous…
Dylan Horrocks : That’s also “very Sam”. I mean, Sam is more self-deprecating than I am. He’s very New Zealand in that sense. New Zealand has a very — self-deprecating, is the term. We don’t have much faith in ourselves (laugh). And I’ve always had Sam really exemplify that. It’s part of his personality, so he goes further on that than I. Also, I don’t do autobiographical comics. Sam has always been an autobiographical cartoonist, he’s in that tradition that emerged in America in the ’80s. Joe Matt, and people like that. I’ve never really done those comics. So that’s another difference between me and him.
Xavier Guilbert : With Magic Pen and the short story To the I-land, you’re doing something that reminds me of what Seth has done with the Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, or Matti Hagelberg with Hard West. Fictional history of cartoons, in which the medium is recognized and well received as an art medium.
Dylan Horrocks : One of the big themes of Hicksville was history, and — for New Zealand readers, Hicksville is a book about colonization. Most of my New Zealand readers have no interest in comics. It’s my international readers who read it as a book about comics, but my New Zealand readers, for them it’s about our relationship to our history, and how that defines our place in the world. In Hicksville, with both comics and New Zealand, what I was trying to do was create an imaginary history — and find out whether that imaginary history could free us from some of the constraints that our real history gave us. So I wasn’t trying to pretend that the imaginary history was true — I wanted to use it as a kind of strategy… a clearly fictional strategy that would allow us to look at ourselves in a different way. And to imagine the possibilities — the possibilities which would be so easy if our history were different. But I was also trying to say : well, we can still have those possibilites, we just have to step outside of the chains that our history puts on us. And I think that’s very true of comics. I mean, throughout the history of comics we’ve been constrained by the way the world sees our medium. The comics have been seen as children’s cheap entertainment, and that gave us a whole set of limitations about what we could do. But also there are chains that we put on ourselves, because — most cartoonists… I think this is actually something that is changing now, but for a long time, most cartoonists — they wanted to draw comics because of the comics they loved as a kid. And so the way we wrote them, the way we drew them, was so informed by and influenced by the history that sometimes we were trying to transcend. I love that — I mean, for me, that’s part of who I am as a cartoonist, and it’s a big part of Magic Pen. Exploring old comics that have problems, you know. That was a big theme in Hicksville, but I think that’s a theme that runs through my generation of cartoonists. Many of us, we try to find ways to step outside of the constraints that our history gave us, and that the culture of comics gave us. We tried all sorts of strategies. I think that one of the first people to really do that was Seth, in his first book, It’s a good life if you don’t weaken. Which is such a beautiful story, and again, it’s a pretend history.
Xavier Guilbert : It’s a beautiful lie.
Dylan Horrocks : Yeah, it is, it’s a very beautiful lie. He made the whole thing up, and I love the fact that it looks like an autobiographical story, and it was only about three-quarters of the way through the serialization that most people started to realize that it’s not true (laugh). Yes, it’s a lovely story. But he invented a whole history of a cartoonist life, and then pretended that it was true. In a way, he didn’t do it to liberate himself, because it’s a very sad story that he tells.
Xavier Guilbert : Seth is very ambivalent on that issue. If you look at Wimbledon Green, it’s both something of an utopia where comics are recognized as a true form of art, and at the same time there’s a lot of criticism of collectors and fandom.
Dylan Horrocks : And it’s very affectionate. He’s criticizing it from the perspective of someone who is in love with the same thing. Because he is an obsessive collector, and he loves old comics — old everything (laugh).
Xavier Guilbert : I’ve met him, and it’s really strange to see how he’s…
Dylan Horrocks : He is totally — but they are all like that. I mean — when you meet Seth and Joe and Chester, it is just like being in one of their comics. But I think — Seth did It’s a good life if you don’t weaken and then I did Hicksville, and then Seth did Wimbledon Green, and then he did the GNBCC and other people were doing similar explorations. You know, I think… maybe it’s part of our therapy (laugh) or part of our attempt to…
Xavier Guilbert : It really feels like an attempt at trying to establish that comics can be a significant artistic medium, while at the same time criticizing the childish tendencies that still characterize too many of them. It’s really ambivalent.
Dylan Horrocks : It’s always ambivalent. And it’s also often really full of irony.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s the same in Magic Pen. The cartoonist’s idea of Paradise is about naked girls throwing themselves at him…
Dylan Horrocks : He’s a nerd, and he fantasizes, and it’s the 1950s when he’s drawing it, so… it would never occur to him to think about the politics, the gender politics of what he’s doing. That comes into it when Sam arrives, because he’s coming into it from now, and his wife — I don’t think I even make this clear in the book, but his wife is a lecturer in Gender Studies.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s this moment where he has a dream, she appears…
Dylan Horrocks : Yes, she talks about the paper that… yeah, so that’s the closest I get to really spelling out her job. I have a whole other Sam Zabel story that I may or may not draw, which happens earlier in their relationship, and that makes very clear what she studies. So Sam goes into this world, and he’s immediately worried about the sexual politics of it. But that wouldn’t even occur to Evan Rice who first drew it. Which is clearly wrong when he’s confronted with the issue. The big question that emerged as the central question of Magic Pen is — is whether we have a moral responsibility for our fantasies. And I was trying to make sense of that for myself. So I start the book with two opposing quotations, each of which I wholeheartedly agree with, but they totally disagree with each other. I was trying to make sense of that, that contradiction.
Xavier Guilbert : Both in Magic Pen and Hicksville, there’s this idea of a trove of old comics that end up nurturing today’s cartoons. Do you think that inspiration has to come from the past ? Like being the last of a long line of great cartoonists writing great stories ?
Dylan Horrocks : And yet Dirk Burger betrays that by just completely recreating one, rather than using it as inspiration. This is full of spoilers (laugh).
Xavier Guilbert : That’s okay, I guess people have had time to read Hicksville.
Dylan Horrocks : For me, one of the key characters in Magic Pen is Alice Brown, because she’s the young cartoonist who’s working online. She’s not coming to comics from — you know, I said earlier that my generation of cartoonists, we tended to want to draw comics because of the comics we loved as a kid. It’s not true for Alice Brown. She hasn’t come to comics because she loved comics all along. She’s come to them as a young adult for different reasons entirely. It’s because of the comics she’s reading on the web, the comics her friends are showing her. For her, it’s a way of exploring stories that she loves, but they are contemporary stories, they’re new things. She’s doing Harry Potter fanfics, things like that. She has a completely different perspective on comics to what Sam is coming from, and I think she defies the nostalgic approach to inspiration in comics. Which is — I don’t want to give away the ending…
Xavier Guilbert : Well, she’s looking at the medium as a way of doing something that has never been before.
Dylan Horrocks : She’s kind of the future of comics, and he ends up recognizing that. I think that’s a reality, I think that comics are going through an extraordinary time right now. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be reading comics, or drawing comics. There might have been a better time for making money from comics (laugh), but it’s an extraordinary time. And one of the things that’s happened is an explosion of diversity in the creation of comics, the contents of comics, and the readership of comics. All these new voices coming into the field, they are not coming into it for the same reasons that people were in the 1970s and the 1980s. They don’t necessarily have the same things they love about comics, they’re telling different kinds of stories, new kinds of stories. You know, there’s a kind of revolution going on in comics right now, and it’s happening with the young cartoonists. Especially with the ones working online, and on ‘zines and so on. It’s really exciting, and I can — I can observe that from the outside, with enormous pleasure. I can draw inspiration from it, but I’m distinctly the older generation of comics now. And I’m fine with that, and I want — that new generation of cartoonists, I want them to take charge. I want them to be in charge, because they’re so exciting. It’s a whole new world.
XD : There’s a lot of stuff up on your website. Is that something you decided based on this observation ? Or was it because of the interruption of Atlas, which required you to find a new outlet ?
Dylan Horrocks : It was partly just an incentive to finish each new page, because when I finished it I would post it online, and it would feel I’d made progress. Because it’s so hard to draw a long book in isolation. So it was partly that. But it was also my sense of excitement about what was happening on the Web. Not just in comics, but in culture generally, I felt like the Internet was creating opportunities for all kinds of experiments and voices and new directions that weren’t possible previously. In 2009 I was completely excited and optimistic about it. I’m less optimistic now, because the Internet has become a very intense battleground between the old guard and young experimenters, and the existing corporations are trying to take control of it, of the infrastructure of the Internet. And governments as well, working very hard to corrupt the whole damn thing. So at the moment I feel that we’re really losing the battle to preserve the Internet as a free space for experimentation. Maybe that’s just a reality that we have to live with now. I still have a lot of faith in the creativity, in all sorts of fields, of the younger generation that is using the Internet. You know, I teach sometimes, and I’m teaching 20-year-old students who are just doing extraordinary things, and with so much creative ambition. Much more than my friends and I had when were 20. So I still have hope for those people, and for their creativity, but the infrastructure of the Internet, I’m losing a lot of hope about that.
Xavier Guilbert : New Zealand has a peculiar situation : both very remote, but at the same time English-speaking and therefore likely to be exposed to a lot of things being produced abroad. I’d imagine it’d be a challenge to keep something of an identity…
Dylan Horrocks : We’re totally on the edge.
Xavier Guilbert : … of the South Pole.
Dylan Horrocks : Yes, we are, we are right next to it — there’s the South Pole, then there’s us, and then there’s the ocean, and then there’s Australia, and then there’s more ocean. (laugh) It took me 29 hours to fly here. When I was doing Hicksville, one of the experiments I wanted to try with that book, was to go right out to the edge. It was the edge of New Zealand, the East Cape, which is right out — it’s the Easternmost edge of New Zealand. It’s actually — I set Hicksville, the place, right underneath the East Cape lighthouse, on East Cape. There’s no town there, but I put a town there, but otherwise it’s very similar to the actual place. And there is a real Hicks Bay on the East Cape. So I borrowed little bits of that, and there’s a town called Te Araroa, which I used bits of. But it’s all that little region there. So I went right out to the edge of a country that’s right on the edge of the world, and which culturally and historically is on the edge. We have no influence on the rest of the world at all. So I wanted to go to that place, and also with comics, which was on the edge of the art world and on the edge of the literary world — the edge of culture, completely marginal. I wanted to go there and I wanted to say : okay now, this is the center of the world, because the world doesn’t have a center. You can be anywhere on the world, and that’s the center of your world. And then I wanted to see how the world looked from that central point.
In a way, that’s what New Zealand does now. I think New Zealand has moved on a little bit, from seeing ourselves as nowhere. In a way, Peter Jackson — he is a good example of that, because he kind of conquered Hollywood, but he did it from New Zealand. He stayed in New Zealand, and he said : “now I’m going to build a huge production center in Wellington, in New Zealand, and I’m going to bring Hollywood here”. And he has. James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, they make all those films in New Zealand, they do all their production at WETA. So it’s a really strange thing that he’s managed to achieve — much as I have a lot of ambivalence about his films, but I have enormous respect for him doing that. I think — to me it’s like a Hicksville impulse. He said : “no no, to me — this is the center of the world of film, and I’m going to just act as if that’s true.” And he made it true. So that was kind of extraordinary.
The New Zealand comic scene is very active, there’s a very busy scene with a lot of people, and very diverse. New Zealand cartoonists, when you look at their work, I think the first thing you see is how they fit in with International trends. You look at a young cartoonist’s work and you say : oh well, this is manga, or you can tell which kind of manga they like, and they are working in that idiom.
Xavier Guilbert : Is that something that was also there 15 years ago ? Or is that something that you see now ? Because in Hicksville already, you show a lot of International references…
Dylan Horrocks : New Zealand has worked very hard at being International. We always have — if you’re into music, you become a total music nerd, and you learn about the indie scene in Marseille…
Xavier Guilbert : It’s as if being so remote, you feel the need of bringing the whole world closer to you.
Dylan Horrocks : Yes, I mean, the Internet changed everything, because when I was growing up, I had to order bande dessinée from a little shop in Australia, in Melbourne, that would ship them over. And I didn’t know what I was ordering half of the time. It was very random and it was very expensive and very difficult. But these days, it’s so easy to be in touch. So, New Zealand tend to be very well informed about what’s happening.
Xavier Guilbert : I did order your books from the Victoria University Press website in Wellington…
Dylan Horrocks : As far as New Zealand is concerned, the Internet is like our only hope, economically (laugh). Because we’re so far away from everything… we have to build our markets virtually, really. But there are New Zealand cartoonists whose work feels to me extremely local. Very very New Zealand. And often those are the cartoonists I’m most strongly drawn to. I don’t know if people outside New Zealand would see that in their work, because they’re also directly engaged in conversations with American comics and European comics and British comics and manga. But it feels like there’s an emerging New Zealand conversation about comics. People like Ant Sang, Mat Tait, Sarah Laing, and Barry Linton who I talk about in Incomplete Works. The story To the I-land, that’s about Barry Linton. He’s a huge inspiration to me, he’s been drawing comics since 1970, but no one has seen them outside New Zealand — and almost no one in New Zealand has seen them. But he’s an extraordinary cartoonist, and his work is — utterly New Zealand. It’s even — it’s totally Auckland, it’s Ponsonby, it’s a particular suburb in Auckland that informs his work completely. And anyone who lives there sees that straight away. But also his work is informed by Polynesian Art, by Maori Art… it’s incredibly interesting work. And yet it’s also very international : he loves bande dessinée and underground American comics. I don’t know where — I mean, in New Zealand we’ve just been the last few years building an infrastructure for New Zealand comics. We now have three publishers dedicated to publishing comics. There are other general book publishers that are now publishing graphic novels too, the media have woken up to New Zealand comics, there have been a number of exhibitions, we now have festivals… so it’s like we are creating opportunities for the artists who are already out there, doing the work. It’s a very exciting time in New Zealand comics as well, and I’m hoping the landscape there will look very different in another five years.
Xavier Guilbert : Is that something that plays into your excitement ? You were saying that finishing Sam Zabel marked something of a new start, and you are now something of a free man…
Dylan Horrocks : I do feel like a free man (laugh), I do, I really do. I feel like I’ve cleared away a monkey that was on my back for a long time.
Xavier Guilbert : You sound like somebody who’s got rid of an addiction.
Dylan Horrocks : I think people can develop a very self-destructive relationship with their own work. I think I did… the book was very therapeutic. To me, the journey of the book, both for Sam and also for me, drawing it, is summed up by the image of the blank page at the very beginning. Sam is standing in front of a blank page, and his hand is hovering over the page…
Xavier Guilbert : It’s the last panel of the story too.
Dylan Horrocks : And it’s the last image, but they are completely different images. Because in the first image, it’s an image of frustration, of block, of inability to draw. That blank page is like a torture for him. But in the last panel, the blank page is just full of possibility and potential. It’s the beginning of an adventure, you know.
Xavier Guilbert : What’s also interesting is that what allows Sam to get back to the real world is the cave painting. Which is getting back to the root of all art…
Dylan Horrocks : Right back to the beginning. Yes, and why do we do it ? It’s religious, it’s magical, it’s transformative. It’s completely imaginary, but it’s like casting a spell on ourselves, and in the process transforming ourselves and our experience of the world. In a way, I guess, Sam rediscovers the — that’s what fantasy can do. It’s transformative, it’s magic — it’s a magic pen ! There’s a line where Lady Night says to Sam — because Sam says : “you know, I thought maybe if I found the magic pen, I could make something beautiful and real.” And she says : “well, all pens are magic.” Every pencil, every pen, every crayon, every finger dipped in paint is magic. Because the magic that it has is what allows us to — to take something imaginary and give it a concrete reality.
Xavier Guilbert : So would you say you’ve regained some of your optimism ?
Dylan Horrocks : I have… I’m in love with making comics again. And — I’m so enjoying making comics that I can’t wait to get back and continue working on new things.
Xavier Guilbert : And what are those new projects ? Or is that too early ?
Dylan Horrocks : Oh, it is too early, because — as happened with Magic Pen and with Hicksville, the story I ended up drawing was not the story I thought was the important book. It was the other book that I was doing on the side. And I’m always — I always start out working on several different stories, and I’m now learning that I can’t predict which will become the main story. So I’m hoping I’ll learn very soon which is going to be the next book, because I don’t want to spend five years finding out (laugh). I want to get the next book out in a couple of years, at the most. But there are a few — I don’t want to jinx them by talking about them. There are a few other things : there’s a book that I’m doing in collaboration with Karl Stevens, an American cartoonist, which is called The American Dream. I’ve already written it, and he’s now drawing it. It was on the website, so this is that story and we will be finishing it together. And we’re hoping to do that over the next year. That will probably come out before my next solo book. But I also — I really want to draw a comic book, I want to do a 24-page comic book, and publish it as a comic book. It’s so long since I’ve done that, and I have two stories that are exactly the right length, and I want to experiment with how I draw them. I’m hoping to do that this year too. Just on the side, if I have some time.
Xavier Guilbert : So in a way, it’s back to Hicksville.
Dylan Horrocks : Back to Hicksville. It is, and — and you know, I said before that I thought that maybe I’d left Hicksville. But all that optimism I’m talking about, maybe I have found my way back to… after I went into exile, but I’ve come home again.
[Interview conducted on January 30th, 2015, during the Angoulême Festival]