SALIENT Feature Writer Nicholas Holm talks to graphic novelist Dylan Horrocks about being on the fringe as a comic artist, and what happens when trends go your way.
For those who move in the more mainstream social circles the name Dylan Horrocks might not mean too much. For those in the know, however, Horrocks is a veritable icon. The first man of the rapidly rising New Zealand comics scene, or ‘graphic novels’ if you’re not comfortable being caught reading comic books, he serves as inspiration to a vibrant community of aspiring artists. Currently EMBEDDED at the University of Auckland as the recipient of their 2006 Literary Fellowship, Horrocks is the author of New Zealand’s only full-length graphic novel, the awardwinning and internationally acclaimed Hicksville. His recent work includes the first two issues of his new series, Atlas, and a contribution to the recent VUP collaboration, Are Angels Okay?.
If your impression of comics begins at Batman and ends at Spiderman, you might be excused for wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, aren’t comics for kids? Horrocks doesn’t think so. “When I was a teenager comics weren’t exactly cool, they were just nerdy and weird and geeky,” he admits, while at the same time putting the finishing touches to the cover of Atlas #3, which needs to be finished soon for use in pre-sales. “But these days its really changed. Now comics seem to actually be quite definitely cool … in the last few years my experience has been that people are pretty enthusiastic about comics these days, I mean I keep getting invited to literary festivals, to contribute to exhibitions.”
Comic books, if we’re to believe the hype, are on the way up. After years of scorn and relegation to the literary ghetto, comics have been invited back into bookstores, libraries and the bookshelves of the respectable middle-class. “The same thing’s happening all over the Englishspeaking world. It’s just been a gradual recognition by the cultural mainstream, that comics are not just trashy superhero stories,” says Horrocks. “There’s been a lot of really really strong work out over the past twenty years and that’s gradually reached a threshold where it was no longer possible to ignore; the wider world has actually woken up to it.” Of course there are certain sacrifices that must be made when you’re the next big thing, and the blinding light of public attention isn’t always entirely welcome. “It’s almost uncomfortable now, there’s almost too much acceptance,” confides Horrocks. “So I feel compelled to tell people I play Dungeon and Dragons instead.”
“You’d go to a party and say you were into comics and people would be like, ‘Oh that’s… nice’ and sort of go off and talk to somebody who played in a band, something cool.”
Unusually, comic books have always been a part of Horrocks’s life, with his reading nurtured by a father who provided Herge’s Tintin, Carl bark’s Donald Duck and even the work of Robert Crumb. “Because I grew up with [the comic medium], it feels like my first language,” he confides, then adds, “I just saw it as normal but I guess by the time I was a teenager I definitely knew that comics were a fringe interest.” It would almost seem inevitable then, that Horrocks would eventually try his hand at creating comics. “I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a cartoonist,” says Horrocks. “So I think I sort of always have [wanted to be a cartoonist], I’ve always read comics there were always comics in the house.” With such an affinity and passion for the comics medium Horrocks believed, with what he now calls “naive confidence”, that his enthusiasm would be enough to earn him a living creating comics. That doesn’t mean however that he harboured any illusions about his chosen field. “You’d go to a party and say you were into comics and people would be like, ‘Oh that’s… nice’ and sort of go off and talk to somebody who played in a band, something cool.”
“I guess i was doing comics for, god i don’t know, years and years and years and years before i was able to quit my day job,” explains Horrocks. “Even then I only quit the day job because my wife told me I should. Financially it was terrifying and I only survived by doing freelance illustration work and I had a gig in the Listener for a while.” All the stress paid off though; success came in 1998 when a 250-page story that had originally been serialised in Horrocks’ comic book Pickle was collected and published as Hicksville. “After Hicksville came out, the reception it received was way beyond what I expected, which was very gratifying but it also put a certain amount of pressure on me,” he says. Eight years on, Hicksville has been printed in French, Italian and Spanish and been awarded and nominated for some of the highest honours in the medium. “I’m fond of it,” affirms Horrocks. “But every time I look at it I cringe because the drawings just seem so terrible to me, but sometimes the pages that I cringe at the most are ones that other people say, ‘Oh, they’re my favourite pages.’ So, god I don’t know.”
Hicksville may have drawn attention to New Zealand comics, but it was by no means the be all and end all of what they had to offer, a point that Horrocks is insistent to make. “I think the New Zealand comics scene is really healthy,” he enthuses. “Obviously its not terribly financially healthy, but I don’t know that any art form is really, but there’s a huge number of cartoonists in New Zealand and a lot of really really good work being done.” To a large extent the success of titles such as Hicksville has proved a coup for the entire local industry, as publicity and achievement attract financial support. Creative New Zealand have provided grants for several of Horrock’s projects since 1997, including his current serial, Atlas. “They [Creative NZ] have been funding comics a lot more over the last several years, it might not be a easy for cartoonists to get the funding as it is for people in other fields, but then again maybe it is cause there’s probably more people applying in other fields,” explains Horrocks. “I do feel as though we’re kind of on the brink of that work being noticed, recognised by people outside of comics as well. I feel like it’s a really exciting time to be doing comics and also an exciting time for New Zealand comics.”
And it’s not just New Zealand that’s contributing to what Horrocks refers to as “the golden age for comics.” The comics medium has been steadily gaining respect across the Anglophone world over the last decade. “I think this is a really exciting time and its never been so easy to walk into a book shop and find half a dozen absolutely mind blowing graphic novels or comics collections as it is now, it’s an amazing time to be reading comics and making them,” says Horrocks.”I feel like the comic book at the moment is a much more vital and exciting medium right now than, say, the novel.” Relative to the novel the field of comics is still relatively uncontrolled by major economic interests and the subsequent freedom means that creators are limited only by their own imagination. This opportunity is in part what attracted artists like Horrocks: “it just seemed like a kind of artistic language that allowed me to basically do anything, absolutely any kind of expression.”
Of course there are many facets to the comics medium, and Horrocks has had his experiences with the superheroes that often form people’s perception of comics. “For a few years I was doing work for DC comics in New York, writing Hunter and then Batgirl. That was an absolutely fascinating experience but just about killed my love for comics,” says Horrocks. “It was a very difficult experience in some ways, I started having these wild fantasies about the comics burnings in the 1940s in America … the flames leaping high and comics being eaten up in the flames.” He’s not prepared to entirely dismiss his work for the comics mainstream and adds, “I think that was partly just tied in with artistic block and all sorts of things [but] writing stuff like Batgirl in the middle of that wasn’t helpful.” Horrocks’ other forays beyond his regular material, such as his contribution to the recent collection Are Angels Okay?, have proved more rewarding. The Angels project involved New Zealand writers producing short works in conjunction with local physicists. “One thing i felt very strongly from the beginning was that I didn’t just want to do a story using physics concepts as metaphors. because i felt that was doing a disservice to the material,” he discloses.
“The quote that I kept coming back to was that famous line of Picasso’s, ‘art is a lie that tells the truth,’ and the more I thought about it the more I started to feel like, ‘well maybe, art’s just a lie’.” Dylan Horrocks
Paradoxically his close engagement with science lead Horrocks to reconsider his understanding of his own art.”It really started to challenge my whole sense of what literature is and what fiction is for,” he divulges. “The quote that I kept coming back to was that famous line of Picasso’s, ‘art is a lie that tells the truth,’ and the more I thought about it the more I started to feel like, ‘well maybe, art’s just a lie’.” The commitment to objectivity he saw in the fundamental science lead him to reconsider the subjective processes employed in creative work like his own. “Physics is all about telling the truth, end of story … Art it seems to me, especially literature, it’s increasingly not about that, it’s about telling beautiful lies; it’s about presenting the world as if it were structured around meaning and trying to shape it according to complex architectural structures.” This desire to avoid constraining structure is something that Horrocks believes plays out in his work: “I have a tendency to construct stories in a way that ‘s kind of unfinished … I tend to get a lot more pleasure from constructing situations and letting them play out partly in the story and partly just letting them play out in the readers mind.”
Perhaps this opportunity to construct unorthodox stories is part of what draws creators such as Horrocks to the flexibility and potential of the comics medium. And perhaps it’s just as much an opportunity to have something to call your own that separates you out from the herd; an opportunity that is swiftly being eroded by increased general interest in this overlooked medium. Still there are other places where popular culture fears to tread and Horrocks already has them staked out for the future – “I’m just so used to being an outcast geek that roleplaying games are my last bastion of outcast geekery, although no doubt they’ll be super-cool in five years and I’ll have to find something else…”