Over the past few days, New Zealand’s Dylan Horrocks has been participating in the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. On Saturday he was part of a panel of three cartoonists that included Seth and Charles Burns and he did another panel last night. He’ll be making his way to Montreal to give a talk at Drawn and Quarterly’s Bernard St. Store Tuesday night, ostensibly to promote Hicksville.
Earlier this year D+Q published a new edition of Horrocks’ acclaimed series. Hicksville is centred on the titular town in rural New Zealand, (or to paraphrase Horrocks’ interview on Inkstuds, it’s centred on the fringe of the fringe). So naturally this would be a place for a comics utopia where the town acts like it’s Angouleme Comics Festival every day.
While this place sounds ideal, Horrocks uses it to localize ambivalent sentiments about comics. Hicksville sets the tone for this immediately when the book opens with a quotation from the king of comics, Jack Kirby, “Comics…they’ll break your heart”.
In a wide-ranging and lengthy interview before Canzine, Horrocks spoke with Sequential about his varying relationships with comics, his connection to Canada, his anxiety about art and commerce, shared thoughts on copyright and why he thinks Batman should be considered folklore.
This interview will be released in parts.
So you’re here for the International Festival of Authors, but it’s not your first time to Toronto, is it?
That’s right. My Mom’s from Buffalo, so we would come over on occasion. When I was 7, we lived there (Buffalo) for a year, so we’d make some trips. I remember going to the Science Museum (Ontario Science Centre). But since then, my first publisher in North America was Michel Vrana who had a company called Black Eye and he was based in Guelph, so I did a couple of visits to Guelph and Toronto when he was publishing Pickle and then when the collection came out. I was here ten years ago when the first Atlas came out.
And you had a show back at The Beguiling in the nineties as well?
Actually that was 10 years ago, I think it was 2001, and the first issue of Atlas had come out. Also at the same time I started writing for Vertigo, a series called Hunter although at the time it was probably The Books of Magic miniseries that led to Hunter.
I gave a talk at The Beguiling which was a really strange talk. I decided to give a history of comics… in Cornucopia. Which is the fictional country where Atlas takes place. And I presented it completely as if it were a non-fictional talk. So it was a straight lecture about how comics had developed in Cornucopia over the past 100 or so years.
I’m sure Seth would approve.
Yeah (laughter). Well, he didn’t say anything rude about it. At no point did I give any hint that it was in any way not real. Dave Sim asked a question that was somewhat probing, but a couple people in the audience left there completely convinced for sure.
And you’re very into that world-building.
Yeah, partly it’s because growing up my obsession apart from comics was fantasy. In particular, role-playing games.
I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons when I was 13 or so. I remember being at a friend’s house and ringing my mother and begging to be allowed to sleep over at my friend’s so we could continue playing. And I said to her, “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It’s like I’m inside a novel”. And that was what really grabbed me about it, that you actually travel to another reality and live inside it. I was completely hooked. From then on, that’s been my other big creative passion- gaming. I’ve been running games since I was 13 and the biggest pleasure for me is constructing a whole world, a whole alternative reality.
Which brings us back to Hicksville too.
Yeah, very much. In fact, Hicksville the place is older than the story. I started making up Hicksville as a place, as a town, when I was still living in England. So this was about a couple years before I started doing the story. It was partly because I was very homesick for New Zealand. I had started doing minicomics again and I wanted to publish them under an imaginary imprint, pretending there was a publisher behind them. You know, just for fun. I made up a publisher named Hicksville Press which was run by this old lady Mrs Hicks. I started to develop a backstory, that it was in this old store in this tiny town in Nowhere, New Zealand. And this old lady ran this press where she turned out strange comics and it really expanded from there.
When I got back to New Zealand I started the story but I had very little sense of where it was going to go when I started it. Partly because the first issue of the comic Pickle, the comic I was doing at the time – because by then Michel had contacted me about doing a comic series he would publish. So, the first issue of Pickle, the main serialized story, was called Graphic Underground. It was a graphic novel I had written a few years before. Fully scripted it, thumbnails, everything. Now what I was doing was just working… chapter by chapter… but somehow that process seemed a little boring, you know. I’d already made up the story, I already invented everything, I’d already told the story to myself in every detail. So I just had to get the illustrations on paper.
And it felt like transcription rather than creation?
Yeah. And I was enjoying it, and I’m still fond of the story, but I thought I’d start another little story on the side where I didn’t what was going to happen, that I would do just to relax and have fun when I wasn’t working on Underground. I thought I would… I thought ‘what do I want to play with in this story’. Well, I want to draw beaches, sitting by there, all these New Zealand memories of mine. And it would be about comics too. I already had a lot of stories about Sam Zabel from previous comics. And so I started a story about a guy traveling to Hicksville and I didn’t know what he was going to find when he got there and that’s how it kind of started.
Now what’s the story about how this came to be re-printed? There’s a big gap between when you started work on Hicksville and this new edition that recently came out from Drawn and Quarterly.
Well the first collection of it was in 1998. And that was from Black Eye. It was the last thing Michel published I think. You know, publishing alternative comics is not…. (joint nervous laughter) is not an easy way to make a living.
It’s a passion.
Yeah, it’s ruined many people’s savings. I think Michel was finding it very hard. He published some very good comics: really good comics from Nick Craine who was based in Guelph at the time, Jay Stephens, who is a fabulous cartoonist who did some great work in a comic called Sin and is now drawing a newspaper strip and also did some animation. Jay’s great- I think he was based in Toronto at the time. There are so many great Canadian cartoonists.
Anyway, he did the first collection. I remember him saying, ‘look, I’m going to get out of publishing but I’d like to do one more thing. Do you want me to print the last issue of Pickle or should we do the collection of Hicksville?’ I think the last chapter of Hicksville hadn’t actually been published so I felt a bit bad about choosing the collection, but I thought it might be my only chance to get it published. So we went with doing the book. It struck a chord with people, I guess, because it was about comics and it was about what we love about comics. But also the ambivalent feelings we have towards comics.
They’ll break your heart, apparently.
Oh, they’ll break your heart.
And it struck a chord with comics people so I then got quite a bit of publishers and editors contacting me about doing my next thing. And one of them was Chris (Oliveros) from Drawn and Quarterly.
And that was lovely. I mean if I had my pick, my dream publisher would be Drawn and Quarterly. So I was very excited about that. Initially the arrangement was that he would take over selling Hicksville because Michel was getting out of the business and also I would do a new series for him, which was Atlas. I did three issues of Atlas. For a little while [Oliveros] was re-printing the Black Eye edition of Hicksville.
At a certain point he said, ‘hey, let’s do a new edition of Hicksville’ because we had almost sold out of the reprints. But rather than just reprinting it, he asked me if I’d like to do a re-design of the book with a new cover and introduction. I said ‘OK, that’d be great’. But by then- this was seven years later- I was having a very difficult relationship with comics. Which was partly but not entirely due to the fact that I had been working with DC for a while. And that was partly a consequence of Hicksville striking a chord with a lot of people in the comics industry, and that included editors at DC.
So the first thing I did for them was with Vertigo, and that was with Heidi MacDonald who now does The Beat online. I knew Heidi already, vaguely, because she has a lot to do with the alternative comics scene (writing for The Comics Journal and so on). I thought this was great. This can be my day job, doing fantasy comics for Vertigo and then doing my own comics for Drawn and Quarterly.
What I didn’t realize was that I’m not really that kind of writer. I’m not the kind of writer who can just treat something as a day job. I really do… whatever it is I’m doing, I wind up pouring myself into it. But working with Heidi was great, I really enjoyed working with Heidi. And I really enjoyed working with Richard Case who drew the comic I wrote for Vertigo, he’s a lovely lovely guy. And he pulled out all the stops on that comic. But I think what happened was I was writing a commercial genre comic, a monthly series, and there were a lot of pressures and requirements around that that just don’t suit me as a writer. So I just tried to do by adopting a different way of writing. And along the way I lost my own voice as a writer and became this rather strange, hesitant and uncertain genre writer who was… a bit lost.
So then the intersection between art and commerce complicated your artistic vision?
Yeah. Suddenly it was a job, and it was a job that I wasn’t as good at as I thought I might have been (chuckles). So that was difficult, I found that difficult. That affected the comic I was doing for Drawn and Quarterly, which was Atlas. It was probably the main reason there was a three year gap between issues one and two. Then another couple of years before the third issue of Atlas. It was partly because I was spending so much time writing for DC, but it was also because I was becoming increasingly lost.
Part 2 with Dylan Horrocks will be posted soon (likely Thursday).