Book Review: Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, by Dylan Horrocks

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_sam_zabel_and_the_magic_penFirst, a disclaimer. I haven’t read a great number of long comics by New Zealanders or otherwise. I have read Hicksville though, and it was one of the most intriguing pieces of fiction I have ever read. I follow Dylan Horrocks as a commentator on comics and social issues, enjoy seeing him speak, and once coaxed him to come along to a Speed Date a Writer session to speak to students about drawing comics, back when I worked at the new Zealand Book Council.

This is a tremendous piece of work. A work of genius, almost. Horrocks takes the disappointments of his life, his depression, his writers block and his unhinged creativity and creates something quite different from anything else out there. Part memoir, part awkward fantasy, part historical romp – all parts forming a brilliant whole.

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen began online, with Horrocks bringing out a page every so often, as the muses struck him. It still carries on there, with the most recent page I saw being apt to this review – the main characters laid out under a multitude of books – which he remarked on Twitter as being an ‘ode to librarians and booksellers.’ Parts of it can be described as NSFW (not safe for work), but they are important, as what the book deals with is fantasies. Fantasies and what moral responsibility we hold for our own fantasies (and by extension what right we have to judge others’ fantasies).

A good portion of the comic centres on a (fictional) comic from the 1950s called The King of Mars. The cartoonist creator who wrote it deliberately as a fantasy; specifically, as his fantasy, to live in – the women were waiting for the ‘cartoonist god king’. Zabel sneezes on this comic while riding on a bus after giving a talk at a literature conference in Christchurch, and suddenly finds himself menaced by a roaring monster. Luckily, he has a kick-ass anime heroine called Miki, and her jet-boots, to help him out of that spot of trouble (‘tumbling tuataras’ and all). But where she leads him is even more bewildering to poor Sam, as our hapless hero is mistaken for the god king himself, and carnal temptations ensue.

As the comic carries on we are taken, via Miki’s comic collection, through other comics that allow their readers to enter them using the ‘breath of life’, as they were also drawn by the magic pen. Zabel is morally anxious on behalf of both himself and the comic book creators, and at one point has to inform the cartoonist of The King of Mars, Evan Rice, what he has done by creating his cartoon. ‘You made it real the moment you started drawing with the magic pen. And besides – even a comic book can shape the real world, contributing to the culture, encouraging attitudes and assumptions, presenting an image of women as little more than generic erotic playthings for men to use and abuse as we wish…’ Another moment sees them step into a cartoon on the back of a postcard sent to a soldier in the war by his father – a cartoon that saved them by being real.

Horrocks says a lot with this comic. He makes a feminist statement, he comments on the way comics are used by their creators and their syndicates (‘Eternal’, we’re looking at you) to put across societal norms, and he examines the morality requirements of fiction. It is the most soul-searching comic I have had the pleasure of reading, and I hope to see a lot more from Horrocks in the future. Perhaps a redux of Pickle is up next – it is clearly something Horrocks is proud of having drawn.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen
by Dylan Horrocks
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864739759

1 thought on “Book Review: Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, by Dylan Horrocks

  1. Pingback: Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, Dylan Horrocks

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