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

Book Review: The Dharma Punks, by Ant Sang

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_dharma_punks

I was on the train today and a guy leaned over to inspect what I was reading. “What’s that like?,” he asked. I took pause and thought about it. “Well,” I started, “Do you know Jamie Hernandez? Love and Rockets?, Tank Girl, Gorillaz?” He nodded slowly, as the idea dawned on him. “Well it’s nothing like that.”

Back in 2001, fledgling cartoonist Ant Sang must have been at least partially inspired by the new comics that had been gaining momentum since the late 80’s. I know that fellow artist, Simon Morse, was hugely inspired by Hernandez’ anarchic reality. It was miles away from the underpants-over-longjohns superheroes that had dominated the industry up until then. Sang, like Morse, and of course, Dylan Horrocks, was interested in the more intellectual dichotomies that could be played out in the relatively new “graphic novel” medium.

New Zealand was slow on the uptake. Anyone who does get a reputation, after slaving long over a photocopier to produce enough zines to get noticed, is snapped up by the American comic empire – Marvel, DC, etc. Like those guys, Sang was a publishing pioneer, co-founding Tuatara Press with a collective of other cartoonists to release his first small work Filth. In Dharma Punks, this title appears again as the band name of a punk band, which is central to the story of Chopstick, a skinny Kiwi Chinese lad whose identity is intertwined with the fate and manipulated fortunes of the characters in the band – Benis, Jugga, Cat, Side Car and Brian The Goth.

It’s Auckland, 1994 and a group of anarchistic punks hatch a plan to explosively sabotage the opening of Bobo’s burger joint (think fictitious multinational McDonald’s). The night before their plan is carried out, Chopstick sets the bomb that will bring the joint down. But he gets separated from his partner in crime, Tracy, and the night takes a serious of unexpected twists and turns where chance encounters the past and the present. The spirit of Karma and the Zen of anarchy clash, they switch roles – the dragon becomes the mouse and the rodent roars and spits flames. Still reeling from the death of a close friend, Chopstick tries to reconcile his spiritual path with his political actions in this energetic, fast-paced story.

This release is the full collection of Sang’s work from 2001 to 2003, beautifully presented on good quality baxter stock (the holy grail for cartoonists because the ink bleed is virtually zero). It’s been touched up here and there, with new or restored introduction and end papers for each chapter – in simple colourings. The stories seem familiar to me, perhaps because I was an aspiring punk once too – although I never blew anything up. The raw emotion that Sang blends with the kind and rational teachings of Buddha is still refreshing and vibrant. His penmanship has an urgency, without abandoning aesthetics.

I have really enjoyed looking back over this period of Sang’s most inspirational work. Here’s hoping that the graphic novel reading community will demand more of him, and he delivers. Now that would be exiting news!

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Dharma Punks
by Ant Sang
Published by Earths End Publishing
ISBN 9780473289065

Book Review: Monkey Boy, by Donovan Bixley

Available in bookstores nationwide. 

This is Donovan Bixley’s first shot at writing rather than drawing a whole book, or providing illustrations for someone else’s text.

Here we go: Rating on a boy scalecv_monkey_boy
Jimmy sees dead people 10/10
Real grossness 10/10
Historical accuracy 10/10
Appeal to boys 10/10
Illustrations 10/10

Now, to the reviewing part.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, reluctantly. Recently I gave an opinion about YA literature and said (a comment by which I stand) that literature is literature and YA books are not targeted at a particular audience.

If I define YA to be kids over the age of 12-13, then I think my comment is valid.

When I come to Monkey Boy, however, the target audience is quite evidently not that of a grandmother-aged librarian! My preference is clearly not for scatological reference, in abundance, nor for historically-accurate impressions of life aboard an 18th century gunship. Despite this, I have to endorse Donovan’s first novel. It is revoltingly funny, wickedly violent and although rather stereotypical in its depiction of the officer/crew split, nonetheless it works remarkably well.

The combination of clever text and dialogue, excellent diagrams and quite a lot of graphic detail (aka drawings) makes a well-constructed book. There are enough sub-plots to keep the average reader engaged and guessing, enough grossness to amuse the least literate and enough action to satisfy most reluctant readers. There’s also enough great material to keep most readers (even me!) engaged. Characters are, as I said, a bit stereotypical – but if this gets boys reading, I’m going to endorse it.

I am about to test-drive it on some 12-13 year olds. We’ll see how that goes. I am expecting good reviews.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman, Librarian

Monkey Boy
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775431862