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: From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics, by Adrian Kinnaird

This is available in bookstores now.

When I was growing up in the 1970’s I read a lot of comics.  Every Wednesday, I tottered cv_from_earths_enddown to the dairy to buy a copy of Whizzer and Chips, which was only 3 months behind its newsstand release in the UK.  Later, I became obsessed with Commando and War Picture Library comics; their artwork intricate and compelling; the action, explosive! With an occasional Phantom and the Beano my education was complete.  By 10yrs I knew all about WWI & II, English Cockney Rhyming Slang and even had a rudimentary understanding, and distaste, for the Thacherite politics that Britain gripped the country at that time, thanks to the very rude Viz comics. Tintin and Asterix supplied in both English and French ensured my European exposure was upheld. And of course, there was the flood of Marvel and DC titles from America.

white_fungusAll this guaranteed I knew all about the Northern hemisphere, but it wasn’t until University that my awareness of local culture and history really awakened. Cartoonists like Tim Bollinger, publishing his twisted little cultural sideswipes in Salient, challenged my sheltered beliefs and perceptions. Bollinger was prolific and went on to become an editor and contributor to the stoner mag White Fungus. He also and wrote and researched extensively and enthusiastically about the history of New Zealand comics.  And then there was Tom Scott in the Listener and Chris Knox in the student rags and on music covers.

Yet in the early 80’s proper comics, and indeed graphic art in general, had faded away for me. There’s no doubt that a strong tradition of editorial cartoons has existed in Aotearoa since the early settlers first grumbled in the press.  But where was the rich and diverse writing in pictures that had already evolved in print? Where were our versions of Tintin, or tintin_ils_ont_marche_sur_la_luneCaptain America or Maus?

Well, it turns out that there was a thriving undercurrent of artistic fervour bubbling under the surface. It was dry-humoured, subversive and savant in nature. And it had been there all along. But it was an existence that was never taken seriously, or remembered with any reverence or fondness. It wasn’t taught in schools or exhibited in museums, at least not until lately. Unless cartoons were linked to politics, or historical events, they were forgotten.

In his literally graphic introduction Adrian Kinnaird explains that “until recently they (comics) were content to exist as a cultural outsider… patiently waiting for readers to discover their hidden depths and storytelling potential”.  His book is a rich and extensive curatorial effort uncovering not only our now forgotten early artists but the more recent award winning, internationally recognised creators as well.

tee_wees_adventuresImage from the blogFrom Earth’s End’ The Tee Wee Adventures by D. Price from The Auckland Star newspaper, May 2nd, 1931. Copyright the D. Price Estate 2013.

Kinnaird reminds us of the early pioneers like Noel Cook and D. Price, who was responsible for our own local version of the Katzenjamer KidsThe Tee Wee’s Adventures. I was also surprised to learn of the vast array of comics published locally, especially up until the 1950’s when censorship took hold and fear that the genre was corrupting young minds. I was blissfully unaware of the thriving industry in the 1940’s that produced immensely popular titles such as Supreme and Crash Carson. Censorship pretty much wiped that out. Like waves on a sandy beach, the industry just dissolved away.

Then enter the 1960’s, with our own local subversives who emulated Robert Crumb. Colin Wilson, for example, swung between the psychedelic and twisted to the impressive fantasy art similar to Boris and the pages of Heavy Metal.

cv_hicksvilleThen there was a new wave, running off the underground music scene nurtured by punk and Flying Nun – Chris Knox, not content to just make music on an 8 track in his bedroom chose to serve up Jesus on a Stick!  And they kept coming.  Tim Bollinger (of course) and Chris Slane – who may have been responsible for our first true graphic novel: Maui.  And there was Dylan Horrocks, who created Pickle and the Hicksville series and Simon Morse, who like me, was one of Wellington’s first comic book shop brats. We bought all the big names – Alan Moore, Howard Chaykin, et al – and in Morse’s case, redefined them in local terms.

Not content to be just a chronological history, Kinnaird also includes introspective features, including a section devoted to one of the genre’s greatest archetypes, Dick Frizzell. He rounds off the final chapters with an ‘in studio visit’ with Ant Sang (Shaolin Burning) and a ‘master class’ with Jonathan King, who takes us through the creative process that took Black Sheep from a simple four panel story concept to a feature length film. The relationship between film and comics in later years has made the careers of many Kiwis – including Weta artist Greg Broadmore (Dr Grorbot) whose brilliant hyper-retro art work steals enthusiastically from the golden age of Buck Rogers.

Making this extra special is the generous abundance of full length facsimiles of artist’s works. It would be hard to talk about the incredible art and research in Chris Grosz’s tale of pioneer warrior Kimble Bent without some clear examples of his work. Alongside these generous reprints (some in their entirety or close to it) is a detailed, but accessible biography of the artist. This is essential, as it would be hard to appreciate the impact of Martin Edmond, whose work crosses over into clothing and commercial tattoo work for example, if you didn’t have the full picture.

I guess if I had a quibble, it would be the size of the book, which whilst a good approximation of a stock standard Marvel or DC product, makes the reading of some of the reprints a little hard on the eyes. But that’s really minor compared to the immense research and wealth of knowledge Kinnaird has amassed.

Graphic novels are now very much the accepted norm in our libraries, with entire walls of shelving dedicated to the genre, even space in the Dewey System. Many mainstream movies begin as comics, especially those with social comment or a level of fantasy than can only be expressed as a combination of visuals and words. Kinnaird almost deliberately avoids editorial and portrait cartoons. These have been well covered by books like AK Grant’s The Unauthorised Version. He wants to tell the bigger and more advanced picture.  It’s also a global story, as comic conventions, such as Armageddon (here in NZ) and ComicCon (in the US) become part of the mainstream events landscape.

What is the future for NZ Comics? Kinnaird foresees that it will be bright, interactive and, as always, a little bit bleeding edge. This is a fantastic book, and I use that word in its comic book ‘sense’ and in my own. The level of research, the full prints of stories or sequences, and the respect Kinnaird clearly has for his topic and the artists who work in the genre is very clear. He knows his stuff and it shows. Comics are for everyone, Kinnaird argues, not just to be read by the dwellers of damp boy-caves and grimy flats. I can imagine this to be just a slice of an infinite conversation that is finally being held in full daylight.  Long may it continue!

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics
by Adrian Kinnaird
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781869799953