Dylan Horrocks’ acclaimed graphic novel “Hicksville” was originally published in 1998 and was later republished by Drawn and Quarterly in 2001. Horrocks went on to win the Eisner Awards for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition in 2002, the same year his series “Atlas” was nominated for a Harvey Award for Best Single Issue.
From there, Horrocks moved to DC Comics where he continued the story of “Books of Magic” character Timothy Hunter, first in the Vertigo miniseries “Names of Magic” and then in the ongoing “Hunter: The Age of Magic.” He wrote “Batgirl” for nearly two years, wrote issues of “Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight” and contributed to the “Batman: War Games” storyline. During this period, he also contributed to the DC anthologies “Bizarro Comics” and “Bizarro World.”
“Atlas” was placed on hold many years ago and Horrocks’ most recent projects have been stories he’s serializing on his website, hicksvillecomics.com, including the ongoing projects “The American Dream” and “Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen.” CBR News cought up with Horrocks recently and spoke to the writer/artist about the new edition of “Hickville” out now from Drawn and Quarterly, “Atlas” and what the future holds for the creator.
CBR News: After being out of print for a number of year, “Hicksville” is once again being rereleased. I know it’s always difficult for authors to reread their own work. Had you read the book since finishing it?
Dylan Horrocks: Well, I re-read it so many times while first writing and drawing it. But afterwards…? I think I read through the whole thing once, way back in 1998 or so. But even then, I probably skimmed through bits. This time, I re-read little bits of it while rescanning everything and laying it all out, etc. But even that was a little weird. For one thing, I start focusing on all the imperfections, and that’s a short road to hell. But also, making a book is a bit like going on a long exploratory journey. Reading it again later is like retracing your steps. It’s an odd feeling.
Other than thinking you could draw it better today, what are your thoughts on the book?
Well, I really could draw it better. In fact, when Chris Oliveros first raised the idea of doing a new edition, I had to resist the urge to redraw the clumsiest bits. But I knew that if I started redrawing any of it, I would end up trying to redraw the whole thing. And – well, I’d still be drawing it. Besides, every now and then someone points out their favourite drawing in the book – and it’ll be one of the panels I most cringe about. So I think it’s best to let it be what it is.
All that aside, I feel very fond of the book. As I said, it was a long journey making it, and I was sorting out my feelings about a lot of things along the way: comics, art, New Zealand, love, dishonesty…”Hicksville” is the place where I did a lot of thinking. I also feel very close to many of the characters. Sam, Leonard, Grace, Dick Burger, Mrs Hicks, Cincinnati, etc. There are other stories I have about all those characters that I might tell one day. I mean, I’m already doing another story about Sam (“Sam Zabel & the Magic Pen” – which began in “Atlas” #2 and is now being serialised on my website hicksvillecomics.com). But there’s also plenty to tell about Mrs. Hicks’ past, Grace’s childhood, Cincinnati’s future, etc. Will I ever put it on paper? We’ll see…
The new cover features Grace in her costume from a Cornucopian comic (a reference that those who haven’t read the book won’t understand). Why was this the image you chose?
Good question. I initially drew this image for the first Spanish translation a few years ago (it ended up on the back cover of that one). For the new edition, I first thought I’d do something new. But I kept coming back to that image, which haunted me. I think it connects with a side of the book that’s not immediately obvious: the inner poetry of the story (if that’s not too horribly pretentious a thing to say), rather than its superficial lightness. In the end, I made a couple of changes to the image which strengthened that aspect of it (e.g. in the original drawing, Grace’s eyes are open and she has her usual frown. I closed her eyes and everything changed – the whole thing now feels more like a dream). It’s like there’s the waking part of the book (the surface story about Leonard’s arrival in “Hicksville,” and so on), and then the sleeping-dreaming part (which emerges more strongly in the comics Leonard finds, the Cornucopia chapter, and the last quarter of the book). I hesitated a little about exposing that dreamlike heart right there on the cover, but in the end, I’m happy I did.
That’s interesting. I always thought of the last part of the book as the really emotionally satisfying part. The book is many things, but one aspect that’s rarely discussed is the bittersweet aspect of a group of people who are all alienated from each other and from themselves. The way they’re trying to reconcile themselves (or not) with the choices they’ve made. It begins in the Cornucopian section especially, when Emil Kopen talks about how stories are primarily about “the proximity of bodies” (a line I really love, by the way) and magic, which is very much what the rest of the book is really about. Did you know where the story was heading at the time, and looking back, how well do you feel it worked?
This isn’t something I planned; it’s just the shape things took on as I went. I guess “Hicksville” is set partly during the aftermath of a series of painful events that scattered the protagonists far and wide (Dick’s choices, Sam’s trip to LA, Grace’s complex love life, etc) – and you’re right: all these people are struggling to deal with the consequences of the choices that were made, and to find their way home. When I wrote Kopen’s comment, I wasn’t really sure where I was going with that. It grew out of formal concerns I had at the time, about the relationship between spatial and temporal narrative, etc. But my interest in formal questions can only be sustained if it connects to something more meaningful and human. Maybe in trying to make that connection, I stumbled on one of the themes of the book; without realising what I was doing, of course. As for how well it worked; I’ll leave it to others to decide that for themselves.
I can’t help but think that the new cover really places “Hicksville” in your body of work as a whole. “Atlas” and your webcomics have focused on themes and topics that may or may not have been touched on in “Hicksville,” but affect how we now read it. The new cover focuses on the dreamlike aspects, the emotional and physical distance of characters (Grace being alone and with her eyes closed) and in wearing the outfit, the relationship with art and how it affects the way we live. It seemed fitting on so many levels and I’m curious how many of those levels were conscious?
A little bit conscious, yes. Inasmuch as I did think about how “Hicksville” relates to the work I’ve done since. When I started “Hicksville,” my work was pretty evenly divided between (for want of a better term) “poetry-comics” and much lighter, self-deprecating stories about Sam and his friends. Both of those threads shaped “Hicksville,” and I always felt the amiable humorous side was very important to it. But since then, I guess my work has drifted away from the comedy and gone deeper into more personal and intensely felt places. Whether that’s good or bad, I have no idea, but when it came to repackaging “Hicksville,” I found myself focusing on the elements which connected with what I’m obsessed with now. I even worried that I was misrepresenting it with the new cover, because it ignored the casual comedic nature of much of the book. But in the end, I decided to just go with it, and that’s part of how I rebuilt my relationship with the book. The introduction does the same thing, of course – and sets a slightly different tone for the whole package. One more in tune, as you point out, with the work I’m doing these days.
There is this idea of comics below the narrative in “Hicksville.” Leonard arrives as a guy who’s always been obsessed with superheroes, but he discovers in Hicksville that comics are a far richer and deeper world than he thought. Was this something you were conscious of and wanted to be a part of the narrative?
I was conscious of it, and it was always intended to be part of Leonard’s journey. But not like: “hey look – there’s more to comics than superheroes!” I wanted to explore something that goes a little deeper, which is less to do with comics and more to do with art in general. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen “Hicksville” as, like, an argument about comics. Instead it was a way for me to explore some of my thoughts and feelings about art (including comics, of course – the artform I’m most intimately involved with). Sometimes I wonder what’s the point of it all; making up stories, trying to make nice pictures, and so on. If all it does is entertain us or make us go “cool!” then that’s fine. But I guess I’m usually looking for more – for art that transforms me or transforms the world around me. I think maybe I wanted Leonard to go looking for that too…
But as for comics in particular: one of the themes underlying “Hicksville” is that comics have always been at the margins of the art world (and, of course, the literary world). Sometimes that marginal status has meant that cartoonists didn’t feel able to pursue their personal visions, and instead felt they had to work within a limited commercial frame. But sometimes it’s meant the opposite: that we’ve been able to just quietly get on with making art that’s very free and exploratory without most of the baggage and expectations that come with being a “literary figure” or “serious artist.” I think that’s often been enormously healthy, and has led to a great deal of really amazing work – most of it in the small press and underground scenes. Without me realizing it at the time, I now think “Hicksville” was partly a way to ask: what happens when we ignore that we’re at the margins, at the edge of the world? When we instead redefine our ‘marginal’ position as the centre? How does the rest of the world look when we look out from that (new) central point? Or alternatively – how do things look when we reject entirely the idea of centres and margins, of fixed geographies? When we see the landscape as something that’s alive and emerging and always new?
I don’t know quite where I’m going with this – but then I didn’t when I was writing Hicksville, either.
The notion of the Cornucopian section of the book, the comics within “Hicksville” and the later section as being dreamlike is definitely something that occurred to me, and the Cornucopian parts and the discussion of maps made me think about the way that, here in the US and other countries, comics have been on the margins, but artists’ work was largely determined by commercial reasons. In places like Cornucopia or much of the world, governments require that meaningful or personal work be opaque for very different reasons. That there’s a shadow over the art form which obscures as much as it reveals, that’s there by necessity.
That’s an interesting idea. I think artists are always shaped by the shadows that lie over their work – as well as by the sunlit parts of the process. Often, though, I think those constraints are self-imposed, too. I mean, American cartoonists have generally been free to draw whatever comics they wanted – so long as they didn’t demand to be paid for it, or to have a commercial publisher take it on. Commercial constraints work in a very complex and insidious way, because on one level it’s up to us whether we buy into them. It’s really a question of how much we’re willing to sacrifice to make our art. So maybe it took a while for US cartoonists to want to do more personal uncommercial comics so much they were prepared to do it for nothing. I think the underground cartoonists in the 1960s and 1970s are pivotal in that respect. They changed everything.
I loved in the introduction the dream of the unknown Tintin book. When I first read Hicksville, the idea of the library underneath the lighthouse made me think of Jorge Luis Borges. Where did this come from?
Yeah, a lot of people mentioned Borges to me, and I always felt embarrassed because I’d never actually read him. I have now, though – and I see why the comparisons! Actually, the idea pretty much appeared fully-formed in my head one morning (I mention this in the introduction) – as if from nowhere. But obviously it had been gestating for a while. I did read a lot of Italo Calvino when I was in my teens, and Umberto Eco. I think they both influenced the idea. Ultimately, though, I think the most important source is that recurring dream I describe in the introduction. I know I’m not the only person to have that dream (or variations on the theme): since the new edition came out, a lot of people have been cornering me at signings and telling me they have it too!
You wrote some Tim Hunter books for Vertigo for a few years, and you tackled “Batgirl” for a couple years as well, and then a couple issues of “Atlas” and some short comics, but you’ve been fairly quiet the past decade. You touch on this in your introduction to “Hicksville.” I hate to ask because this is the sort of question I tend to find annoying, but I’m curious if “Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen” is more autobiographical than most of your comics?
Oh hell, yes. Awkwardly and painfully autobiographical, albeit with some significant deviations from my own story. I’m kind of incapable of telling a straight autobiographical story – maybe because I don’t believe autobiography can ever be entirely truthful and honest, so I deal with that by clearly embracing fiction. So, it’s not straight memoir or anything. But when I first started “The Magic Pen,” it was as a way to sort through some of my thoughts and feelings about the mess I’d gotten into, working in commercial comics. I was feeling pretty depressed and desperate and after trying a lot of other ways to get my shit together, I finally decided to try writing about it. Hence “The Magic Pen.” I should say, though, that the story takes a pretty dramatic turn at the end of chapter 3, and from there on it’s not autobiography at all; it’s more like – er – totally crazy daydreaming, Bbt you’ll see…
Also, I want to stress that Sam Zabel isn’t me (he’s different in a number of important ways) – he’s just the poor sap who gets to be my alter ego at times, and through whom I explore certain situations or states I feel compelled to explore. And more importantly, his wife Sally isn’t my wife Terry. They’re even more different! (Except that they’re both smart, pretty and wise…)
But to get back to your initial question, yes, it was a difficult decade, and my output kind of withered along the way. At its worst, my depression was crippling. Thankfully I came out the other side – maybe not wiser, but at least with plenty of material! These days, I’m enjoying writing and drawing (and life!) more than I have in many, many years. Now if I can just find a way to draw more quickly…
“Hicksville” is really a love letter to comics, and in your introduction it’s clear that your life has been spent exposed to and involved with comics. Has the disillusionment or block or whatever cleared?
Yeeeeah. As I said, I’m enjoying the process of writing and drawing immensely now. But I still don’t feel entirely comfortable in comic shops and I avoid the role of a comics-ambassador whenever possible. I never suffered a block, in the traditional sense. I always had stories I wanted to tell and things I wanted to draw. But I found the process increasingly painful. I remember talking to an old friend about it all, when I was at my lowest, and he said a very insightful thing: he said I was experiencing a “crisis of faith.” I think he was right: I’d lost my faith in comics, but even more profoundly, I’d lost my faith in stories and in art. For as long as I can remember, art has been a huge part of my life, my sense of myself, and how I relate to the world. And here I was feeling like art is ultimately pointless, that stories lie, and that instead of enriching our understanding of the world, art and stories distort and corrupt it.
I don’t know that I’ll ever entirely resolve that tension. In the introduction to the new edition, I address this a little – especially in the final few pages. But although I’ve rebuilt a new understanding of how art and stories (and by extension comics) can enrich our lives, I still retain that awareness that they can also seduce and lie. Picasso once said “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” I think I’ve learned that the only reliable part of that statement is the first four words; the rest is wishful thinking. Art doesn’t tell us the truth. But the lies it tells can serve as an imaginary game that allows us to play with ideas and feelings and worlds – and in the process gain pleasures and insights we otherwise might have missed. These days, art for me is not truth-telling, but playing, imagining, dreaming…
Looking back at “Hicksville,” I think maybe it always was.
This idea you talk about cartography as being closely related to comics. I don’t know that I ever would have been able to phrase it as such, but I can’t argue with it. I’m curious where this idea came from and how you wanted to incorporate it into the story?
I’m not sure where the idea came from. I’ve always loved maps, partly because I’ve always loved fantasy – especially fantasy roleplaying games, in which mapping is a big part of the act of creation and exploration. Around the time I wrote the Cornucopia chapter of “Hicksville,” though, I was also reading a lot of theory and philosophy, and was getting interested in the tension between history and geography, time and space. There’s a tradition that sees stories as being made of time, and pictures as made of space. A bunch of contemporary theorists were turning that inside out, and I think reading some of that stuff contributed to where I went with the comics-cartography thing.
I also have to say, though, that one of the most interesting things I read around then was a book by Mark Monmonier called “How To Lie With Maps.” Central to his argument is that all maps are lies, in that they’re simplified fictional models – rather than actual complex landscapes. The mapmaker chooses what aspects of the landscape to draw out and represent, and which ones to suppress or ignore. Sometimes they just outright deliberately deceive (for political or other reasons). I thoroughly recommend that book to anyone wrestling with the question of what art is – and for that matter, how science constructs narratives about the world.
Anyway, all of that was churning around in my head at the time, and I found myself introducing a character – and a landscape – that allowed me to play around with some of those ideas…
By the way, I returned to those questions in “Atlas,” a story I still plan to eventually finish. And also in some essays I’ve written (one on Scott McCloud, and the other on imaginary geographies) – both of which are on my old website, hicksville.co.nz, if anyone’s mad enough to want to read them…
Dick Burger’s Captain Tomorrow: Rebirth in “Hicksville” are all about classic comic characters becoming darker and more violent. You of course then wrote for DC for a while and witnessed this trend which has gone even further now. Does this shock you?
Well, by the mid-90s this trend already seemed well established. I remember reading an interview with Alan Moore in the early 90s in which he basically apologised for his role in nastying up mainstream comics. I don’t mind darkness and violence, but I’m drawn to stories that have, at their heart, a moral core. And just to be clear: I don’t mean moralising stories; that’s usually awful. What I mean is a story that wrestles with morality, that engages in a serious way with human beings as moral and immoral creatures. Actually, I don’t really know what I mean – and I’m probably not making much sense here…
Let me try an example – going back to Alan Moore. When he was writing “Swamp Thing” and then “The Watchmen” in the 1980s, he was writing some pretty dark and nasty stuff. A lot of people die horribly in those comics, and he sometimes put us through an emotional wringer. But I never felt like he was doing all this just for a cheap dramatic effect. Those stories are searching, probing, wrestling with what it means to be alive in a frequently difficult, painful and upsetting world. With what leads people to break, and to do terrible things, and how sometimes people manage to rise above it all and respond with love and peace and hope. That probably sounds pretty lame, but my point is that Moore almost never indulged in what’s been aptly called “tragedy porn” – dishonestly using extreme simulations of “tragedy” or horror for cheap dramatic effect, in an attempt to disguise an empty story as something more serious, mature or weighty.
I don’t have a problem with splatter movies or gross-out violence in and of itself. Sometimes gore is its own subject, and – as Gerard Jones argues persuasively in “Killing Monsters” – audiences can use horrific images and stories in surprisingly creative and positive ways. Â But I am always disappointed when stories are outright dishonest, trying to provoke a fake emotional response by shocking us with fake tragedy. The world has enough real horror and tragedy, and if a story isn’t going to even try to help me deal with that reality, I object to it simply throwing crass caricatures of horror at me in a shameless attempt to sell more units.
Which is a very roundabout way of saying that the depths of pseudo-serious “dark & gritty” nastiness into which many mainstream comics have slid saddens and disappoints me. And I’m always grateful for those working in the mainstream industry who buck that trend and instead use superheroes (or whatever) to try and add something emotionally and culturally enriching to the world. Even if it’s just by telling a story that’s fun and entertaining. Come on, people – that’s all we ask of you!
Of course, I’m partly saying all this as someone who was drawing into that industry for a while and ended up ashamed of some of the comics I wrote. Some, that is – not all! Most of “Hunter” – and some of “Batgirl” – was very heartfelt, however flawed the writing. But some of it…well, let’s just say I would do it differently today…
Did the idea for “Atlas” come to you while you were working on “Hicksville,” or was it later?
I think towards the end of “Hicksville,” I was already thinking about “Atlas.” But to be honest, I’m not sure when it really took shape. I definitely felt like I had more I wanted to explore with Emil Kopen and Cornucopia. One of my big problems as a cartoonist is that I’m always working on a bunch of things at once. This tends to slow down progress on each one, because I keep moving from one to another. As I said before, I’ve currently got several books that I’ve actively been working on in recent years, and all of them are still – to some extent – live projects. But I finally decided I need to concentrate on one (or at most two) at a time. Which is why I’m currently focusing on finishing “The American Dream” and then “Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen” (that’s why I’m serialising those on my website first). Only once they are finished will I return to the others. Well, that’s the plan…
How long are those planned to be, and is the plan after those are finished to return to “Atlas?”
Well, I’m trying to finish “The American Dream” this year. “The Magic Pen” I’m not sure about – that will probably take a little longer. Also, I’m terrible at doing a webcomic; I mean, I post far too infrequently! As for “Atlas,” I want to rewrite it before I resume drawing it (the beginning is going to change), so that will be later.
And will we see complete print editions of both stories when they’re complete?
Oh yeah. Definitely. The web is great for serialising – but both are intended first and foremost as books.