DYLAN HORROCKS interviewed by Newsarama

Dylan Horrocks Welcomes Readers Back to HICKSVILLE

Newsarama    |    Michael C. Lorah    |    March 5, 2010

Dylan Horrocks has been keeping a fairly low profile on the print-end of the comics’ world lately. His work continues to appear HicksvilleComics.com, with an eye toward print in the near future.

To whet readers’ appetites for his new comics and to celebrate its tenth anniversary, Horrocks and Drawn & Quarterly are bringing out a new, expanded “definitive” edition of Horrocks’ most famous and acclaimed work, Hicksville.

Newsarama discussed revisiting his classic work with him.

Newsarama: Dylan, Hicksville was a huge moment for you in comics. What do you feel when you look back on it now?

Dylan Horrocks: Hicksville first came out in 1998, after being serialized in my comic book Pickle (both published by Michel Vrana's Black Eye Books). I really had no idea it would find an audience, outside the handful of people I already knew were following Pickle. To launch it, I flew to America and did a two week signing tour starting in Boston and ending at SPX. There were a bunch of us in a van - Tom Hart, James Kochalka, Megan Kelso and me - all with books to launch, with Tom Devlin as our driver and wrangler (back then he was running Highwater Books; these days he’s at D&Q). It was an amazing experience - really lovely people, all passionate about comics and art, all with a small but growing audience, driving across the states with boxes of books in the back of the van. We'd pull up in a town outside some great little alternative bookstore or comic shop, unload our books, do a signing, then go out to dinner and sleep on some friendly local’s floor; in the morning, we’d have breakfast and hit the road again.

Then finally we were at SPX and to my astonishment Hicksville went like hotcakes. It was a weird and exhausting weekend, and the first time I experienced being at the centre of a “buzz” - people I admired were seeking me out, some wanted to buy artwork from me, publishers wanted to talk to me - it was overwhelming. I remember coming home from that trip in a really strange state of mind, feeling for the first time that maybe my lifelong dream of being a full-time cartoonist had come true.

But the nicest and most precious part of the experience for me was the time spent on tour with friends. I’m so happy to have been able to share that crazy time with such great people. And when I think back on the launch of Hicksville now, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t the career breakthrough or whatever; it’s the pleasure of that road trip. Sometimes I wish I lived closer to America, just so I could see them more often ...

Nrama: The new introduction, done in comics form, is terrific. You’re very candid about burning out creatively; does coming back to where it all started remind you why you started in comics?

Horrocks: Thanks! It was actually pretty hard to do that introduction. When Chris Oliveros first suggested I do it for the new edition, I really hesitated. This was, I’m embarrassed to admit, a few years ago now - and at the time I was still deep in the slump I describe (briefly) in the introduction (and at more length in my current serial “Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen”). Hicksville was my breakthrough book - the one that really made comics my career, rather than a vocation. And there I was flailing around feeling like that career was eating me up, poisoning not only my love of comics, but my love of art and stories and life itself. That sounds awfully melodramatic, but at the darkest moments, that's how it felt ...

So I found it very hard to go back to Hicksville and revisit the whole thing. It took me a few years to get around to doing the new cover, and I initially told Chris I couldn’t do an introduction; someone else would have to. But by the beginning of last year, I guess I’d mostly climbed out of that dark hole, and one morning I found myself lying in bed one morning thinking about Hicksville - and I suddenly realized how I wanted to do the introduction. That day I jotted it down in my notebook, and in the end I didn’t change very much at all.

Maybe it does help remind me of what brought me to comics; I suppose that’s partly why I wrote it - to work some of that stuff out for myself. But it couldn’t bring me back to where I was when I was in my twenties. I guess the introduction is about love: my love for my family (the family I came from, and the family I’ve made with my wife and kids), my love for comics, and more generally for stories and art. And also for the places I’ve lived and dreamed.

But the point is that love isn’t always easy. And it always brings with it pain and loss. Hicksville opens with a quote from Jack Kirby: “Comics will break your heart.” When I first read that quote (in one of the author bio’s in Seven Miles a Second, by David Wojnarowicz and James Roberger, published by Vertigo in 1996; Romberger says he was told that by Kirby at a convention once), I immediately knew I’d found the epigraph for Hicksville. But I didn’t realize how those words would haunt me for the next 10 years ...

Anyway, in the end, I loved putting together the new edition - introduction and all. It was good for me ... like an act of reconciliation ...

Nrama: Despite all the mystery of the plot, the core of the story is in many ways Leonard’s search for himself, which contrasts against Dick fleeing from himself. How did you develop Leonard?

Horrocks: There are certainly thousands of sources to draw from! Leonard includes elements of a number of people I know, including myself. But then, most of the characters have parts of me in them (and bits of friends too). Leonard is the geek of the story, and seeing as how I’d spent a lot of time in comics’ shops, I guess I had plenty of inspiration. But he’s more than that too. His biography of Kirby is, after all, a substantial book. And so it’s not like he’s just a superficial comics geek who finds his way to the truth; as you say, he’s also finding another side of himself. I have a lot of affection for Leonard ...

Dick is another character I really like. And you’re right – he’s fleeing from himself. I’m totally uninterested in villains and good guys. I’m far more interested in ambivalence and inconsistency. The way we all make moral choices throughout our lives, some of which shape who we become, and some of which contradict everything we think we are. People are messy and complicated, imperfect and flawed, and yet that doesn’t absolve us from trying to be moral - at least when it matters.

Grace, too, is confronting choices she made; but to continue your analogy, she’s trying to find her way back to herself. She ran away, and now she’s come home. But the wreckage of her earlier decisions has to be dealt with.

It’s been more than 10 years since I finished that book, and going back to it again has been a bit like Grace’s journey - being reunited with old friends and lovers, and discovering that even though there’s pain and awkwardness at first, in the end there’s still mostly love.

Nrama: I love the quotes that open each chapter, particularly the Kirk Alyn line. Did you have a lot of those quotes rattling around, waiting for the right opening?

Horrocks: Oh yeah. I started collecting quotes like that back in the early 90s, when I was teaching a night class on comics at Auckland University. A lot of the reading and thinking I did then ended up shaping Hicksville. And whenever I came across a really pungent quote from some cartoonist or other, I’d jot it down in my notebook. I then used them in Pickle; each issue had an epigraph at the beginning, and all were quotations from cartoonists. When I put together the graphic novel in 1998, I decided to open each chapter with one of those quotes.

The only thing I wish I’d done was reference them properly. Many of my original notes are lost somewhere in 10 years worth of lecture notes and journals (this is all pre-laptops and netbooks, of course). And although I can remember where some of them came from, there are others that are hard to track down - and every so often someone writes and asks me where something came from so they can use it in their PhD thesis on Carl Barks or whatever. I might try and set aside some time this month to locate them all and post it on my website, so that when the new book comes out, the references are there for anyone who wants them.

Just an aside about the Kirby quote: turns out Charles Schulz said something very similar in one of his later interviews. I don’t know whether James Romberger was getting mixed up in his memory, or whether both Kirby and Schulz said it. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised: both of them had their hearts broken by comics, again and again ...

Nrama: You cite an incredible number of comic book references, from Winsor McCay’s Rarebit Fiends being the name of the tea shop to the obvious superhero references. You even managed a nod to Pablo Picasso’s “The Dream and Lie of Franco.” Although the plot revolves around superhero creator Dick Burger’s secret, did you really want to reference the full range of comics?

Horrocks: It’s not that I set out to reference all of comics (if I had, I would have mentioned a lot more than I did). Those are just the things that came up. They reflect the stuff I was thinking about and reading at the time, I guess. These days, I’d probably put more manga in there.

One chapter that always gets the comics nerds going is the one that takes place at the Hogan’s Alley Day party on the beach - because everyone’s dressed up as a character from some comic or another. When that chapter appeared in Pickle, I held a contest, inviting readers to identify as many of the costumes as they could. It was a lot of fun. But no-one got them all.

Nrama: Hicksville is reminiscent of Lucien’s library of unrealized stories from Sandman. Did you model the idea on Gaiman’s series?

Horrocks: It seems somehow fitting, considering how comics’ creative history is the backdrop for the entire series. I have a confession to make: I’ve never actually read Sandman. I mean, I’ve dipped into it here and there, but I’ve never actually read the whole thing. And back when I was working on Hicksville, I don't think I’d read more than a few pages of some random issue (the one about Shakespeare, if memory serves, which I picked up in a comic shop). So the short answer is no.

But Borges had already done it long before either of us - and other people have played with the idea too. I describe in the introduction what the real origin of the idea was: a recurring dream in which I would find a stack of previously unread Tintin books.

Nrama: How do you feel that Hicksville relates to the comics industry today as compared to 1998?

Horrocks: Well ... truth be told, I don’t have much to do with “the industry” at the moment. I try to focus on doing my own thing and avoid reading blogs or news sites or visiting comic shops. Hell, for most of the last few years, I haven’t even been reading other people’s comics, unless they were by friends of mine. After finishing the new edition, though, I found myself suddenly reading comics again. The local public libraries have really jumped onto the graphic novel bandwagon with a vengeance, so I’ve been able to catch up on the last several years of comics just by taking stuff out of the library. They even have Kramer's Ergot #7 (that amazing huge newspaper-size thing!). I somehow feel freer now - like I can read comics just for the sake of reading them, and there’s no need to keep up with things professionally.

Sooo ... I don’t really feel qualified to answer the question any more. With one exception: these days, the mainstream comics industry seems far less important to me - for the form, I mean. I was never that into superhero comics or anything anyway, but DC and Marvel cast a deep shadow over comics that is now finally fading away, as manga and (what used to be called “alternative”) graphic novels are becoming steadily more and more important. Cartoonists like Chris Ware, Joe Sacco or Marjane Satrapi seem far more important now than anything DC or Marvel publish - not just artistically, but in terms of impact in the wider culture. Sure, everyone’s heard of Spider-Man, but I’ll bet more people have read Jimmy Corrigan than have read the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man. I think a lot of comics people’s picture of the comics industry is skewed by the fact that they look at Diamond sales and hang around in comic shops, rather than looking at bookstore sales or reading The New Yorker or The Guardian. In that wider world, things have changed immensely since 1998.

Nrama: There’s a prescient quality to Hicksville. You have an older character, Captain Tomorrow, who is updated in “Captain Tomorrow: Rebirth” as a more violent, but not necessarily more mature, version of himself. I know you were thinking of certain things that were happening in the industry in 1996, but does it surprise you that it’s truer than ever today?

Horrocks: Is it? Dear lord ... I love how you put that, by the way: “more violent, but not necessarily more mature.” I sometimes think the label “mature readers” should really be rethought ...

Even though I haven’t written anything for them for a few years, DC keep sending me their monthly comps box. I remember a while back, I got sick of them piling up downstairs and decided to donate them to the local children’s hospital. But first I had to go through box after box, checking that they were - er - suitable for kids. After a few hours, I began to feel hardly any of them were; most of them (and I’m not just talking about Vertigo titles here) were full of really dark, nasty, sadistic violence and ugly porno-chic - I seriously considered putting them all in the paper recycling, for fear of poisoning those poor, sick kids.

Of course, I quickly came to my senses and remembered that a 40-year-old vegetarian pacifist isn’t really the best judge of what’s good reading for children - and you’ll be happy to hear most of them reached the hospital in the end. But it did shake me ...

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not some kind of toy-gun-banning censor. Quite the contrary! Lost Girls in every school library – that’s what I say! No, it was just the sheer nastiness of those comics that disturbed me. Like Milton Caniff is quoted in Hicksville: “Good is better than evil because it’s nicer.” Not anymore, apparently ...

By the way, there's a great interview with Alan Moore floating around from the early 1990s, in which he basically apologizes for the influence Watchmen had on mainstream comics: the torture scenes, the sadism, the graphic violence and dark cynicism that took over from the late 80s onwards. When I was writing Hunter: the Age of Magic for Vertigo, I did a story arc set partly in Gemworld, and got hold of a bunch of the old Amethyst comics from the 80s (remember that?). It was fascinating to see how that series changed around the time of Crisis on Infinite Earths. What had been a sweet, rather inane fantasy comic for girls suddenly turned into a really horrible, dark horror story, with characters dying, parents having affairs and betraying their kids - it was all corruption and darkness. Not to mention, really, really bad. I’m probably totally wrong (I haven’t checked the chronology or anything), but I suspect that was around the time Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was at its peak, and the impact of his and Frank Miller’s comics was nearing its apogee. Now, I admired both those guys a lot at the time (and for the most part I still do) - but it was a weird feeling to look back 20 years later and see the dark side of their influence, when jaded editors and hacks took the superficial aspects of Moore’s stories, ignoring (or maybe even failing to notice?) their profoundly moral core.

But, I guess the same process was going on across our culture at that time - with the raw, harsh openness of 1970s cinema morphing into the sheer nasty brutality of many a Hollywood movie in the 80s and 90s ...

And, again, I would reiterate that however nasty and commercially cynical mainstream comics may have become, these days they are only a small part of what comics are. It’s easy now to read a lot of comics without ever touching a superhero book - or even a Vertigo title, for that matter. I can’t really be bothered railing against anything going on in Batman or whatever; I mean, these days, who cares?

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