“A conversation about desire and responsibility”
I interviewed Dylan Horrocks after the panel he held in Bologna at the Fine Arts Academy (part of the program of the coming edition of BilBOlbul, International Comics Festival) with Vanna Vinci (author) and Michele Foschini (Horrocks’ Italian publisher) about his latest work Sam Zabel and the magic pen, published in Italy by Bao Publishing.
The first part of Sam Zabel and the magic pen seems quite autobiographical. While I was reading it I asked myself if we (as critics, reviewers or simply readers) are allowed to ascribe this interpretation to the book? How do you feel about this? Are you pleased by this interpretation or you would prefer that people didn’t make this association to you as an author?
Once I have done the book, and put it out into the world, I think that people can interpret it as they like. It is quite autobiographical, especially the beginning, but it’s not entirely me. Sam Zabel is not the same as me. He’s a character I’ve used for many years, almost like an avatar. I put him in situations similar to mine, and then sometimes I make him respond differently, because I want to imagine what might happen if I responded that way. Other times he responds the same way as me, but the situation is exaggerated, or distorted, or different. He’s almost like an experimental “lab rat”: you put it in a maze, and test its responses. So he’s not quite the same as me, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable when people assume I’m just like him, but that’s the price I pay. If I’m putting work out into the world I have to accept that I can’t control how people respond to it. That’s also an exciting thing, when people have responses I didn’t expect, and I learn all sort of new things from people’s responses.
Also at the beginning, you point out the mix of pleasure and difficulty of making comics, and it feels real, as if it is an important issue of yours. Is it also a way to exorcise it, to mark a distance between you and it?
Basically it’s an attempt to understand it. My main goal with this book was to try and understand my own problems with comics, and also, I guess, to try and find a way back to the pleasure of drawing comics. So when I began drawing the book, my relationship with comics was dominated by the difficulty, feeling inadequate, feeling unable to write and draw. I had lost my faith in stories. And I wanted to explore that, understand it better, and hopefully find my way back to the joy of it. I didn’t know if it would work, but I just sit out, to see if it worked, and it did.
Reading the book, indeed the feeling is that the beginning is “harsher”, and then the story becomes more pleasant page after page.
It was very clever of me to make a book which is harsh and unappealing at the beginning! We should probably put a warning in the front of it “It does get more enjoyable”! It became a lot more pleasurable for me: as soon as I started drawing it, the first chapter was the most pleasure I have ever had drawing a comic, because I started drawing that after a very difficult time, and I stopped trying to draw in different ways, I just accepted it, “I’ll just draw the way I draw”, and I just settled in the physical pleasure of drawing, and those first pages, for me, are full of that pleasure and relief that I feel when I draw.
So how difficult it is to start drawing again after the big success you had with Hicksville.
Sam Zabel and the magic pen wasn’t the first book I tried to do after Hicksville. There was Atlas, which I drew about one hundred pages and then I settled aside, and there were other thing I started working on as well, and of course I drew a lot of short comics when I had time, probably a couple of hundred pages of short comics, which I recollected in New Zealand and in French actually, but Sam Zabel and the magic pen was the book I started drawing when I gave up trying to draw the “second book”. I kept trying to do the great second book, and I was so intimidated. I was trying to do something even more impressive than Hicksville and I was tying myself in knots. I don’t think you can do a good book by trying to do a masterpiece. You have to be driven by the story and driven by the questions you want to answer, and the questions Sam Zabel and the magic pen asks are the questions I really needed to answer along the way, so it took over.
You started publishing it on your website, page by page. When you started publishing it had you got more or less a plan on how the story would have evolved, or it changed month by month? The way you chose to publish it did affect the story?
To say the truth, I started publishing it in the comic book Atlas, as a backup story. There was a big gap between the first two issues of Atlas, and Sam Zabel and the magic pen emerged as the story I would do to relax with, which is how Hicksville started too. Hicksville started as the story I would relax with in the back of Pickle. I had another all graphic novel I was supposed to be serializing! After three issues of Atlas I felt like the format of Atlas wasn’t working anymore. I was trying to serialize the main story Atlas but I didn’t really know where it was going, I was changing my mind, so I ended up sitting the comic book aside. And then, about four years later, I revived Sam Zabel and the magic pen, and decided to serialize it online instead. I think in some ways the web has become the replacement for an ongoing comics series. It’s a very easy, convenient way to serialize a story. The main reason I put it online was to have a reason to keep drawing it. It takes a long time, well, it takes ME a long time to do a graphic novel, and by putting it online, every time I finished a page, I felt as I had achieved something, and I could show the world I had achieved something! I got feedback, and I like giving feedback and comments too. The most fun thing was sometimes I would see friends at a book launch – someone else’s book launch, not mine! – and they would say “I think I’ve worked out what happens next!”, and they would tell me the all theory they had. They didn’t influence me, but I was able to stand there and say “Yeah! You’re completely wrong! But I’m not going to tell you. I want it to be a surprise.”, and that was so much fun. But, in answer to your question, I had a very rough plan of where it was going, but very very rough and vague. I wanted to keep it vague, because the story is a journey of inspiration and discovery. I didn’t want everything to be planned and written, I wanted to discover things as I went on. That’s how it worked out. By the last half of the book, I had written it before I drew it, so I knew where I was going, but there were a lot of surprises along the way for me.
Coming to the themes the book is about, you go back to some of the same themes that are also present in Hicksville, as “comics inside comics”, but also “history of comics”. A strange history of comics, that mixes up real history of comics and fake/imaginary history of comics. This perspective creates in the reader kind of a vertigo, a “dizziness”, trying to understand if what you narrate is true or invented. Why do you do this? Are you playing with readers, inserting in the story somehow a “detective subplot”, inviting readers to go and explore history of comics, and find what’s true and what you created instead?
I can think of a couple of reasons why I do it – because I do keep doing it! – and one of them is about the intentional goal, which is history can enrich the world for us and the understanding of the world, but it can also be a cage, and it can entrap us into a limited perspective on the world, and by injecting imaginary history into it, it opens up new possibilities of seeing things differently. In Hicksville I was constantly trying to open up the possibilities for the future of comics by reimagining the past. In a way I was saying “Let’s make the comics we would make if that had been the past of comics”, and I was also saying that about New Zealand. The history of New Zealand can restrict our possibilities some times, and I was trying to imagine a way to open up new futures for New Zealand as well, by opening up new pasts. But also history is never completely locked down, every generation reinvents the history of the past, so why not sometimes do that with the imagination?
The other thing is I’m fascinated by the relationship between our experience of the reality of the world and the world as we dream it and imagine it. I don’t know if Italy has this tradition, but in the English speaking world, in Britain, there was the idea of there being kind of a parallel version of the world, which is where fairies and gnomes lived, and it was a world of magic, where folk tales and myth happened, but it coexisted with this world. Sometimes it was called the “Twilight world” or “The world of summer”, and it was like there were these two layers, and to see that world it required a shift of perspective, you had to look in a different way, and then you were in that world. In a way, by creating fictional history, and fictional cartoonist into it, entangled with the real world, it’s like I’m trying to find an access, a way into that parallel world which is the world of dreams. That’s what we do when we write stories, we’re creating a parallel reality, which is what Sam Zabel and the magic pen is all about.
Sam Zabel and the magic pen and Hicksville have got a lot more contact points, not only Sam, your avatar, but also, for example, Lady Night and the cartoonist Lou Goldman. It seems as if you created a unique and cohesive narrative universe, in which all your stories take place. Working on Sam Zabel and the magic pen, didn’t you need to mark a difference from Hicksville, changing characters and “pasts”?
I did wonder about using completely different characters, but the thing is I have been using Sam Zabel as a character for nearly thirty years, I was using him as a character in some short stories long before Hicksville, and I think to me it’s not quite the same universe, it’s neither cohesive nor quite coherent. The universe Hicksville takes place in isn’t exactly the same one of Sam Zabel and the magic pen. The reason they’re all combined is because they’re all inside my head, the universe of my daydreams, and the same people or places keep cropping up in my daydreams, but not necessarily always in the same dream.
In Sam Zabel and the magic pen, and obviously also in Hicksville, you attribute to your characters a “love and hate” relationship with superhero comics. Is it the same relationship you have with this kind of comics, as if they could potentially generate really good stories, but they are used in a bad, childish way?
It’s complicated because I never grew up reading superhero comics, it wasn’t a passion for me, the only superhero comics I really loved as a kid were the Captain Marvel comics from the Forties and the early Fifties. I loved them because they were so strange. But all my friends loved superhero comics, and I grew up with other comics fans. I think my relationship with superheroes is ambivalent because I don’t feel any love for them as a genre, but comics in the English speaking world have been dominated by them for so long, so I guess it’s like growing up in a family full of people you don’t necessarily love. You don’t choose your family. Superhero comics are part of my family that I grew up with. I didn’t choose them, I would have possibly chosen differently, but they were there, so I’m often interested in trying to understand what makes them “ tick”. In Sam Zabel and the magic pen I’m a lot meaner about them, I say much more negative things about them and that’s because I had been writing them for a living for a while.
The sentence that impressed me the most in Sam Zabel and the magic pen is “We are morally responsible for our fantasies”. It’s a responsibility towards yourself, or towards all your potential readers? I know you took active part, with some posts on Facebook too, in the debate about what happened the last January, the “Charlie Hebdo” massacre, and its consequences. The sentence in the book triggered me a relationship between it and those brutal circumstances.
When I was writing the book, the question that emerged as the central question of the book was “Do we bear moral responsibility for our fantasies?”. I opened the book with two quotations. One of them is from the poet Yeats, and says “In dreams begins responsibility”, and the other is from Nina Hartley, who is a porn performer and producer, and has written and spoken about porn very intelligently, and it says “Desire has no morality”. I wanted to open the book with those two quotations because I felt that both of those are true.
But they contradict each other. I wanted the book to explore the space between those two statements. I didn’t have an answer to that question, I was worried about it, I was obsessed with it. I was going in circles around that question and I wanted to see if I could find an answer by doing the book. In the very middle of the book Sam says, or rather he wants to say, “We are morally responsible for our fantasies”, but he can’t say it, because he doesn’t know if it’s true. He’s feeling compelled to say it in this particular situation, but then he thinks again, and thinks “Do we…?”. Responsible to whom? To ourselves? To our readers? To society? And responsible for what? What if the real value of fantasies is to go beyond what is moral and what is right, and to explore things to the neither possible nor reasonable? He doesn’t know the answer. So some people read the book as a polemic stating that that is the case, and other people read it as the opposite, and to me it’s neither. I’m happy for people to find what they find in it, but to me the book is a conversation about that. Every time I make a statement I undermine it, and sometimes I undermine something by drawing the fantasy that is being challenged, but drawing it in the way that indulges the pleasure of it, because the pleasure is in itself an argument, it’s a statement about the question. The pleasure has value, and it needs to be included in the conversation. When I finished the book, I didn’t feel like I had a simple answer to the question, but I do think that there is a moral dimension to fantasies. For me personally, if we have a moral responsibility, the responsibility is to be honest, honest to ourselves and to each other, about what our fantasies really are, and about what we feel about that fantasies, the ways they make us uncomfortable, the ways in which we feel they are dangerous. I think there is a lot of value in exploring the fantasies that make us uncomfortable, and maybe there is value in indulging them too. What I feel most uncomfortable with is when we distort our desires and fantasies, because we think that’s what people want to ear.
I had finished my book – in a way you can read the book as saying “We should think carefully about the stories we indulge and the images we make” – when the “Charlie Hebdo” shooting happened. I was on the other side of the world, but of course I knew “Charlie Hebdo”. I’ve been following French comics for a long time, I knew Wolinski’s comics and also Cabu’s, I was particularly fond of Philippe Honoré’s drawing, and when I heard about what happened I was shaken to the core, also because the conversation that emerged in the English speaking world, in the wake of the shooting, seemed to be a kind of distorted, twisted version of the conversation I had been having about the morality of comics art. I felt as the conversation that happened in America, and England and New Zealand, was… They didn’t know what they were talking about! But also I felt as they were applying an incredible simplistic and, for me, unhealthy answer to the question I asked in the book, and it was an answer that tried to shut things down. I wanted an answer that opened things up. Opened up possibilities, but opened up also conversations about the effects. The conversation that they were having was about “We shouldn’t be saying these things, we shouldn’t be drawing these things, we should shut things down”. I founded it viscerally repulsive. So I became very involved in that conversation in New Zealand, and that’s ongoing. It also reminded me profoundly of my experience in England when I was working in a bookshop during the Salman Rushdie controversy, because what I experienced then was people felt driven to chastise Rushdie, to tell him off. And this was lifted when intelligent people, for example writers like John Le Carré, felt in urge to make Rushdie seem less important, less valuable, wrong, wicked. I’m trying to understand what drives them. I’m still trying. This is an ongoing process, I don’t have an answer. I’m really interested to read Catharsis, the new book by Luz. I think cartoonists will be wrestling with this conversation for a long time.