Underdogs: Hicksville

Posted by on May 4th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Dylan Horrocks; Drawn & Quarterly; 264 pp., $19.95; B&W, Paperback;  ISBN: 978-1770460027

In some respects, one doesn’t read Dylan Horrocks’ comic Hicksville so much as one unravels its many layers.  It’s part history, part manifesto, part love-letter, part mystery, part map and part character study.  It’s everything that Horrocks thinks about and loves in relation to comics, fully understanding its reputation as a “low art” and embracing it all nonetheless.  I have read it once a year since it was released in 1998, and I’m pleased to report that the new edition from Drawn & Quarterly improves the overall reading experience.  Putting aside Horrocks’ new, all-comics introduction, the pages simply breathe a bit better.  Horrocks’ main flaw as an artist is his tendency to use a line that’s too thick, resulting in a lack of clarity on some pages,  but that problem disappears when the pages are opened up a bit and he fixes some of the lettering, as he did in this edition.  That additional clarity opened up a character I found hard to appreciate in earlier readings, and shifted much of the focus of the book away from its central mystery and over to the life stories of the natives of Hicksville.

For the deprived few who have not read this book (incredibly, it was unavailable in Horrocks’ home country of New Zealand!), the plot involves a comics journalist who travels to a small town in New Zealand called Hicksville.  He’s in search of information for a biography he’s writing about Dick Burger, the world’s most famous and successful superhero cartoonist.  This Todd McFarlane-style slickster made millions off his Captain Tomorrow character thanks to toys, movies and comics, but the journalist (Leonard Batts) is trying to find out, well, Burger’s Secret Origin.  When he arrives in Hicksville after an arduous journey, he learns two things: everyone in Hicksville is a comics expert, and no one wants to talk about Dick Burger.  The book’s central mystery surrounds what Burger did to alienate his hometown, but that’s really just a starting point for Hickville‘s real focus.

Hicksville, at its core, is about the overlooked and ignored, the discarded and disdained.  You can draw a direct line between Batts (the Canadian from Newfoundland who pretends he’s from America out of embarrassment for being a Newfie), Burger (orphaned by his parents and desperate to build a new identity), artist Sam Zabel (a loveable sad-sack who is a stand-in of sorts for Horrocks), teashop proprietor Danton (abandoned by his lover Grace) and others.  They’re all characters who tried to fight against their circumstances, upbringing or sheer bad luck to create new lives or even new identities—all with varying levels of success.  At a deeper level, it’s comics itself that’s depicted as the underdog in this story, a gutter art littered with hundreds of work-for-hire artists who dreamed of creating their own stories.  At yet another level, Hicksville is the story of New Zealand, a tiny country that’s a melange of ancient Maori beliefs and Western culture.  It’s a place that’s easy to ignore but that shouldn’t be discounted.

On top of all these layers, there’s also a metafictional element to this book.  It’s as much a magical incantation as it is a  comic book, one that had unintended consequences for the artist that he paid attention to only too late.  What I mean by that is a number of things Horrocks wrote about in Hicksville wound up happening to him in real life–both for good and for ill.  Considering that the book touches on the magical qualities of comics, Hicksville became a sort of self-referential spellbook for Horrocks that he ironically lost control of.  Discounting what would happen to Horrocks, in the futures, there are other post-modern and metafictional aspects to be found in the book.  Hicksville started in Horrocks’ minicomics series Pickle—a humble means of expression that was eventually collected as the final book published by Black Eye Press.  The book begins with Dylan himself, unhappily living in London (a rite for passage for many Kiwis), receiving random pages from a comic about Captain Cook and Hone Heke (a prominent Maori leader from the 19th century) from someone he doesn’t know—but who claims to know him.  Random pages from that same comic pop up throughout the book to haunt Leonard.  Midway through the book, the narrative suddenly shifts to first person as we’re introduced to a nameless character who might also be a Horrocks stand-in.

Of course, the most engaging character in the book, especially on a first reading, is Sam Zabel.  He draws a minicomic called “Pickle,” which contains autobiographical stories wherein his own cartoon creations torment him.  He’s given an opportunity to make all the money he wants by drawing a Batgirl-like comic, if he only he’ll tell a crowd of people at a big public event that he and Dick Burger were childhood friends.  Ultimately, Sam can’t go through with it, breaking the cycle of exploitation in the comics industry by jumping off the treadmill.  His story “Stars” has a happy ending, as he winds up back home with a girl he had fallen in love with before he left New Zealand, and he happily went back to simply doing minicomics.

Hicksville is a story told through a variety of comics dialects.  There’s the minicomic, superhero comics (both on the whimsical and steroid-fed side), the gag comic, the heroic quest, the single-panel cartoon, the odes to Herge’ and Segar (in terms of character design), the exploration of comics-as-map, and a fascination with the idea of comics as an extension of cultures worldwide.  There are even instances that border on  being comics-as-poetry in terms of the way Horrocks develops a visual rhythm—especially when he depicts the beach.  Horrocks noted that this story started with him simply wanting to draw the beach and “go exploring” in the introduction, with the story developing out of that image.  As the story proceeds and the beach takes on new meanings, Horrocks’ returns to this image in a sort of visual rhyme.

As much as anything else, Hicksville is about identity.  Losing one’s identity, creating a new identity to cover up painful scars, and trying to find a new identity are all aspects of the characters’ stories.  I’d also guess that this is related to the common New Zealander’s living outside of the country as a way of establishing one’s identity in contrast to the outside world.  This all wraps back to the notion of comics-as-maps: if you’ve lost a sense of direction, a map can help you find it.  The relationship between time, space and identity is most acutely explored through the character of Grace, the character I initially found the most difficult to relate to.  She’s fractious, dismissive and haughty, often projecting her own fears onto others.  At the same time, she has a tremendous sensitivity and frailty as a character.

One of the other mysteries of Hicksville is why Grace left and why she came back.  It’s a story that’s told at a far lower volume than Leonard Batts’ quest, but in some ways it’s more important.  After three chapters of setting up the mystery of why Dick Burger was so reviled, Horrocks spends the fourth chapter on a long aside about Grace and her journey to a country called Cornucopia.  She was there for reasons related to her skill as a botanist (the juxtaposition of this hard-edged person as a nurturer is pretty clear), but she helped the possible Horrocks stand-in interview the Cornucopian cartoonist, Emil Kopen, by translating his language.

There are two key pages where Kopen, flirting with Grace, happens to spill his entire aesthetic approach to comics (and one would presume, Horrocks’ as well).  By describing comics as maps, he makes note of their use of both word and picture to describe something.  A map describes a location (“the geography of space”), whereas a comic describes the progression of time—bodies moving in space (“the geography of time”).  That definition isn’t especially remarkable; indeed, it’s pretty much right out of Understanding Comics, only a bit more clever.  What was interesting was Kopen’s later notion that “stories are basically concerned with spatial relationships…the proximity of bodies.  Time is simply what interferes with that…”

This is a fascinating point that unlocks Horrocks’ visual approach.  Comics as we understand them are all about the illusion of movement—movement of characters from panel to panel as they travel forward through time.  What makes comics unique is their ability to magically create that illusion from a series of static images, and then stop on a dime to linger on a truly static image that nonetheless tells a story.  This is what puts the lie to McCloud’s insistence that comics must have more than one panel, because the relationship between two bodies in a single panel can create a tension, a dynamism that tells a story.  Even in panels where there is “a stillness,” there is still a story being told.  As a critic, one thing I zero in on when looking over the work of young artists is how well they understand spatial relationships, gesture and the way two bodies interact on a page.  If the artist jars my reading of their pages with drawings of characters that aren’t interacting in a way that feels intuitively right, it inhibits my ability to give their work a close reading.

Above all else, Hicksville is concerned with the idea of comics-as-art and its possibilities.  The secret comics library of Kupe the lighthouse-keeper, which contains all the works by cartoonists and other artists and writers who never had a chance to get them published in real life, is in itself part fantasy and part incantation from Horrocks. Critiquing his own book in an interview conducted in later years, Horrocks put down this central conceit upon discovery of how many people in the most destitute of situations still managed to carve out an identity as an artist, a writer, or a musician.  It’s a fair critique, especially given that a comic book drawn by Picasso and written by Lorca would draw enormous interest.

My counter to this critique, especially from the perspective of an artist creating this book in the mid-’90s, is that comics were unique in being a gutter art.  Famously, Seigel and Schuster pretended to be bookies rather than tell people that they drew comic books.  It’s one thing for a ditch-digger to aspire to be a fine artist and struggle to express himself in this regard in a small amount of free time, but it’s quite another for that same ditch-digger to aspire to aspire to want to be the arts version of a ditch-digger.  More to the point, and as Horrocks himself discovered later, there’s something about having to draw or write comics that you “don’t respect” to earn a living (to quote Horrocks in the introduction)  that takes away one’s ability and desire to draw any of your own comics.  For the generations of cartoonists who had no realistic outlet for their dream projects, the lighthouse library represented, in Kupe’s words, something sacred.  Horrocks winked at the reader when one veteran artist meets Sam Zabel in America and told him that he thought Hicksville “was a metaphor” but was assured that it was “quite real.”

In a world where the comics industry and perhaps the form itself appeared to be dying, Horrocks imagined a world where cartoonists could have their dream projects preserved and treated as treasure.  This has become our world now as comics readers, with multiple publishers releasing art-comics and providing many cartoonists a chance to make a living.  Comics festivals have sprung up everywhere, celebrating local cartoonists and giving them a chance to connect.  The rise of webcomics means that anyone can show their work to the world with great ease.  The exchange of comics cultures between nations is at an all-time high, with European and Asian comics enjoying their greatest exposure in the US in years—and vice-versa.  In Hicksville, Horrocks makes note of someone getting a comic from Mongolia.  As a critic, I receive comics from all over the world on a regular basis.

The tragedy of Hicksville is that Horrocks himself was given the opportunity to write Batgirl and various other DC books, and didn’t make the same decision Sam did.  He received a lot of attention from Hicksville and was offered jobs that were lucrative from very nice editors.  In his free time, he began a follow-up series to Hicksville called Atlas, which focused on Cornucopia and the literally magical qualities of comics.  After that first issue, Horrocks’ began to hate writing comics and could no longer produce anything of his own, a phobia of the form that had plagued him in that past but which had now totally gripped him.  He alluded to this in his new introduction and touched on it in his new Web-comics, but was much more open about it in recent podcasts, which can be heard here and here. Horrocks perhaps underestimated the evocative power of his own comic and fell victim to the same fate that befell the hundreds of artists who had found the burden of commerce in producing a gutter art strangling their love of the medium’s potential.  Not only did he find himself incapable of creating comics, he began to have fantasies of destroying them.  Perhaps the process of revamping Hicksville was the spark he needed to reclaim his old love of the medium, but Horrocks is now slowly but surely creating several new comics on the Web.  Like his own characters, Horrocks went through his own identity crisis and came out the other side.  When these projects reach full fruition, it will be a great day for the comics world, with new gems from an artist who understands and appreciates it more than most.

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2 Responses to “Underdogs: Hicksville

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by THE COMICS JOURNAL. THE COMICS JOURNAL said: Rob Clough reviews the new and improved edition of HICKSVILLE @ tcj.com http://www.tcj.com/international/underdogs-hicksville […]

  2. […] at The Comics Journal, Rob Clough takes a look at the Hicksville rerelease, including how retrospectively it seems to chart the trajctory of Horrocks's career, and also […]