The Dharma Punks by Ant Sang (Earth’s End Publishing, 2014) 424 pp., $39.99; Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks (Victoria University Press, 2014) 208 pp., $35
Collectively, the publication in late 2014 of Dylan Horrocks’ latest graphic novel Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen and the re-publication of Ant Sang’s Dharma Punks signalled a key moment for cartooning in this country. To be fair, neither publication equals the breakthrough previously achieved when Hicksville received global acclaim and put New Zealand cartooning on the map, or when Dharma Punks, a modest local comic series, originally achieved its unlikely cult best-seller status. Nonetheless, these publications are indicative of the recent mainstreaming of the New Zealand comics industry, where glossier, slicker publications are now considered viable and are even taken ‘seriously’.
Both Dharma Punks and The Magic Pen actually started their life as more modest publications in the early 2000s: sections of Horrocks’ text had their origin in issues of Atlas, while Dharma Punks was originally published as a series of small-scale comics from 2001 to 2003. The Magic Pen’s next outing was as a serialised webcomic, which ran from 2009 to 2015. In book form, however, it’s a slick publication that extends Horrocks’ collaboration with VUP. With its full-colour printing, thick paper stock and a larger format than Hicksville, it’s indicative of the realisation that there is a local market for high production-value comics (and judging by the six languages it has been translated into to date, there is also a global market). With the publication running to a second edition, its re-appearance on the New Zealand top-ten now stands as further evidence of this market. Sang’s publication also links with developments in the New Zealand comics community; published by Earth’s End, it links with the efforts of Adrian Kinnaird, whose Random House publication From Earth’s End in 2013 (reviewed in Landfall Review Online) made significant steps towards documenting the local history of comics and raising their status. Its publication also represents a kind of grassroots interest in comics; its funding via a kickstarter campaign is reflective of the enthusiasm of those who remember it from first time around.
Gathered together into so-called graphic novels (or, if you prefer, long-format comics), both make for a concentrated reading experience where the narrative maintains such a compelling pace that the reader will likely devour them in one sitting. In Dharma Punks the main action unfolds over the course of just one evening in 1994. Set on Auckland’s K Road, a group of punk/anarchist friends plot to blow up a multinational fast-food restaurant. The focus, however, is squarely on the lead character Chopstick, who, in the course of the evening, grapples with questions of loss, friendship and existence, as well as the more immediate threat of vengeful skinheads. As Chopstick looks to reconcile his punk and Buddhist beliefs, his spiritual journey becomes the focus, leading to a tense but satisfying, if slightly predictable, conclusion.
If the story’s focus on blowing things up is the stuff of anarchist dreams, the recognisably local settings provide a realistic element that is no doubt even more enjoyable for those from Auckland. The realistic element is further enhanced by the sense that the ‘big’ questions that Chopstick is struggling with are something that Sang too has spent time dwelling on. The book, then, is semi-autobiographical (although Sang cautions against reading Chopstick as himself), and as Sang has explained elsewhere, it represented a coming-together point where his own pseudo-existential crisis linked with his exploration of Buddhism, with both set against the sudden loss of a friend. This combination coincided with Sang’s discovery that comics didn’t have to be ‘slick’, and for me, this is the most successful aspect of Dharma Punks, because the style provides a perfect match for the content.
In this regard the line and tone, along with the graphic contrasts, are a world away from the uniformly precise and clear line of Horrocks’ text. Things like the shifts from jagged linear details to expressionistic brushwork, through to the ink splatter which variously emphasises more unpleasant events as well as links with the liberal use of spray cans in the story itself, all mean that there is a pleasing sense of visual diversity. The shifts from white on black to black on white are also used to good effect (there is a lot of black ink used), and they often echo Chopstick’s mediations on light as ‘a flow of energy’, as an event. Similarly, severe shifts in focus from micro detail to macro view are used throughout and often provide a visual equivalent to Chopstick’s search to understand his place in the universe. This shift to extreme close-up is arguably a commonplace of the comics genre itself, but what I particularly enjoyed about Sang’s use of the device is that it seems to exploit the range of his brushwork, so that, for instance, the increasingly focused view of the falling rain over the final pages of the book shifts from fine white lines on a mostly black ground, through to an all-over page that celebrates the brushy strokes and visually reflects the character’s sense of amazement.
Like Sang’s Chopstick, Sam Zabel is in many ways reflective of the experiences of his author. Without either character being fully autobiographical, both Sang and Horrocks have clearly drawn on their own experiences. Furthermore, both have used recognisable locations – K Road and Grafton cemetery and bridge in Dharma Punks, and Christchurch stores and streets in the Magic Pen, for instance –meaning that for many readers, there is a pleasing combination of the familiar and arguably mundane, with something bigger: the mysteries of existence in the former and a rollicking trip through comics ethics in the latter.
In the Magic Pen we meet Sam Zabel, a cartoonist facing writer’s block, largely as a result of having lost enthusiasm for his work as a hired ‘hack’ drawing uninspired stories for Eternal’s Lady Night. At a literature conference in Christchurch Sam meets Alice, a fan-girl who leads him to ‘The King of Mars’, a 1950s comic by fictional cartoonist Evan Rice. It’s here that the story takes off as Zabel is transported into the comic itself and a series of adventures ensues, taking in a wide range of cartooning history, from cave paintings to medieval manuscripts, on to children’s comics and the very-much-not-for-children Hentai variant of Manga. In each chapter we’re introduced to different forms of comics as a manifestation of their creator’s desires, thereby developing the books’ central question: to what extent are we responsible for our own fantasies and, more specifically, how is the comics industry complicit in this?
Horrocks clearly knows his stuff, and as a reader it’s a delight to see the way he traverses so much comics and art history. From the very outset we’re shown versions of late nineteenth-century paintings by the likes of John William Godward and William Bouguereau. Their languid, classicised vision of female beauty provides a kind of ‘semi-highbrow’ precedent before we’re next faced with the less-subtle exhortation by Lady Night to ‘make me your fantasy, Sam’. As he does when referencing a wide range of comics genres, Horrocks deftly introduces the reader to an array of fantasies and sexual desires played out in the history of art and literature.
Admittedly, it’s not particularly subtle, and at times it feels overly didactic, as in lines like: ‘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’. However, it’s not carping critique either, because, as if to model a better way, Horrocks gives us Alice, who explains that ‘most of the imaginary worlds I spend my time in were made up by men – often with some pretty icky ideas about women’, but that she has ‘learned to take those imaginary worlds and make them my own – subverting them to serve my fantasies – not theirs’. Similarly, Horrocks gives us the character Miki, who has escaped from her creator’s dodgy Manga fantasy and is living out her own adventures, including righting some of the wrongs of past comics.
It is this worthiness that is simultaneously a strength and weakness of this book. I believe that Horrocks shows enormous guts by wading into a gender-and-comics debate that has led to such heated comment and division among the New Zealand comics community. However, if at times it does feel a little forced, then I don’t think this is a fault on Horrocks’ part; if anything it’s indicative of the integral role he plays in the history of comics in this country, as a tireless campaigner and promoter of new talent who has done wonderful work promoting discussion during some challenging times (including the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and the more recent Angoulême Grand Prix boycott). Just as Hicksville taught New Zealanders to see value in our place in the wider comics world, I think this book is educating its readers on the wider debates and moral issues facing comics artists, and furthermore, it manages the tricky feat of schooling them in an enjoyable fashion. It’s not subtle, but it probably can’t be; rather, it’s paving the way and opening up new territory by encouraging a new generation of comics readers to think a little harder about what they read and to seek diversity in the voices telling the stories.
In some ways this links with David Eggleton’s comments in Landfall Review Online when reviewing Kinnaird’s history of New Zealand comics in 2014, where he noted that book was signalling that comics now are ‘sophisticated, ironic, knowing’, and I think it’s this ‘meta’ element that readers will either love or hate. References to comics styles, genres, famous figures, debates and so on are all there; and if you’re the kind of reader who likes spotting these, then this is the comic for you. But the fan-girl/boy reader is also unlikely to find the gender/fantasy debates new – rather, the work is at its best when Horrocks’ deep love of comics and his almost encyclopedic knowledge come through. The type of mind that delights in creating and categorising the landscape of Mars, but doesn’t shrink from exposing his own anxieties and shortcomings, is being used to try to start a conversation and to suggest that we can create something ‘better’: a comics world where there is room for many voices. Like Ant Sang’s achievements in bringing a Chinese-New Zealand anarchist character to mainstream attention, Horrocks represents a voice that is questioning the dominance of a particular kind of fantasy and, in an industry where this is still too rare, that is surely something to be applauded.
DR. MELINDA JOHNSTON is a New Zealand art historian and writer currently based in Germany. She was formerly research librarian at the New Zealand Cartoon Archive at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, and is the author of Lateral Inversions: The prints of Barry Cleavin, published by Canterbury University Press in 2013.