Andrew Paul Wood
Incomplete Works, by Dylan Horrocks, (Victoria University Press, 2014), 192 pp., $35; A Rainbow Reader, by Tessa Laird, (Clouds, 2013), 192 pp., $25
Dylan Horrocks’ Incomplete Works tidily fills a gap in the published oeuvre of one of our greatest living comic strip auteurs, snapping up the unconsidered trifles of his shorter comics lest they vanish forever into the oblivion of a disposable society where things go out of print at an alarming rate. I love Horrocks’ work – it never disappoints with its sheer imaginative creativity. It’s a shame he isn’t more celebrated in the mainstream. The nice thing about collections like Incomplete Works is that it lets us see certain themes resolve, which thread right through the oeuvre – fantasy, love, the creative process, and not a little procrastination. What we get is a potted creative history – possibly quasi-autobiographical, but not overbearingly so – of the years 1986 to 2012. The character of cartoonist Sam Zabel, like a subverted Wagnerian hero against all odds trying to get some work done, surely birthed from the true life experiences of the artist responsible for Hicksville and a writer on DC’s Hunter: The Age of Magic, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight and Batgirl.
Living in Auckland with his wife and two teenage sons, Horrocks has made important ripples outside our rock pool as a cartoonist, writer and illustrator. Hicksville has been published in five languages, and those of us of a certain age and political bent will fondly recall his ‘Milo’s Week’ strip for the Listener. His 2012 short story ‘Steam Girl’ earned him the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novella – basically that’s New Zealand’s equivalent of a Hugo or Nebula, the highest available accolade in local science fiction, though this perhaps is small potatoes next to the Eisner he won in 2002: the Oscar of US comic books. His work helped the comic be taken seriously as a literary form in Aotearoa, hence his being awarded a University of Auckland Literary Fellowship in 2006, and the reason why Victoria University Press is publishing this volume.
Horrocks is the sort of artist who can effortlessly lift the style of Winsor McCay, George Herriman or Robert Crumb to make a subtle allusion without missing a beat. He can leap from a comedy of manners to suburban NuZild, to a Holocaust piece, to a protest against war with a sinister Winnie the Pooh twist, to the transcendentally poetic, with seemingly little effort, though the Abel strips suggest otherwise. He is a complete and consummate artist who writes as well as he draws. But the narrator is always unreliable, at one minute confident, utterly assured of his milieu, in the next insecure and awkward, a Woody Allen-esque nerd without the unsavoury headlines – but always compassionate. I think that’s probably all part of the charm. It lures you in. We recognise our neurotic inner selves and the outer façade we would like others to see. It’s all very human – not a bunch of superpowered Nietzschean Übermenschen flying around in capes and spit curls, but a genuine investigation into the human condition fully alive to a vast sea of international popular culture.
Horrocks, in Incomplete Works, gives us a hint of what James Joyce described in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: ‘The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails’ – the Wizard behind the curtain as opposed to the slick productions of the Great and Powerful Oz. Would that all such projects were as deftly handled.
The genre of books on colours is legion, frequently achieving transcendental heights of literature. Alexander Theroux’s breakneck essay collections Primary Colours and Secondary Colours, Victoria Finlay’s Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox, and Joann Eckstut’s A Secret History of Colour are all ample testament to this, as is the more personal meditation of Derek Jarman’s Chroma. Tessa Laird’s A Rainbow Reader is a mishmash of these in caprice. Each chapter of A Rainbow Reader is bound in the appropriately coloured card and together the six chapters form a rainbow spine because being just a book isn’t good enough and we have to pretend it’s an ‘edition-based artwork’. As an Alexandrian collection of literary fragments on the subject of colour, it’s fascinating. As literature, not so much, and really not as good as her writings in Log, the art publication which she founded and co-edited while director of The Physics Room in Christchurch in 1997–98, or Monica, which she was founding editor of in 1996, or her catalogue for the Physics Room exhibition ‘Tomorrow People’ (which was brilliant) in 2001, or my personal favourite, Nights of Our Lives (2006) – a sort of dream-diary Laird edited from everyone who is anyone in the New Zealand art world and one of the most treasured volumes in my library.
Laird, an artist, writer and self-proclaimed ‘orientalist’ (Edward Said turns in his grave like a spluttering spit-roast), now based in Auckland, in 2009 started a Doctorate of Fine Arts. A Rainbow Reader is the result of that study, consisting of six chapters for each colour, being: ‘a catalyst for speculative writing encompassing art history, literary criticism, personal anecdote, philosophy and anthropology’ – or a rambling grab-bag of snippets loosely themed by colour and not a small amount of navel-gazing. It would be a lot more enjoyable if it wasn’t quite so, well, pretentious.
We are alerted to the tone by the publisher’s publicity material billing the book as a work of ‘creative non-fiction’. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was creative non-fiction. The ‘New Journalism’ of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion fit the genre known as creative non-fiction. This is actually what used to be called a ‘commonplace book’: a collection of essays amalgamating interesting observations on colour, art and social history culled from other people’s books, and a lot of tedious reminiscing about a clique of New Zealand artists who emerged like a dazzled Mowgli from the ferny gullies of Elam in the 1990s, prototype hipsters enthralled to the menu touristique of internationalism, and who have since largely ceased to matter to anyone but each other.
Dan Malone turns up a lot in Red, a naive bull in the China shop of other people’s cultures. Looking back on it, his work of a decade or more ago purported to ask deep questions about what it meant to be Chinese in Auckland, but at the same time never bothered to ask itself if it had the right or wonder whether assuming the right was less transgressive than it was just plain patronising white privilege. These days he’s moved on to Communism in Poland instead. Giovanni Intra features heavily in Yellow, and despite Laird’s obvious fondness, still manages to come across as self-indulgent and over-indulged. And indeed it was indulgence that cut his life and career tragically short before he’d managed to outgrow the dilettantism and hype. The sharp intelligence which conceived the justly celebrated Teststrip art space in Auckland and China Art Objects gallery in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, would have gone on to amazing things; it’s just a shame the legacy got lost in the Adonaïs-like romantic myth that attaches itself to a career, which was, as the Germans say, frühvollendet: too soon concluded.
A Rainbow Reader is fun to dip into and will look pretty on your shelves, but I hope Laird picks up the challenge of writing about that period in the 1990s as a straight historical document – that would be good reading.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is a Christchurch-based writer, poet, art critic and translator who contributes to a wide number of publications in New Zealand and globally.