Monday, 8 December 2014

Four questions for Dylan Horrocks

Dylan Horrocks's much anticipated Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is out now. If you're in Wellington he is at Unity Books on this Friday 12 December, 12pm – 12.45pm for an instore reading and signing session. Come along!

Dylan Horrocks photographed by Grant Maiden

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen considers the importance of story and fantasy in our lives – our ability to dream and do crazy stuff in our dreams is what keeps us going – but your protagonist Sam is suffering because he's forgotten how to dream. Was this the germ for starting Sam – the value of dreaming?

When I started thinking about the Magic Pen, I was going through a rough patch in my relationship with fiction and fantasy. I had spent a few years writing monthly comics for a big American publisher, and the relentless routine of churning out scripts non-stop – often telling stories that were a long way from preferred style or content – took its toll. Over time, it's like I lost contact with my own imagination. I was spending so much time in imaginary worlds that had been made up by other people, many of which were (to be frank) pretty horrible places, that simple pleasure of entering a fictional reality stopped being fun and became a chore.

Imaginary worlds had always been a big thing for me. Immersion, exploration, indulgent daydreaming. That's been the wellspring for a lot of my writing, and also for my relaxation and play. I felt like Lucy Pevensie, standing before a locked wardrobe, with no way into Narnia.

So in the end, I did the only thing I could think of: I started dreaming up a story that would allow me to explore the mess I was in. I put Sam Zabel into a similar situation, because Sam's often been my go-to guy for making sense of dilemmas and problems in my own life. He's a different personality in many ways, but he's a useful experimental subject. By watching how he responds to certain conditions and seeing what happens next, I can learn all kinds of things about the questions I'm wrestling with myself. Ultimately, I hoped Sam could lead me back to the wardrobe, and help me unlock the door.

The story also deals with the ways in which females are portrayed in many comics as sex symbols, and it throws up a number of interesting questions about a comic as a place where artists (of both sexes) might play out their fantasies and what responsibilities might go along with that, if any. Are these ideas you've thought a lot about over your years in both the 'industry' and as an independent maker?

When I was writing superhero comics – which often revolved around horrible crimes and the search for justice – I began to wonder about the nature of the fantasies that drove the stories I was telling. Every imaginary scenario carries assumptions about how that world and people within it work. Motivations, social structures, gender relations, the causes of violence, the meaning of justice and the nature of power. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether the comics we were making contributed to myths and distortions that permeate our shared conversations about the problems we face. I remember watching Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine on television one night, and when he interviewed a producer on the reality show Cops – challenging him about the way the show repeatedly depicts African American men as violent criminals, and white people as victims, protectors and avengers – I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. It was the way the producer passionately defended his liberal credentials, even as he insisted his show's racial politics were an unavoidable consequence of the need to present "exciting television." I felt uncomfortably close to that producer.

One of my lowest moments was when an issue of Batgirl that I had written arrived from the printers with a recruiting ad for the US Army on the back cover. This was around the time the US Army was dropping white phosphorous bombs on civilians in Fallujah. I worried that the fantasies we were indulging and promoting in that comic were also being played out in the coverage of the war.

So yeah, I was thinking about it a lot. Fantasy no longer seemed harmless. And it wasn't just a matter of avoiding obvious genre stories and committing to 'serious, naturalistic' fiction; the whole enterprise of art - of storytelling - seemed inherently dishonest. Because it's all make-believe, whether we recognise it as such or not, and distortion and delusion creeps in to every story we tell. I thought a lot about Picasso describing art as "a lie that tells the truth." What if it's actually a lie that tells a lie?

At the same time, though, I had spent a lifetime obsessed with the power and potential of fantasy to enlighten, liberate and transform. A friend described what I was going through as a "crisis of faith", which sounded about right. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is partly my attempt to find a way through that crisis and out the other side.

You use two epigraphs which contradict each other, and I found myself agreeing with both of them. The first is Yeats: 'In dreams begins responsibility' and the second is Nina Hartley: 'Desire has no morality.' It doesn't seem to me that this book draws any firm lines anywhere, except for being very opposed to the sexual violence of characters like Akio. I'm interested to know if you have settled somewhere in between Yeats and Hartley – or is this a line that needs to be constantly renegotiated?

I'm so glad you agree with both epigraphs! I used them both because I wanted to set up a discussion – maybe even a debate or argument – right from the very beginning. Because I went into this not knowing how to answer the questions I was wrestling with. And yeah, I agreed with both, too, and I wanted the book to keep the debate going, rather than allowing myself to adopt easy (ultimately dishonest) answers. So every time a character takes a stand or expresses a firm position, something else will undermine or contradict them. I wanted the book to simultaneously question and indulge the pleasures of fantasy (and eroticism), and in places even the drawings and words are working directly in opposition. I don't want to say too much about my own opinions at this point, because I'm more interested in readers entering into an open-minded conversation with the book, themselves and each other. But I will say I still think both epigraphs say something important, wise and true. 

How long has Sam Zabel taken you?

Oh God. 10 years, all up. Although most of it was drawn in the last 12 months. And I wrote and drew plenty of other things in that time too (some of which are in Incomplete Works). Hopefully the next book will be a whole lot faster!

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is out now. You can buy it here on our online bookstore or in great bookshops around the country. p/b $35

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