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Rampant self-doubt and other real-world obstacles so often encountered by creative types temper the vintage sci-fi weirdness in Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. New Zealand comics creator Dylan Horrocks’ big (7” by 10”), full-color graphic novel—first serialized roughly in his Atlas anthology and then online—charts a cartoonist’s time- and planet-hopping journey after a case of artist’s block thwarts his work at the drafting table.
Zabel, a family man and also a Kiwi, “hasn’t drawn a comic in years” per expository panels in Magic Pen. Depression and disillusionment with mainstream comics stalls the return of his semi-autobiographical Pickle series and contributes to his blowing scripting deadlines for a lifeless mainstream superhero comic called Lady Night. Frantic, he zones out in front of high-res JPEGs of Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Godward’s paintings. These fussily reproduced figures suggest Horrocks has mastered classical illustration as well as sequential art.
“I’m so sick of writing endless dumb clichés and puerile posturing,” Zabel says during an imaginary chat with Lady Night’s barely dressed heroine. He’s fanatical about the medium, but toggles between nostalgia and frustration. An unambiguous deconstruction of the tropes of superhero monthlies follows as the masked crime-fighter disrobes and seduces Zabel, explaining that her title’s “got nothing to do with clever dialogue… complex plots… deep and meaningful sub-texts or themes.” Horrocks’ critiques of conventional comic storylines are frequent and sometimes feel like a lecture. He romanticizes the past, shunning new comics while fondly gesturing toward a hypothetical stack of Tales to Astonish back issues.
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A sneezing fit induces Zabel’s metaphysical leap into the yellowing pages of a 1950s sci-fi comic called The King of Mars. With miles of red rocky terrain and lively Martian congregations, Horrocks pays tribute to DC’s Strange Adventures and the pulpy titles that EC Comics’ William Gaines plotted back then.
On a quest to secure an artist’s pen with purported magical properties, Zabel encounters comely, submissive Venusians and cycloptic monsters; mocks modern comic fandom; and learns that most people stay put on these trips, opting to remain fixed “inside a wish-fulfillment fantasy forever.” This commentary ironically follows Sam’s imagined multi-page orgy with said Venusians, but even a Mars dust storm couldn’t temper Horrocks’ consternation at the industry’s timeworn sexism and recycled ideas.
But in artful page layouts and a well-built framework for his observations, Horrocks’ deep love for comics is just as apparent in Sam Zabel. It’s here; it’s in his old work; and it’s in “Inventing Comics,” his 2001 essay for The Comics Journal that decried presenting “one way of reading an infinitely complex landscape” or adopting any single text or idea “as a manifesto” for how to think about the form.
In an expansive new assemblage of nearly three decades’ worth of Horrocks’ minicomics, commissioned illustrations, and more—called Incomplete Works—an early, blocked iteration of Sam Zabel pops up in the 1997 strip “Bachelor Cartoonist.” His black oval eyes looked panicked back then, too, and are rarely drawn without a single curved stroke beneath each of them, set under a damp forehead and disheveled hair. For years, Horrocks had featured Zabel in a comic called Pickle that was later culled in Hicksville, a revered and similarly probing book that hop-scotched from real-time to other people’s’ comics within its pages. In “Bachelor Cartoonist,” Zabel monitors the clock and cites a dearth of inspiration for his failure to produce any work. That theme would broaden and come to haunt him years later in this big graphic novel, but neither creative block nor watered-down mainstream tropes seem to curtail his enthusiasm for comics. And the same goes for Dylan Horrocks.
Horrocks visits Politics & Prose on Sept. 18.