Comic Book Classics — 12
It is uncommon to treat the comic book as an object of transcendence. While many people enjoy comics and champion the form, to support comics in too loud a voice is seen as the preserve of the worst kinds of fandom. Comics do not get their fair share of reverence in the world. The recently broadcast series on BBC radio, The History of the World in 100 Objects showed this same attitude to teapots, coins and stone axes usually reserved for works of high art. It would be a rare individual who would give the comic equal value to such objects. Dylan Horrocks does. He is perhaps the modern comic book’s most articulate champion. In his graphic novel, Hicksville, he goes so far as to give them a totemic moral and spiritual value.
Dylan Horrocks was born in New Zealand in 1966 and seems to have been blessed with an affinity for comics. He claims that his first words were ‘Donald Duck’ and soon began to work as a cartoonist. A spell in the UK saw his work develop further until his return to New Zealand in the mid 1990s. It is in 1998 that Hicksville first appeared, published by the seminal Canadian publisher, Black Eye Comics. It has since been translated into French and Italian and awarded the World Comics Journal’s ‘Book of the Year’. It was immediately recognized as a masterpiece, and here’s why:
Hicksville is the story of a writer, Leonard Batts. Leonard Batts is a partly autobiographical character (A writer and comic book fan, living in London. Although Leonard is a Canadian rather than a Kiwi). His life appears humdrum and pointless in London so, when he gets a commission to write the biography of the most famous comic book artist in the world (a man with the name of Dick Burger), he jumps at the chance. He travels to LA and gets to see Burger up close. He soon realizes that the world of the celebrity has taken Burger over. He is little more than a hack, prodding his staff of artists and writers to churn out endless product with no merit or value. Apart from the fact it sells.
Leonard soon begins question Burger’s motives and actions. He interviews him for the book and talks to some of his staff and fans. After all, he had good ideas once. All his inquiries lead him in one direction: The obscure New Zealand town of Hicksville.
Arrival in Hicksville is not made easier by its remoteness. Leonard gets a lift from a young woman who becomes instantly suspicious when Dick Burger’s name is mentioned. The town, when he arrives is equally reticent. The really strange thing about Hicksville, however, is that everybody there is an expert on comics. Leonard’s landlady, for instance, has Mongolian comics delivered by post and copies of the first issue of Action Comics (famously where Superman first appeared) are just strewn carelessly about. Hicksville is a weird place, one where comics are always present.
The story takes its time and twists to get where it is going. I don’t plan to reveal too much more of the actual plot, but Leonard eventually finds himself in Kupe’s lighthouse; a place guarded by Maori spirits. Inside is a museum full of comics that should have been written; masterpieces by comic book artists that never saw the light of day because the artists never wrote them (a library of comic book Platonic forms?). The artists never wrote them because they were either working full-time for commercial publishers or because they thought they would be no market for their best work.
The lighthouse is the centre of Hicksville, the spiritual home of comics. It is here where the form transcends. Dylan Horrocks makes the link between Maori spirit and comic book art. He makes the dichotomy faced by all comic-book artists clear: do you follow the Dick Burger path, to fame, money, compromise and the extruded superhero product constantly rehashed by Marvel and DC? Or do you take the other road; harder, steeper less financially rewarded but where you create your own vision, make your art as good as it can be? An amazing and thought-provoking graphic novel about what comics are and what they could be. Total genius.