Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville opens with a quote from Jack Kirby: “Comics will break your heart.” Horrocks goes on to prove that epigram true, although in an unexpected way.
Journalist Leonard Batts is in search of information on Dick Burger, “the most influential comic book creator of [this] generation”, a man whose Captain Tomorrow graphic novel sold millions. Batts visits Burger’s New Zealand hometown, Hicksville, a place where everyone reads comics and discusses them as other people would the weather. The town library contains everything from a full run of Action Comics to obscure minis in foreign languages, all available for anyone to read.
Batts seeks information, but everyone in town seems to hate Burger, changing the subject when he’s mentioned or reacting more violently. There’s also a woman, Grace, recently returned home to Hicksville because she missed her garden, now gone wild. Previously she was translating for a meeting with a famous cartoonist and cartographer who says comics are maps, showing the geography of either place or time, location or progression.
Along similar lines, the book’s introduction features an unknown Hicksvillian correspondent who sends Horrocks comics about a Captain’s interaction with natives. The comic within the comic plays with the reader’s expectations, creating a sense of confusion shared by the Horrocks-within-the-book. He’s being encouraged to come back home to New Zealand, dreaming of what might have happened since he’s gone. The themes of location affecting thoughts and needing to put a place right are only touched on, to be elaborated in the bigger story.
People in Hicksville communicate through comics, explaining things to others by showing them stories and reading comics about comics and creating comics where they talk to their own characters. One of the townspeople creates an autobiographical minicomic called Pickle to explain his falling-out with Burger, but large parts of the story that became this book were originally published in a comic named Pickle. It’s that kind of postmodern playing with levels of meaning that can keep the reader off-balance. The Burger story, on the other hand, will be familiar to anyone who knows how modern commercial comics work — it’s a tale of Hollywood corruption, ugly comics made to become movies, and using and discarding people just because you can.
Horrocks’ primitive style is straightforward and simple, a getting-back-to-basics that fits with the matter-of-factness of many of the story’s characters. It’s heavy, giving a sense of portent, sometimes menace, to events. The entire book can be daunting, leaving the reader with a feeling of being lost. It’s dense with ideas, some of which are seen and some of which are only sensed without being understood. What’s heartbreaking about it is the ultimate idea at its core, a place where everyone knows and loves and communicates with comics, the kind of place we could have had and might still have.
It’s all summed up by one of the mysterious Hicksville dwellers: “The official history of comics is a history of frustration. Of unrealised potential. Of artists who never got the change to do that magnum opus. Of stories that never got told – or else they were bowdlerised by small-minded editors… A medium locked into a ghetto and ignored by countless people who could have made it sing… Well, here it is. The other history of comics. The way it should have been.”