Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen
Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville is one of the best graphic novels ever, about a world where comics are part of everyone’s daily life. At the time it came out, we hadn’t yet reached the point we’re at today, where it’s acceptable, even desirable, to know about comics. Then, liking comics meant something was wrong with you, and Horrocks’ vision was really a fantasy, a dream world that existed only in imagination.
That was over 15 years ago. I was excited to see Horrocks had another book, but I’d put off reading it because of the pressure of potential disappointment. Waiting that long for a new story sets up a lot of (perhaps unfair) expectation.
I shouldn’t have worried. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, originally a webcomic, is amazing and wonderful. As in Hicksville, the theme here involves fantasy, but with a more mature treatment, one reflective of today’s comic reader.
The book opens with burnout. Sam is suffering from anhedonia, the condition where nothing brings pleasure. Instead of working on his own creations, he’s struggling to write “Lady Night” superhero stories for Eternal Comics. (Horrocks did a similar stint on Batgirl.) He’s depressed and blocked. I could sympathize, since I just spent a weekend at SPX commiserating with other people who’d previously worked for comic companies where the experience didn’t turn out as expected.
Then the character starts chewing him out. He’s thinking too much, so wrapped up in worrying about his voice that he’s lost the base enjoyment of the genre, which according to her, is the fantasy of control, with a strong layer of sex. (This is a graphic novel with naked people in it, and occasionally an orgy, so if that bothers you, take note.)
There are a lot of comics about making comics, so much so that I tend to disregard them. Back when every aspiring creator was doing autobiographical work (before they all started doing fantasy or zombie stories), plenty of them would talk about how hard it was to create, since many wanted to make comics but didn’t have enough life under them yet. Horrocks takes all this to another level — beyond complaining about the struggle of the work, he’s thinking about what different people get out of the medium and exploring the many different layers of escapism.
The images are astounding. On one page, a figure surrounded by flying pieces of paper symbolizes the mad frenzy of easy, imaginative creation; the next, similar images mean the pressure of too many to-dos. Horrocks really understands the visual language of comics and how much can be done with it. Yet he’s also able to draw conversation scenes in interesting and emotional ways.
After that, things spiral into a different kind of fantasy. Sam meets Alice Brown, a webcartoonist, and Miki, a jet-booted manga schoolgirl. Alice’s webcomics combine “nerdy wish-fulfillment fantasies”, postmodern analysis of gender politics, and fandoms. She leads Sam to 1950s comics by Evan Rice called “The King of Mars” and “The Queen of Venus”. These stories are Burroughs-esque space fantasies with naked green women and Sam, because he’s a cartoonist, becoming king.
There’s more to it than just this kind of ridiculous dream, though. There’s purpose to this discovery, as Miki winds up explaining. She’s my favorite character, as she’s someone else’s fantasy who’s become self-aware and escaped her original purpose as a disturbing fetish. She helps bring about something I really love about this story: that telling people the truth, no matter how hard, works out better in the end. And that the women are the ones who know what’s going on, whether it’s Alice fixing the sexism in old stories or Miki taking control of her existence. Sam sums it up:
Even a comic book can shape the real world, contributing to the culture, encouraging attitudes and assumptions… it still matters. Fantasy matters.
Later, Alice responds,
I’m a geek, but I’m also a girl. Fantasy is what I live for, but most of the imaginary worlds I spend my time in were made up by men — often with some pretty icky ideas about women… so I’ve learned to take those imaginary worlds and make them my own — subverting them to serve my fantasies — not theirs.
Although some of what is explored is tawdry, reflecting the base elements of what drives some people to fetishize comics, overall, I found Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen incredibly inspiring. Like Sam, I rediscovered my love of creation and overcame fear of the blank page. Only someone who knows and loves the comic medium could criticize it this deeply and accurately.