Featured Post

NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, January 30, 2016

NULL-MYTHS: HICKSVILLE (1998)

I'm going to try really hard this time not to address anything but the mythopoeic potentiality here, but it's going to be hard because Dylan Horrocks' graphic novel HICKSVILLE is almost as bad as the work I've called "practically inconsummate in every way." It might even be worse, given that it's plain that whereas Millar has no talent beyond conceiving graphic scenarios of violence, Horrocks occasionally shows some mythopoeic capacity, particularly in respect to his idea of a perfect comics-reading community-- even if it is in his homeland of New Zealand, and thus not overly accessible to most.




It's hard to avoid the didactic potentiality, though. The basic myth-idea of Hicksville-- a town where everyone appreciates the medium of comics-- is over-determined by Horrocks' confused historical perspective of the medium. This perspective is in turn employed for the same end seen in Clowes' DAVID BORING: as a diatribe "designed to please dull-witted elitists." However, at least Clowes can draw assorted characters who can be distinguished from one another, even when they are supposed to share some similar physical qualities. Horrocks' two viewpoint characters-- New Zealand-born comics-artist Sam Zabel and Canadian-born comics critic Leonard Batts-- aren't supposed to look alike, but they and other characters look like they were copied from the same artistic template, as do the characters of "villain" Dick Burger (representative of evil commercial comics) and the principal female character of Grace, who seems to be the only resident of Hicksville who doesn't give a crap about comics.

At base, Horrocks' invention of a comics-happy town reflects the optimism of the late 1990s, during which graphic novels were beginning to get distributed by bookstore chains-- admittedly, along with a lot of stuff elitists prefer not to acknowledge. The company Image Comics-- whose success had a noteworthy impact on the mainstream acceptance of comics-- is never mentioned by name. However, when Horrocks chooses to show images from the absurdly successful superhero comics of Dick Burger, Horrocks draws them in the overheated style of Rob Liefeld, and his artist Zabel complains about their lack of anatomical accuracy-- probably the most familiar condemnation of Image's books.

Dick Burger is, in essence, a fictional re-creation of the trope "the comics-artist-as-movie-star," another phenomenon seen for the first time in that decade, thanks to the media-presence of Liefeld and Todd McFarlane. But Burger is also a man with a secret, for his success is the result of violating one of the taboos of Hicksville, his former home. Horrocks attempted satire of the media-star is thoroughly derivative and lacking in nuance. Burger is simply everything about modern superhero comics that Horrocks dislikes, and not even as much a character as the other three-- though their claim to three-dimensional status isn't much better.

There is a sort of simple wonder to be found in Horrocks' idea of a community where all of the residents know Tintin and Popeye as well as they know modern superheroes like Batgirl. But Horrocks goes further, positing that Hicksville's library is a haven to which comics-artists all over the globe send their dream-projects for posterity.




Obviously in the real world, where professional artists have to use their skills to put food on the table, the idea of Wally Wood devoting countless hours to a never-to-be-published fantasy-epic is a pipe dream at best. But I can forgive deviations from reality when they serve an artistic purpose. At the same time, willful distortions to serve an pretentious theme are another matter. For instance, Horrocks tries to assert that his comics-critic Batts is an authority on comics. It's not exactly clear when Batts grew up, but he references having read both Spider-Man and the X-Men as a kid, so he's obviously from the sixties or later. And yet, Horrocks has Batts claim that the superheroes he loved as a child "spoke in preschool vocabularies." Since on the contrary both the Marvel and DC books were known for their heavy textual qualities-- not least Stan Lee's sesquipedalian floridness-- this comes down to Horrocks telling a lie to please his indie-loving readers. It's made more objectionable in that HICKSVILLE itself isn't particularly well-written, much less being exceptional in terms of the artist's vocabulary.

One of the leitmotifs of HICKSVILLE is that Sam Zabel keeps encountering isolated segments of an uncredited comics-story, as if the God of Comics were sending them to him to make sure that Horrocks can express his admiration for Moore's "Tales of the Black Freighter." These segments come closest to the true mythopoeic, for they deal with the encounter between New Zealand's early Maori occupants and two representatives of English colonialism, Captain James Cook, who first circumnavigated the island and Charles Henphy, a cartographer who charted what he saw. Here's a segment in which the Englishmen explain their motives to a Maori guide, who understandably suspects that their advent won't bode well for the Maori people.




I won't go so far as to say that Horrocks precisely exculpates these historical figures from their part in the colonization of New Zealand, but at least his view is not determined by a narrow ideological outlook; it recognizes that people may do things, even bad things, for complex reasons. Yet though Horrocks can extend this broad-mindedness to his colonial ancestors, he can't do the same to the American comic book industry. I'm not saying that he should gloss over its real abuses, but by creating Burger, a flat representative of acquisitiveness, Horrocks betrays his own theme. In addition, Horrocks's imitations of the Image style show no understanding of what made the books popular, even through the lens of parody. Worse, the story that supposedly vaults Burger to international fame is atrocious even by the standards of superhero comics. It may be that Horrocks views even the most venerated story-lines of commercial comics-- say, the Galactus trilogy-- to be as awful as any Image comic. But that would be beside the point. Horrocks, like many indie-comics artists trumpeting their superior creativity, often relies on straw-men opponents. His example thus shows that there may be sound creative reasons why a lot of these artists do not win wide acclaim.




No comments: