Weird animals, Callum Robertson

Incomplete Works 
Dylan Horrocks
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739223

Incomplete Works is a collection of short comics created by Dylan Horrocks between 1986 and 2012. Much like the B-sides of records, the comics sit beside one another like rough or rare tracks, some experimental, some raw, some polished – all different, but with a consistent thematic undercurrent.

Horrocks’s comic form places a generally even emphasis on words and art. He is a poetic writer, and the text commands a decent amount of space on the page. Mainly black and white, his drawings are beautifully spare, appearing as if the marks are as quick to ink as the handwritten words, confirming the equal importance of both when reading the story.

The stories share certain recurring themes. Horrocks’s worlds are centred in a drab reality, and revolve around the quirks, hopelessness, and loves of real people, including himself. His characters grapple with issues of self-esteem, self-sabotage and the purpose of their lives. They aren’t beautiful, they’re flawed, and any glimmer of hope for them is usually snuffed out as their stories finish abruptly, an answer forever pending.

These themes firmly root Incomplete Works in the New Zealand comic canon which, despite its relatively sparse history, has developed its own distinct voice and set of tropes. (There’s no better reference than Adrian Kinnaird’s From Earth’s End, reviewed in NZB Autumn 2014). The New Zealand comic canon is founded on an alone-in-the-shed mentality. Any ounce of aspiration to glory must immediately be cut back for this is not realistic of its place – New Zealand is small and insignificant, and Kiwi comics must exist as labours of hardship and isolation. It is the antithesis of the American Marvel/DC comic world (with which Horrocks had a less than fulfilling experience, working on Batgirl). There the norm is powerful and usually attractive (you could also read here plastic and violent) heroes triumphing over their enemies and dominating their world.

Horrocks seems to reinforce this with “To the I-Land”, a non-fiction tribute piece to Janet Frame and to Barry Linton, another Kiwi comic artist. Linton spends vast lengths of time alone drawing beautiful, ambitious comics, yet he doesn’t publish them. The only way to see them is to visit his rugged old flat – his shed. In the piece, Horrocks is there, admiring this hidden treasure trove of Kiwi comics. Horrocks quotes Linton: “On isolated islands gigantism occurs. Weird animals grow on islands.”

For this reviewer, new to creating comics, this is a frustrating dichotomy. Horrocks and Linton are excellent comic artists – world-class – and the quotation above suggests they don’t really see themselves and their art as insignificant. Weird, perhaps. Insignificant, no. But it’s as if they are forced to undermine that for their art to be acceptable. They must cut off their own tall poppy heads. Incomplete Works seems to be saying that hopelessness, misery and harsh reality are the only true seals of approval – a righteous Kiwi comic halo. The life of a New Zealand comic artist must be tiresome, and the creation of comics painful, and the world we present grim, lonesome and unchanging. We must never dare aim for confident glory.

That’s why Incomplete Works feels somewhat contradictory, not entirely genuine. It feels like the work of an artist who knows he is producing rich, intelligent, fulfilling, exciting work, but cannot permit himself this acknowledgement because of some entrenched need to undermine. It seems to hold up Linton for our admiration because he doesn’t go for the glory of production, and because he works alone in a shed, strange and isolated. But Linton and Horrocks aren’t legends of New Zealand comic art because they are lonesome weirdos. They are legends because they make bloody good comics.

Horrocks is an ambassador for New Zealand comics. He is someone young comic artists can look up to and feel inspired by. And, ultimately, Incomplete Works is a success because it shows Horrocks’s own experiences in grappling with the contradictions and frustrations of being a Kiwi comic artist. His presentation of New Zealand comics and wider culture is intimate and accurate. He doesn’t draw conclusions. The responsibility lies with the reader to nurture his or her own courage and voice, or face the windswept rocky island they live on, forever incomplete.

 

Callum Robertson graduated this year from Massey University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Hons). His own comics can be found at: cjdrcomics.com

 

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Posted in Graphic novel, Literature and Review
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