Hicksville: A Comic Book
Victoria University Press, $38.00,
The current republication of Dylan Horrocks’ brilliant graphic novel, Hicksville, is long overdue; however, the relative obscurity to which it has been consigned over the last 10 years or so has also been curiously appropriate. As the back cover blurb puts it, this novel is “a haunting meditation on longing and regret, on getting lost and finding your way home.” In a very real sense, the novel itself has found finally its way home. It was first published by Canadian comics publishers, Black Eye Books, in 1998 and then by Drawn & Quarterly in 2001. Victoria University Press’s 2010 publication of Hicksville is the first New Zealand edition. And yet, despite being virtually unavailable (locally) over much of the past decade, the book has conspicuously popped up in university curricula, garnered critical attention, and earned a small but devoted readership. It’s not hard to pinpoint why: this is one of the most remarkable New Zealand novels you’re likely to read, and, to put it plainly, probably one of the best.
Hicksville pulls off something that few novels in New Zealand – or anywhere else for that matter – manage successfully. It not only blends affectionate homage with insightful critique, but also tells a ripping yarn with an invigorating willingness to experiment with form and story-telling. The story itself merges the reassuringly familiar with the startlingly original: Leonard Batts is an American comics journalist who travels to the remote East Cape, to Hicksville – Horrocks’ wry version of archetypal, instantly recognisable, small-town New Zealand – to research the origins of the town’s most famous son, the comics creator and multi-millionaire, Dick Burger, now resident in Los Angeles. Hicksville, then, is a quest story of a sort, but, as in the best quest stories, it is not exactly the quest that Leonard was expecting; for, as he uncovers more about the dubious morality of his hero, Dick Burger, he learns to revise a broad set of artistic and cultural assumptions. On the way, Horrocks’ constant references to various literary and visual lineages amount to a novel which implicates itself directly in the history of the cultural invention of New Zealand. It’s a big call for any novel, let alone a comic book.
For many readers, even those familiar with graphic novels, Hicksville will probably prove a difficult book to get to grips with. The novel sprawls in fabulous directions, with constant intertextual interruptions to the main narrative: comics written by the characters themselves take over and then depart, and Horrocks himself is reinvented as a character in the occasional frame-breaking moment. For Leonard, even getting to Hicksville, hidden in an isolated corner of an isolated country, is a destabilising and disorientating experience. The early frames of the book knowingly evoke the empty roads and paddocks of backblock New Zealand which Leonard must attempt to navigate on foot but which he is thwarted by. The image of him walking alone up the otherwise empty state highway, for example, alludes not only to Jane Campion’s resonant image of the young Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table, but also to the deserted roads of the painters Bill Sutton, Rata Lovell-Smith and Grahame Sydney. Eventually Leonard, at last thoroughly lost, sits bereft in an empty paddock, watching as the sun sets and the land grows forbiddingly dark around him. Here Horrocks’ images directly recall Mansfield’s story, “The Woman at the Store”, and its observation that “There is no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour when everything appears grotesque … as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw.”
And Leonard is surely sneered at. When he at last arrives in Hicksville, he is immediately ostracised by the locals who uniformly disapprove of his interest in Dick Burger. For Leonard, coming to terms with the town’s staunch, virtually moral, opposition to all things connected with Burger is one thing, but coming to terms with the town itself is quite another. Hicksville is a small town stereotypically trapped in a bygone age. There is neither internet nor fax machine. Coffee is virtually unknown; the local cuisine is instead dominated by tea and lamingtons. The library runs on self-service because that way, as librarian Mrs Hicks tells Leonard, it never has to close. Yet it is not the stultifying effect of small-town New Zealand that most unsettles the urbane Leonard, but the bizarre fact that in Hicksville, despite the prevalence of other provincial stereotypes, virtually everyone is an authority on comics. While Leonard’s mainstream tastes are disconcertingly frowned upon, even more unsettlingly, the Hicksville library keeps copies of comics so rare that Leonard has only read about them. Leonard’s journalistic credentials are thus unexpectedly undercut by Horrocks’ playful revisions of the relationship between provincial and metropolitan culture. With comics installed as the dominant art form, they can be regarded with the attention normally reserved for fine art and high literature, a reversal paralleled by Horrocks’ ingenious shifting of the cultural centre of his narrative from the metropolitan to the provincial outskirts.
Hence the pointed effect of Hicksville’s constant references to the history of New Zealand art and culture. Throughout the novel, Leonard is haunted by the work of an unknown comic artist, the enigmatic and unseen Augustus E, author of a comic strip detailing a fictional meeting between Captain Cook, Hone Heke and Charles Heaphy. Even if this seems to make a direct reference to, among other things, Augustus Earle’s painting, Meeting Between the Artist and the Wounded Chief Hongi at the Bay of Islands, November 1827, it is one that is obliquely made and thus refuses smooth interpretation. Like Leonard, readers themselves may struggle to make sense of Hicksville’s deliberate dislocations of accepted history. Earle, Cook, Heke and Heaphy, after all, were not exact contemporaries. But this is all part of the fun of Hicksville, and certainly part of what powers its most far-reaching conclusions about the way New Zealand has been figured by its artists and writers. As Augustus E’s esoteric narrative plays out through Hicksville, taunting Leonard with its mysterious visitations and compelling if impenetrable subject matter, the engagement between Cook, Heke and Heaphy makes the case for a view of New Zealand’s cultural history that is not corrective or evaluative, but collective and conciliatory. Between them, Cook, Heke and Heaphy find that the North Island itself has moved into another hemisphere, and that new ways of mapping are thus required. While the engagement between colonising and indigenous people historically involved a power relation of appropriation and loss, the “new hemisphere” that Horrocks envisages points to the possibilities of repatriation based on a mutual respect for culturally-specified engagements with the land. As Heke tells the cartographers Cook and Heaphy, “We too have our maps. Some can be seen – those made of wood or shells or weaving. But most are spoken with words.”
For anyone interested in what is at stake for contemporary New Zealand literature, Hicksville ought to be obligatory reading. Horrocks’ merging of the conventions of the low-brow comic with both the dense narrative layering of modernist literature as well as the subtle quotation of art history represents a working model for a literary and artistic form whose borders are truly open to a range of aesthetic and cultural influences. But just as crucially, at its heart is a story that warns of the pernicious influence of the financial globalisation of art and literature – surely relevant, given recent debates both locally and overseas around how the academic writing course risks turning literature into product.
Allen Curnow was discussing poets when he made his famous call in the preface to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960) for reality to be “local and special at the point where we pick up the traces”. To this, Horrocks, the comics writer quoting art historical as well as literary precedent, adds that our “local and special” reality is no longer just a matter of producing poetry or prose or paintings marked by the particular pressures Curnow identified, associated with the isolation of the country, its physical character, and its history. New Zealand now houses an accumulation of cultural capital local and special in its own right. For Horrocks, notions of cultural belonging can thus be drawn via a range of aesthetic or literary avenues, not to override the seriousness of Curnow’s search for a place truly and justly inhabitable, but to take under advisement the prescriptiveness of such mandates, and instead put them to brilliantly conceived new expressive ends. Not bad for a comic book.
Hamish Clayton is a Wellington writer.