Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
The Bitter Sweet Philosophies
K K Jart (text) and Nick Fedaeff (paintings)
Eunoia Publishing, $40.00,
As the superheroes wage their endless battle in the sky above, Alice reassures Sam, “But what does it matter if it’s not real? It’s a Fantasy. The idea is to enjoy it!” But Sam is unconvinced: “I know it’s a fantasy, but it’s not mine.”
Seventeen years ago, Dylan Horrocks released his first graphic novel, Hicksville, about a coastal town in New Zealand that is inexplicably obsessed with comic books. The story mixes comics folklore with the isolated, mysterious nature of small town life – a celebration of a marginal medium at the ends of the earth. It had a very earnest tone, and captured its author’s love and enthusiasm for comics at a time when they were at one of their lowest points, both creatively and commercially. Hicksville proved to be a critical hit, and Horrocks found himself getting offered writing jobs for corporate giant DC Comics, on titles like Hunter: The Age of Magic and Batgirl.
Reaching what many would consider the apex of the comics industry, Horrocks spent a few years writing superhero comics – the pay was great, but something didn’t feel right. He no longer had the time or inspiration to create his own comics, he was falling behind on deadlines because he couldn’t relate to the overtly violent superhero dramas he was expected to deliver. This was not Horrocks’s idea of fantasy, it was someone else’s – this is where Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen begins.
We are introduced to Sam, a despondent cartoonist (with a passing resemblance to the author) who, after writing corporate comics for years, has lost his faith in the medium and his abilities as a cartoonist. On a trip to Christchurch he discovers a rare New Zealand comic book: after sneezing on it, he finds himself transported to the fantasy world inside.
As Sam’s adventures unfold, we learn this comic was created by a cartoonist wielding the mystical Magic Pen, which allows its owner to create stories that the reader can be fully immersed in. It’s a compelling narrative device that allows Horrocks to explore some of the underpinnings of comics creation and the moral pitfalls of genre fantasy, in the process clearly re-igniting his own passion for the medium.
Sam is accompanied on this journey by Alice Brown – who, in many ways, represents the next generation of comic creators: young, web-based, and not buying into any of the gender stereotyping or casual sexism that has long plagued comics culture. Along with their guide, Miki – a mysterious rocket-booted, manga-styled schoolgirl – the trio explore genre fantasy from the inside out, along the way encountering a tribe of sex-obsessed martians, medieval monks, a room full of tentacles and, of course, other cartoonists.
This set-up provides Horrocks with the opportunity to really dig in and investigate genre conventions, while still telling a very compelling story. Early on, Horrocks wrestles with depicting an erotic fantasy sequence, which comes down to a question of context and intent and, as we see later in the book, one reader’s fantasy can be another’s nightmare. Horrocks doesn’t shy away from these moral blind spots that have developed in comics culture, and while Sam may not come away from these adventures with all the answers, you can tell that Horrocks’s work is so much richer from the experience.
If Hicksville represented the ambitions of a young cartoonist and his relationship to comics, Sam Zabel and The Magic Pen is its spiritual sequel – the work of a seasoned veteran at the height of his creative power re-examining the medium with fresh eyes, and reporting back to us what he has learnt about himself and comics after almost two decades in the creative trenches.
The best comics work due to a perfect synergy between words and pictures – a harmony that creates a whole. This is also true of picture books, and if these two forms of communication aren’t working together you have a book that is less than the sum of its parts.
The Bitter Sweet Philosophies is a collaboration between a writing collective known as K K Jart and Russian artist (now based in New Zealand) Nick Fedaeff. Pitched as a “genre defying book that marries humour and art”, it contains 55 paintings by Fedaeff inspired by childhood memories, which are then interpreted by writers on the facing page. For example, one painting features a lost-looking child on a hillside road with a small house on the horizon. One of the captions reads: “Disappointingly, the Road to Nowhere had a new housing project at the end.” Another: “This time, Mrs. Bates made it to the letterbox before Norman spotted her.” The humour is pretty hit and miss, and that’s only part of the reason this concept book doesn’t quite live up to its ambitions.
There’s no denying Fedaeff is a talented artist; the artwork presented in this book (which seems to be more of a grab-bag from his portfolio rather than a cohesive painting series) does welcome interpretation. But there is a coolness and distance to many of the pieces – which works well for editorial artwork, but isn’t necessarily ideal for setting up a joke. Cartoonist Gary Larson was a master of this form of humour – he knew how to set up a humorous visual and then knock it out of the park with a contrasting caption. But here the artist had a very separate original intent, that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to this kind of collaboration. In the artist’s own words, “I’ve done my part. My pictures are very obvious.” And he’s right, the writers are left scrambling to find ways to inject humour into these set-ups after the obvious choice is taken, leading to some witty responses, but also groan-inducing one-liners.
It is suggested in the publicity material that this book will be ideal for passing around at parties and reading the responses aloud. I get the strong impression that this was how the book was written – it might have made for a fun night between friends, but much like a repeated joke out of context, generating the same response from another audience can be ultimately elusive.
Adrian Kinnaird is the author of From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics, a review of which can be found in the New Zealand Books online archive, nzbooks.org.nz/archive/.