Dylan Horrocks' first words were apparently "Donald Duck". Little did his parents know that their son had also uttered a clue to his future career.
Horrocks didn't end up making animated cartoons, but on the world stage Horrocks has become one of New Zealand's most admired and successful comic artists and writers.
Several Kiwi comic artists have made it big overseas, including Colin Wilson and Roger Langridge, who both worked on British comic 2000 AD. But Horrocks is unique. Not only has he written for American company DC - home to Batman and Superman - but he is the author of our most acclaimed graphic novel, Hicksville.
First published in 1998, Hicksville features an American reporter who visits a small town on the East Cape looking for the inside story on Dick Burger, who years earlier had moved to the United States to become a megastar comic book creator. Other than references to Burger's creations, the 240-page story is superhero-free. Instead, it's an enchanting mystery-drama, and a meditation on several subjects, including the lot of a comic artist.
For all its New Zealand references, Hicksville was first produced by a Canadian publisher and immediately garnered praise in North America and Europe, including from Village Voice and the influential Comics Journal. French, Italian and Spanish editions followed. A new edition by Victoria University Press in Wellington, released this month, is the first time it's been published in New Zealand.
Horrocks says: "I always felt like it would be fantastic to have a New Zealand edition because when the first edition came out it was really hard to get here. I would bring copies over and then sell them through a book shop in Auckland who sold a whole lot of copies to libraries and all sorts of places.
"The comic shops put in huge amounts of effort to try to keep it in stock, but even then it wasn't that easy. New Zealand is kind of the arse end of the world as far as they [comic book distributors] are concerned. Most of them probably have no idea where we are.
"I kept getting invited to literary festivals and things and no one had actually read Hicksville; [although] they were all like 'it's great for New Zealand - a graphic novel'. After a while it felt like I was getting this reputation back home, but it was all second hand. So it's such a thrill to have it properly available in New Zealand now."
Like many comic artists and writers, Horrocks, 43, is largely self-taught. He studied art at school growing up in Titirangi and would create comics in his spare time - he had a comic strip published in children's magazine Jabberwocky when he was 15. He didn't have high enough grades to go to art school, so instead studied English at university.
He became a name in New Zealand's underground comic scene in the 80s when he did strips for Auckland University's student newspaper Craccum and co-founded the comic Razor. His work was then published overseas by Australia's Fox Comics and pioneering Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books, home to the cult series Love & Rockets. .
Horrocks was mixing with the big guns, but wasn't sure if he'd hit the big time. "What I had was a series of moments when I felt like, 'this is it, this is my big break'. When I first got a story published by Fox Comics it was, 'wow, this is where it all starts, this will be my job now. Then, 10 minutes later it dawned on me - hang on, there aren't really any more people reading Fox than there are reading Razor'."
It was the same with Fantagraphics, when he was based in Britain in the early 90s. Comics Journal, which was interviewing Horrocks, took him to Fantagraphics' offices in Seattle. "It's this really run down old suburban house on the outskirts of Seattle, with a rusting van that doesn't go anymore sitting out the front, covered in weeds. Inside the house there's half a dozen people sitting at these desks piled high with papers and comics and really old computers. This is it. The nerve centre of Fantagraphics and most of them are earning below minimum wage."
Horrocks carried on regardless. Back in New Zealand he had a strip from 1995 to 1997 in The Listener called Milo's Week. Some instalments poked fun at the free market orthodoxy being championed by the National government. One of Horrocks' proudest moments was learning that then-finance minister Ruth Richardson had turned down an interview with The Listener after reading a Milo's Week.
Horrocks also created a new comic book series, Pickle, published by Black Eye Comics in Canada. Instalments of Hicksville originally appeared in Pickle and that led to Black Eye publishing the graphic novel.
P RAISE for Hicksville led to Horrocks writing for DC imprint Vertigo - best known for Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and Hollywood adaptations, including V for Vendetta and A History of Violence. Horrocks wrote for Hunter: The Age of Magic, as well as DC icon Batgirl.
While Horrocks saw fellow alternative comics creators thrive at DC and Marvel, he decided it wasn't for him. He could have fought for storylines he was happy with, "but I'm not really a very confrontational person. I'm not very good at fighting for my vision".
Instead, he returned to his own comics, with the series Atlas published by highly regarded Canadian publishers Drawn and Quarterly. Atlas expanded on references in Hicksville to the fictional Baltic country of Cornucopia.
Horrocks is well aware of what's happened to graphic novels and, despite some reservations, believes we're living in a golden age for the medium. But whether Hicksville will be adapted to the big screen is another matter.
He comes from a film family. His father, Roger Horrocks, who showered him with comics while he was growing up, is a semi-retired film academic. His father's second wife, Shirley Horrocks, is a film-maker, who made a documentary about comics, while his sister, Simone, has just finished making her first feature film, After the Waterfall.
He says "a number of people" in the US and New Zealand had tried to buy the film options for Hicksville, including a recent offer. "I have always been a little hesitant, partly because so much of my family have been involved in film that I know film can actually be a nightmare to work in. But it also meant I have got a lot of appreciation for film. I just thought the story would not convert very well to film. I even said to one of the film-makers once, 'Why don't you take the basic story, but just make the story about the film instead of the comic?' "
He does, however, harbour plans to one day finish a screenplay himself. "I've decided now, with the kind of person I am, that I'm better off trying to find someone whose work I like and letting them do it. I don't want to work in film. Enough of my family work in film."
* More Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks (Victoria University Press, pb $38) is available from this week.
For Horrocks' other comics, including new instalments, go to hicksvillecomics.com. Horrocks is a guest at the NZ Independent Comics Festival at The Basement Gallery, Wellington, over Easter. For more information go to nzcomicsweekend.blogspot.com.
- The Dominion Post