Horrocks back to the drawing board
New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks was living the dream, but it wasn't his dream.
Writing for one of the biggest comic publishers in the world in 2000, for iconic characters such as Batman, he lost his faith in storytelling and along with it, his artistic voice. Yet he was afraid to leave because he would lose the salary that was supporting his young family. Horrocks sank into depression and slowly stopped writing the personal comics that made his name.
Then he was fired from writing Batgirl and decided to step away from the comics industry to recover from depression and rediscover his voice.
Now, 10 years later, that decision is starting to yield results. His first graphic novel in 16 years, Zabel and the Magic Pen, is set for release later this year and a collection of his short comics from the past 30 years, Incomplete Works, was released yesterday.
"Someone I was talking to in the States a while ago was describing Magic Pen as like a comeback. That makes sense.
"I went through a commercial comic period, where I was working in the industry. I've got shelves and boxes of comics that I created during that time. The comics from that period - some of them I am quite proud of, but I don't really consider a lot of them to be really me."
The return of one of New Zealand's most successful cartoonists to more personal territory is to be celebrated. His first graphic novel, Hicksville, was released in 1998 to global critical acclaim, transforming his life and his career. is a very personal work set in an idealised vision of New Zealand. It is a comic book about comic books, but also a comic book about friendship, love and the magic artists cast when they tell a story. French news magazine L'Express aptly described the book as like "unfolding a treasure map, little by little".
It was the culmination of a lifelong obsession with comic books. Born in 1966, his first words were "Donald Duck" and his Auckland childhood home was full of comic books because his father once dreamed of being a cartoonist. The young Horrocks devoured comics from Europe and Britain but, significantly, was never into superheroes.
He also soaked up every art film, Len Lye short and Hollywood classic his English and film professor father watched at home.
"Growing up with him teaching film was an enormous influence on me as a kid. I spent a lot of time growing up watching really interesting visual storytelling. When I was really little it was before VCR, so if he was teaching a film he would bring home the reels of film and project them on the living room wall.
"Spirit of the Beehive was one of my favourites. I saw Last Tango in Paris at a very inappropriate age. I can still conjure images from instantly to mind. It haunted me, that film.
"It was the best education imaginable. It was the most amazing way to grow up. Absolutely magical."
His first short comic was published when he was just 14, but he didn't get the grades for art school, so studied English at the University of Auckland. After graduation, he worked for three years in a bookshop in Britain before returning to New Zealand and launching Pickle, the comic book that made his name and where was first serialised.
The global success of led to his gig writing for DC Comics, home of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman comics. Two years later he won a Will Eisner Award, the Oscars of the comic book industry.
But Horrocks was unhappy writing for DC. He wrote a couple of Batman comics, but mainly worked on Batgirl, the female counterpart to the caped crusader created in the early 1960s.
"I was going to comic conventions and people were saying: 'Oh my God, you're writing Batman - everybody's dream.' But it was never my dream for comics. Right from when I was very young I dreamed of doing much more personal stories. I was never into superheroes.
"Here I was living the dream, but it wasn't the dream I had."
He also felt uncomfortable with the subject matter - a violent power fantasy at a time when the US was engaged in the Iraq war.
"It felt like I was spending my time inside someone else's wish-fulfillment fantasy. It wasn't my fantasy and there were aspects I wasn't comfortable with.
"The Batman mythos has become a very dark, grim imaginary landscape. It presents a vision of how the world works where the city is the urban jungle and it is inhabited by predators and prey. You need someone like the Batman, who is a kind of uber predator. He is stronger and more powerful and better at violence than the bad guys.
"When I was writing , America was dropping white phosphorus bombs on Fallujah and shooting up cars full of children at checkpoints in Iraq. I remember getting an issue of back from the printers and it had a recruiting ad for the US Army on the back cover. It all just started to feel like the world view of the Batman comics - the power fantasy at the heart of the comics I was writing - was very much in tune with the power fantasy being sold to justify the invasion of Iraq. The whole thing felt very uncomfortable."
Eventually, he was dropped from Batgirl as DC Comics prepared for a major plotline across many comic titles, known as a crossover, that was to culminate in the hero's violent death.
"They were making me so unhappy and I probably wasn't doing a great job ... my scripts were getting later and later. That big crossover event was the low point for me. So much of that was repulsive to me. The whole thing revolved around a teenage girl being tortured slowly to death.
"We had a meeting in New York to discuss the crossover. There was a lot of leeway to come up with storylines, but the bottom line was that, by the end of it, this girl had to be dead. It was like going to New York to plan a hit."
He had other opportunities in the comics industry, but retreated to focus on his own work. The experience left him feeling depressed.
"A lot of my work has had a sense of melancholy, but when I was writing for DC it did became a full-blown depression for a few years. I was never so bad that I couldn't get out of bed. I know people who have had far worse depression than me - who have really struggled.
"It wasn't fun. I had a really short temper when normally I have always been very calm and not fazed by things. At that stage, I would get grumpy with the kids very quickly. I yelled at the kids and felt really bad about it. I thought: 'That's no good. I can't inflict this on people.' That's what drove me to the doctor.
"People imagine depression as lying around feeling sad. I never experienced it quite like that. I remember reading something by someone who felt the word depression was inadequate, they felt the German word was better, which translated literally as a mind storm, like a storm raging in their brain. Mine was more like that. The mind wouldn't shut down. It was constantly whirling and fretting and feeling unhappy.
"I don't want to overplay it. I was never chronically depressed. I think its quite ordinary for people to go through a patch like that. It's particularly ordinary for someone who works from home and is a freelancer. There is a lot of stress and you can't switch work off."
He also lost faith in the power of storytelling.
"When I was writing for DC, one of the side effects was that I lost my faith in stories. I felt like there was a dishonesty at the heart of a lot of storytelling. The world doesn't really work the way it does in the stories we tell. I couldn't read novels or watch fictional films. I struggled with comics. I wasn't enjoying anything.
"A friend over lunch said I had suffered a crisis of faith in stories. What I had lost faith in was the deeper truth that the story is selling and that the writer probably believes himself."
And so, with behind him, in 2004 he started the graphic novel that will be published later this year. The Magic Pen is his second graphic novel and his first since in 1998.
He tackled the depression with medication and meditation, and processed his Batgirl experience in the new novel, which he serialised page-by-page on his website.
The Magic Pen follows cartoonist Sam Zabel, a recurring character in Horrocks' work dating back to the 1980s that he uses to explore aspects of his life. The character is struggling to write for superhero "Lady Night" and has lost his love for storytelling, but at his lowest point he discovers that you can miraculously enter the world of any comic book that was drawn with a fabled "magic pen".
Even though it has not yet concluded online, it is already clear that The Magic Pen is a beautifully realised, vivid and hugely entertaining exploration of fantasy, comic books and what it means to be an artist. In short, it is a joyous comeback - one of New Zealand's finest talents telling a great yarn and clearly having fun.
"Leaving DC was scary. I didn't have a reliable income anymore. I felt like I had blown it. I had this opportunity to carve out a niche for myself that would make my family secure while I wrote comics. But mostly I was relieved. The reality was that my own work had stalled. You can see where the beginning of The Magic Pen comes from. Like Sam, I really was struggling to get any work done at all. I had lost all my confidence as a cartoonist. Most of all I felt like I had lost my voice as a cartoonist and so I have had to find my way back to it and The Magic Pen was how I found my way back to it."
Publishing each page online also helped. "At a time when I was struggling to work on my comics, publishing online gave me an incentive to keep drawing page after page. Every time I finished a page, I could publish it and have all the satisfaction of publishing and finishing something and people could see I was making progress. It helped me keep going.
"It gave me a bit of a boost to keep doing it. Working on a 200-page book takes an extraordinary amount of time. Each page is a big job. It's good to have some rewards as you go. Even if you post it online and a couple of friends say that's kind of cool."
Horrocks can also track his depression and recovery in the short comics in his new collection Incomplete Works, along with every other major event in his life over the past three decades.
"As I started organising the stories, it started to become a little kind of diary of the last 30 years. The stories all connect up with my life. The very first story in the book - while I was drawing that story I met Terry, who is now my wife. They are so deeply entangled with what was going on in my life at the time. Putting it together was incredible. It was a very powerful journey for me. Revisiting all of that stuff."
Character names in those early 1980s stories are the names of his children. Abe is now 16, and Louis is 19 and studying in Dunedin.
He can also pinpoint the short comics that mark the turning point in his depression: Siso and The Physics Engine.
"I haven't been depressed for quite a few years. Now, if I have an afternoon where I'm feeling gloomy or glum it's nothing like feeling depressed. I can just say: 'Feeling a bit glum today. How nice that this is not my usual state.' I feel like my equilibrium has got back to quite a comfortable place. It did take a while. It was some years. It never felt like there was a single moment where everything was fine."
And so, with the publisher's deadline for The Magic Pen looming in July, the 47-year-old spends his days immersed in the craft that he has fallen in love with again.
"Once I have taken the dog for a walk, I like to sit down and start drawing. That is my dream way of working, but there are always other things to do. Sometimes it's me struggling to find the time to draw.
"At the moment I mostly am drawing all day because of the deadline. I work from 10 till six, depending on what time Terry drags me away from the drawing board.
"In the last 10 years, I have really fallen in love with drawing. Just the sheer physical act of moving a pencil across paper and carving something unreal out of nothing. It is really pleasurable. That is worthwhile in itself.
"That pleasure of drawing."
■ Incomplete Works, by Dylan Horrocks, Victoria University Press, $35.
■ The Magic Pen is being serialised at hicksvillecomics.com and will be published in book form later this year.
■ You can see Horrocks appearing at , a panel about comics, on Monday at 10.45am at the Hannah Playhouse, Wellington, as part of the New Zealand Festival's Writers Week.
- The Dominion Post