In the late ’80s and early ’90s, friends and random people in comic stores recommended books by a new artist by simply saying, “Its really dark.” It was a phrase that, along with “mature” and “adult”, became our favorite adjectives for the comic stories we loved.
This was a new way of doing comics. The post-Watchmen, post-Dark Knight Returns world featured reimagined heroes in gritty, postmodern landscapes. That was great in 1991.
Almost 20 years later, its unfortunate how little mainstream comics have changed. The major companies still produce primarily tights and capes books, pages splashed with gushing disembowelments and gravity-defying tits. The problem is neither the violence nor the sexuality since some of the most violent, and most sexually adventurous, books are also some of the best (think anything written by Ed Brubaker). The problem has been that every artist who uses the word “fuck” thinks they are Alan Moore and that their latest epic is a new Watchmen.
In 1998, comic artist Dylan Horrocks drew the definitive account of where comics had been and where it had gone. The new edition of Hicksville, complete with a newly drawn introduction, continues to be an angry little beauty of a book that takes the comics industry to task for its tendency toward simplistic tales, its corporate sensibilities masked as hipster entrepreneurism, and its almost unerring ability to damage the artists who contribute the most to its evolving form.
Horrock’s accomplishes all this by telling the story of a fictitious comics historian named Leonard Batts who makes a trek to a small rural town in New Zealand known as Hicksville. This is the hometown of “Dick Burger”, the perfectly named comic book creator who has transformed his company into a billion-dollar multi-media enterprise.
Batts finds everyone in the town strangely unwilling to talk to him. In his interview with Dick Burger, the comic robber baron refuses to talk about his hometown, as well.
Batts discovers that Hicksville is not only a town of secrets, but also a place where people are obsessed with comic books, especially obsessed with independent comics from all parts of the world. This improbable conceit works perfectly, transforming the places and characters of Hicksville into a formal investigation of the meaning of comic art and narrative. It also becomes a standing critique of most of what passes for the comics industry.
Horrocks tantalizes us throughout the novel with the story of the town secret, the hidden mystery of Hicksville. This is no phony narrative hook that only rewards us with a needlessly gothic denouement. The revelation of the secret is not simply a narrative turn but a meditation on the nature of art and the inherent difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of truly fulfilling creative visions.
When Hicksville first appeared reviewers, frequently described it as a “love letter” to the world of comics. It feels more like hate mail to the industry that betrayed its original vision.
Horrocks shows us part of his story through the eyes of Sam, a childhood friend of Dick Burger’s. Sam’s efforts to produce minicomics that have meaning earn him no money and little respect from his editors who feel his work is too existential (meaning, to borrow a Kevin Smithism, not enough “dick and fart jokes”). Sam’s visit to America includes a behind the scenes look at Dick Burger’s world, a visit that allows Horrocks to create one of the most scathing portraits of the corporate comics factory in print.
The new introduction adds much to the book. Rather than simply writing an essay remembering and reflecting on his work’s tenth anniversary, Horrocks drew 14 new pages of panels. This is brave work, in which Horrocks opens up to us some incredibly beautiful memories of what it means to love comics.
He also tells of his experiences in the comics industry since 1998. Ironically, Horrock’s spent some of that time working for DC comics. In yet another courageous creative move, one panel specifically references his time at DC as “making comics I couldn’t respect.” Its worth noting that he currently publishes most of his work through his amazing website at Hicksville Comics.com.
Horrocks’ doesn’t take this opportunity to point out that the precise thing he lampooned and satired in 1998 has lived up (or down) to the parody he created. It’s important to remember that Horrocks drew Hicksville before the emergence of Marvel Studios and the Spider-Man movie franchise, a sea change in the comics world that turned multi-million dollar licensed characters into multi-billion-dollar characters. He certainly wrote well before Disney became the owner of Marvel Comics, the Mouse that ate the world swallowing the company whose founder, Martin Goodman, said in 1939 that he couldn’t “keep putting this crap out much for very long” (a line Horrock’s uses in the book to great effect).
Although it seems like the comics world has gone from bad to worse over the last decade, surely there is reason to be optimistic when artists like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine and Alison Bechdel find a large audience, an audience not made up of traditional comic lovers. Even more mainstream comic artists like Gail Simone have been able to reimagine traditional characters like Wonder Woman in an interesting, non-exploitative, fashion. Grant Morrison’s take of Superman managed to make some of the most uninteresting characters and plot point in comics into a perfect combination of campy beauty, yearning and regret.
Each section of Hicksville opens with a quote from a major comics artist. Section one opens with a quote from Jack Kirby: ”Comics will break your heart.” The new edition of Hicksville makes me hope that Horrocks will let comics keep breaking his heart for a long time to come.