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Book review: Hicksville

Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville is getting a handsome reissue—but it’s still free on the tubes, too. Jonathan King fingers the pages and gives two thumbs up.

Hicksville

Hicksville

By Dylan Horrocks (VUP, 2010) $38

First published in 1998 by Canadian publisher Black Eye Books and later picked up by American independent comics publishers Drawn & Quarterly, Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville is now regarded as one of the great works of the graphic novel medium.

Often in scarce supply—particularly in New Zealand, where the story is set—the book has this year been reissued in a handsome 10th (ish) anniversary edition and, at last, comes to us through a New Zealand publisher, VUP.

Hicksville is a rich and cohesive work about creativity, originality and the artist finding his place in the world. Its satisfying fulsomeness is even more incredible when you consider it was written and drawn over a number of years (and countries) as Horrocks worked in other jobs, and serialised over issues of a small-run title of Horrocks’ called Pickle.

As many New Zealanders find international opportunities in films, books and music, Hicksville is as timely today as when it was first published. Horrocks’ counterpart in the story, Sam Zabel, has a journey—to America, with opportunities in ‘big time’ mainstream comics, and back—that foreshadows Horrocks’ own experiences following the book’s publication, working for DC Comics on titles like Hunter: Age of Magic and Batgirl, as well as his own subsequent disillusionment with said ‘big time’.

“Yeah, almost embarrassingly so,” he says. “The process of writing a story, for me, is very much the process of trying to explore things that resonate with me. Maybe it reflects the fact that these are issues for me and I’d already been fretting about those issues before I was in that situation. Plenty of people may have gone through the same journey as me—working for DC—and come out of it really happy and satisfied with the comics they produced.”

We make money by preventing people having access to our work. To me that’s morally reprehensible and it goes completely against how I relate to my work. I want people to read my work … I would feel ashamed to try to prevent that happening so I can retain royalties

It was an experience he found painful and, eventually, paralysing—for a period he wasn’t able to even look at a comic, let alone draw his own work. But now things have changed. As Hicksville is published at home and abroad in a beautiful new ‘digitally remastered’ edition, he is working on new material—and posting the elegantly simple new graphic novel pages to Hicksvillecomics.com as they’re done.

“Like reading James Joyce’s Ulysses one line a month,” he says of the process. “But it’s great as a cartoonist, because every time I finish a page I can upload it and people will be seeing it within seconds. It helps keep me motivated to work on longer projects.”

The serialised sequel (of sorts) to Hicksville, called Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, first appeared in an ink-and-paper comic called Atlas, but that has now been superseded by this gradual building of the story online, along with another story called The American Dream. Horrocks says he intends that these continue to be available for free online, but when a story is ‘done’ it too will be published as a book—with, he insists, the online version remaining available.

But what does online distribution mean for creative industries and the copyrighted material that, in the past, would have paid its creator by being sold? Horrocks is a staunch advocate of the right to give your work away for free and not too fussed about people taking it even when you haven’t.

Hicksville Pages

“Technology has changed the whole playing field. It’s taken away the underlying structures of production and distribution, the landscape on which the arts distribution economy had grown. In the past you needed to be able to make physical copies of comics that you would send out to shops or customers ... and you needed a publisher who could take care of the costs of printing it and networks of distribution. That’s no longer the case. But the people who built that earlier structure seem to be reacting by trying to prevent this transformation—which is completely doomed, like King Canute holding back the sea: you can’t just fight that with legislation.”

As a creator, how does he feel about the flipside—not what he gives away, but people’s ability to take whatever they want of his work?

“I first thought about this years ago when I was working for DC and I remember a friend saying, ‘I just read all your run of comics for DC; I hope you don’t mind, but I downloaded them.’ I asked what he meant and he showed me—and it was the first time I’d seen how filesharing works.

“My initial reaction was excitement: my God, someone went to all the trouble of scanning these comics and uploading them so people can read them. Then I started to think, how does this affect one’s royalties and so on? But as someone who loves books, comics, music and movies, I feel as if we’ve got this amazing opportunity to have access to everything—all the things that humans create—without enormous expenditure ... and that seems like paradise: something we’ve always dreamed of. So it seems to me enormously petty for a tiny handful of people to try to shut down an extraordinary innovation for very selfish reasons. So as someone who makes a living from my art, I would feel embarrassed and ashamed to try to prevent that happening so I can retain my royalties.

“And the other side of it is that I’m increasingly seeing young artists who’ve grown up with the internet being incredibly clever and creative about how they use it to both distribute their art and also make money off it. It’s the first time in my life I’ve appreciated the word ‘entrepreneur’.

“Some of them sell advertising space on their websites, some of them sell t-shirts, some of them sell books as well; their work is available for free online but if you want it in book form—which most of us do—you can buy that directly from them. They sell the original artwork, they take commissions and do paintings for people. These people are doing really well. But they’re doing it using new models.

“The way to make money off art is not to put a fence around it and say you can only access it if you pay me money—that’s the traditional art economy. We used to make our money by having our work more widely distributed—the more people who bought it, the more money we would make. But that’s no longer the case—our income seems to now be based on restricting access to our work. We make money by preventing people having access to our work. To me, that’s morally reprehensible ... and it goes completely against how I relate to my work. I want people to read my work. The bottom line for me is that I don’t do this work in order to make money.

“We need to stop seeing [filesharing site] The Pirate Bay as an illegal counterfeiting operation and look at it as a really clever, innovative way of doing things that we need to compete with. So if we want to compete with these people, we need to find something that we can offer that gives the customer a reason to pay us money.”

And, he says, “I have, perhaps, an absurd faith in the desire—on the part of both the creators and audiences—that, if they really want this stuff they can make it work.”