Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Life and Times of the Joyless Cartoonist


I recently commented to a friend that one of my key issues with comics is that they tend to be written by cartoonists. This means that many autobiographical and semi-autobiographical comics star cartoonists. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but cartoonists write surprisingly little in autobio comics about their process, and I find myself wishing that more comics were written by chefs or teachers or lab technicians.

A moment of silence for the late, great Harvey Pekar who had -- and wrote about having -- a day job.

But I wouldn't mind it so much if more comics were like Dylan Horrocks' Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. Horrocks wrote the graphic novel Hicksville, about an internationally acclaimed comic book creator who is universally hated by the comic book-obsessed denizens of his New Zealand hometown. In The Magic Pen, Horrocks once again examines comics and the people who make them. His unhappy protagonist is Sam Zabel, a comic book writer and artist who created one great piece of sequential art: Pickle. Pickle is at once Sam's masterpiece and his greatest frustration -- an acme he is convinced he will never reach again. He makes ends meet by writing scripts for Lady Night, a series about an ass-kicking superheroine. But for Sam, the joy has gone out of making comics. He fixates on his lack of joy and, when faced with a blank computer screen and a serious case of writer's block, finds himself taunted by a sexually aggressive apparition of Lady Night. "Honey, I hate to break the news," she tells him before plastering her body against his, "but you ain't no Alan Moore."

In many ways, Sam Zabel's career parallels Horrocks' own. Horrocks, after all, wrote a comic series called Pickle (which contained the Hicksville story) and wrote scripts for Batgirl. And The Magic Pen feels like a very personal story, one in which the artist has laid himself bare on the page. It's a rare insight into the world of a cartoonist who's spent time in the Big Two's trenches -- and hasn't always enjoyed it.

Be warned, this comic is briefly NSFW.

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen [Hicksville]

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