Graphic dilem­mas in the comic king­dom

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cefn Rid­out

What re­spon­si­bil­i­ties do artists have to their art and au­di­ence? Two re­cent graphic nov­els gamely wres­tle with th­ese and re­lated thorny is­sues with great gusto and flair. They also break a long drought of ma­jor fic­tional work by two ac­claimed comics cre­ators, making their syn­chro­nous pub­li­ca­tion dou­ble cause for cel­e­bra­tion. And though they may share cer­tain themes and dis­play a pas­sion for and mas­tery of the medium, Scott McCloud’s The Sculp­tor and Dy­lan Hor­rocks’s Sam Za­bel and the Magic Pen stake out very dif­fer­ent ter­ri­tory.

McCloud is per­haps best known for his land­mark non­fic­tion tril­ogy — Un­der­stand­ing Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics — which in­ter­ro­gates the medium’s lin­eage, de­codes its lan­guage, peers into its dig­i­tal fu­ture and de­con­structs the cre­ative process, all in comic strip form. Th­ese in­sight­ful, en­gag­ing works made the es­o­teric ac­ces­si­ble to en­thu­si­asts, prac­ti­tion­ers and laypeo­ple alike.

But McCloud is more than a the­o­rist and teacher. He first came to no­tice with the de­light­ful, gen­tly sub­ver­sive 1980s-90s man­gain­flected sci-fi se­ries Zot!, fol­lowed by the satir­i­cal cau­tion­ary tale The New Ad­ven­tures of Abra­ham Lin­coln in 1998. More than a decade later, The Sculp­tor proves he can still walk the walk, even though he fal­ters at the end.

David Smith is a young, self-ab­sorbed and im­pa­tiently am­bi­tious sculp­tor, who has hit a cre­ative wall af­ter be­ing dumped by his bene­fac­tor, and is short on funds, friends and fam­ily. While brood­ing over his un­ful­filled life in a Man­hat­tan diner he’s joined by the Grim Reaper in the guise of his long de­ceased Un­cle Harry, who lays out two paths for David.

He could lead an av­er­age, con­tented life, or he could be granted the abil­ity to mould any­thing with his bare hands. The catch? If he opts for the lat­ter, his life will end in 200 days. With lit­tle to live for ex­cept his art, David leaps at the chance to cre­ate some­thing truly ex­tra­or­di­nary that will leave his mark on the world.

How­ever, life am­bushes him in the form of Meg, an as­pir­ing ac­tor and an­gel of mercy who brings him hope, in­spi­ra­tion and fi­nally love, but also car­ries se­ri­ous bag­gage of her own. For­bid­den to re­veal his new su­per power to any­one, David sculpts the city in se­cret, be­com­ing a Banksy-like fig­ure, al­beit one who does more per­ma­nent dam­age, in­cur­ring the wrath of the au­thor­i­ties. Yet, de­spite his re­mark­able gift and with real life making ever greater de­mands on his pre­cious time, his sculp­tures are more provoca­tive than pure and his sublime artis­tic state­ment re­mains elu­sive. All the while, the clock is tick­ing.

For most of its length, The Sculp­tor is a finely crafted and im­mer­sive read. McCloud el­e­gantly de­ploys ev­ery trick in his comics toolkit to re­late a poignant, con­tem­po­rary fa­ble, oc­ca­sion­ally marred by some clunky di­a­logue that de­tracts from a largely smart, acer­bic script, and a cli­max that strives for the tran­scen­dent but slips into the trite. Thank­fully it doesn’t over­shadow the au­thor’s greater achieve­ment with the book.

McCloud brings a com­pelling com­plex­ity and del­i­cacy to his char­ac­ters, his world and his sto­ry­telling. Time is at the heart of the nar­ra­tive, and McCloud sculpts time like a dream: com­press­ing, stretch­ing and splin­ter­ing it, cre­at­ing par­al­lel and split time streams, care­fully cap­tur­ing tiny in­stants and grand ges­tures, and fil­ter­ing and fo­cus­ing at­ten­tion to make ev­ery mo­ment count. And his re­strained art­work, with its scratchy, car­toon­ish nat­u­ral­ism and muted mono­chrome hues, es­tab­lishes a quiet in­ti­macy with the reader; you al­most feel like you’re eaves­drop­ping on David’s life.

While The Sculp­tor tor­ments its pro­tag­o­nist with an in­vid­i­ous choice, echo­ing WB Yeats’s quandary about per­fect­ing the life or the work, the great poet’s con­tention that “in dreams be­gins re­spon­si­bil­ity” haunts the epony­mous hero of Hor­rocks’s al­to­gether more ex­u­ber­ant Sam Za­bel and the Magic Pen. On the open­ing page, Yeats’s as­ser­tion is placed in clear op­po­si­tion to fem­i­nist ed­u­ca­tor and porn di­rec­tor Nina Hart­ley’s in­sis­tence that “de­sire has no moral­ity”, and through the course of the book Hor­rocks un­easily nav­i­gates be­tween th­ese con­tra­dic­tory po­si­tions, seek­ing some res­o­lu­tion.

The Magic Pen is a metafic­tional jeu d’es­prit, a buoy­ant, erotic med­i­ta­tion on the magic of comics, the dan­ger­ously lib­er­at­ing power of fan­tasy and a jour­ney through the con­flicted psy­che of its au­thor. It is in many ways a spir­i­tual se­quel to Auck­land-born Hor­rocks’s cel­e­brated Hicksville, a daz­zling ode to the medium’s past and po­ten­tia that con­structs an imag­i­nary, utopian and re­mote safe har­bour for the world’s comics in New Zealand. In this new book he dives into al­to­gether more trou­bled wa­ters.

The story opens with Sam Za­bel suf­fer­ing from se­ri­ous car­toon­ist’s block. Forced to write su­per­hero comic books to pay the bills, he hasn’t worked on a per­sonal project for years, and now he can’t even fin­ish his hack work.

Seek­ing so­lace in on­line Ar­ca­dian fan­tasies, his own cre­ation, Lady Night, in­vades his reverie to ques­tion his tal­ent, self-pity and re­pressed feel­ings. At his low­est ebb he bumps into Alice, a geeky, fem­i­nist web-car­toon­ist who men­tions a mys­te­ri­ous old New Zealand comic, The King of Mars, that piques Sam’s cu­rios­ity.

Lo­cat­ing a sec­ond-hand copy, Sam ac­ci­den­tally sneezes on a page and — in a neat homage to Win­sor McCay’s clas­sic 1900s news­pa­per strip Lit­tle Sammy Sneeze — dis­rupts re­al­ity. Trans­ported into the comic, he be­comes stranded on Mars, where he is mis­taken by the lo­cals as their prodi­gal car­toon­ist god king and must face all man­ner of haz­ards and temp­ta­tions, from ram­pag­ing mon­sters to the car­nal needs of his long ne­glected Venu­sian wives.

Com­ing to his res­cue and guid­ing him through this comic king­dom, and worlds be­yond, is the plucky, jet-booted manga school­girl Miki, who tells him of a fa­bled magic pen “that grants its users their heart’s de­sire”. The pen was used to cre­ate The King of Mars and other ‘‘sa­cred’’ comics tucked away in Miki’s satchel, and Sam, like the reader, learns how to tra­verse

th­ese sto­ries within sto­ries by giv­ing them the breath of life.

Hop­ing the pen may help him get his cre­ative mojo back, Sam, along­side fel­low trav­ellers Alice and Miki, plunges head­long through a mul­ti­verse of comic gen­res, tropes and in­ter­sect­ing re­al­i­ties, to track it down. Dur­ing their Mo­bius strip-like quest, which whisks them back to the un­sul­lied dawn of graphic story-making and deep into the toxic re­cesses of vi­o­lent male delu­sions, our adventurers are forced to con­front their shift­ing at­ti­tudes to fan­tasy, rep­re­sen­ta­tion and self-cen­sor­ship. And, like the best stage en­chant­ment, the inky tal­is­man turns out to be art­ful mis­di­rec­tion, be­hind which Sam’s cre­ative com­ing of (mid­dle) age plays out.

If at times Sam is frus­trat­ingly pas­sive in his own story and the char­ac­ters are given to clum­sily voic­ing their cre­ator’s ru­mi­na­tions on the plea­sures, per­ils and so­cial con­se­quences of un­fet­tered fan­tasy, there’s no deny­ing Hor­rocks’s sin­cer­ity in plac­ing him­self at the cen­tre of this dilemma. For­tu­nately he does so with good hu­mour, in­ge­nu­ity and an in­fec­tious sense of won­der, ably served by a lean, loose Tintin-esque line and sparkling sto­ry­telling. De­spite oc­ca­sional heavy-hand­ed­ness, The

Sculp­tor and Sam Za­bel and the Magic Pen show McCloud and Hor­rocks at the top of their game, tack­ling weighty, con­tentious ideas with fi­nesse, can­dour and wit.

De­tails from Sam Za­bel and the Magic Pen, left, and The Sculp­tor

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