Andrew Wheeler reviews HICKSVILLE

“Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks” / Antick Musings / Andrew Wheeler / March 13, 2010

Modern comics are a deeply incestuous artform, possibly the only one ever devoured and subsumed by its own fandom. The continuing subgenre of comics about comics -- typically about the failed promise of comics, as if Major Wheeler-Nicholson personally kneecapped the 20th century's Rembrandt -- would be deeply depressing if it weren't so often so much better than the alternatives. The subgenre goes back more than twenty years, to Alan Moore and Don Simpson's 1986 story "In Pictopia!" if not earlier, but there have been a thousand versions since then, all focusing on shady business deals, lost chances and artistic self-sabotage. Hicksville is one of that legion; the story of a hidden New Zealand town where everyone loves comics, originally published in ten issues between 1991-97 and collected in 1998. It was a major work that made the career of its creator, Dylan Horrocks -- though, in his new introduction here, he says that what it really did was to turn him into a faceless cog scriptwriter in the corporate-comics machine -- an object lesson in the story he already told.

Hicksville starts off as the story of Leonard Batts, a journalist and author of a book on Jack Kirby, who has traveled to Hicksville to investigate the early life of the subject of his next book, Dick Burger. And it's Batts and Berger that place Hicksville so thoroughly in its time; Hicksville is a deeply early-'90s comic, one of the many that didn't see the crash coming. Batts is a feature writer for Comics World, a periodical that combines the rigor of The Comics Journal, the ubiquity of Comics Buyer's Guide, and the budget of Wizard. And Burger is even more a product of the time -- he's the Image creators as they appeared to themselves, world-devouring and all-encompassing, with a huge mansion filled with young hacks to do the real work and movie money flowing in like water.

Burger is seen at first only in the distance; he left Hicksville almost a decade before, has never been back, and the locals sneer at his name. Batts is rude and pushy -- Horrocks makes the point over and over about how "American" he is, even as Batts insists that he's really Canadian -- but only finds out pieces of the puzzle. At the same time, Horrocks also introduces two locals who've just returned to Hicksville after years away: tough girl Grace and semi-failed comics creator Sam. Grace never quite comes into focus in the story -- perhaps because she has no real connection to comics. She's there to be the moody lost love, or to look like a potential love interest, or just to keep Hicksville from being an entirely a book about boys obsessing about their ink-slinging penis substitutes. So she runs around being rude and angry, without having any solid explanation for her behavior. She doesn't create comics, or even care all that much about them, so her story stays untold. (Maybe that's why she's so angry; she's pissed at Horrocks for exploiting her.)

Sam, on the other hand, is fully explained -- though his own minicomics, of course, which also detail his eventful trip to America to almost work for Burger -- as are the minor characters, who have less definition to begin with. Eventually, Batts learns the truth about Burger's great transgression -- what he did to be shunned by all right-thinking Hicksvillians forevermore -- and, along the way, the great secrets of Hicksville.

They're very comic-booky secrets, I'm afraid, and presented in a doubly comic-booky way. There's no conceivable mechanism by which this town could have the things it's supposed to have; the reader must fall back on metaphor and magical thinking to explain it. It is an appealing secret, one with a powerful laser-lock on the dreams and aspirations of a myriad comics-reading introverts, and Horrocks sells it as well as he can. But it's still pure wish-fulfillment, as much of a dream as the rest of Hicksville.

Horrocks's art got somewhat stronger as Hicksville went along, but it had odd jumps along the way -- Batts started out much cartoonier than the other main characters, and some other minor figures stayed cartoony all the way through. His writing was compelling from the beginning -- more compelling, of course, the more that a reader buys into the Great Myth of Comics. In the end, Hicksville turns out to be much more a book of its time than anyone could have anticipated then. It is a solid graphic novel with a the structure of a real book -- complete with an ending -- which was rare then and is only slightly more common now. But I'd love to see more work by Horrocks that's neither mythologizing about the power of his medium nor bill-paying work-for-hire. Luckily, his introduction here seems to promise such work will be forthcoming. (I only hope I don't have to travel to a town in rural New Zealand to read it!)

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